As we walk home from dropping his big brother off at school, he asks me to carry him. “I’m sweepy,” he says, his toddler-speak still strong even though he turned 3 last week. I pick him up, and he wraps his legs around my waist. His head fits perfectly in the nape of my neck, and I inhale him. He still smells like the baby he once was. Oh, how I wish I could bottle that scent.
It’s a rare morning where we have nothing planned, my favorite kind of morning. We are on 3-year-old time. We play in the rain puddles that have accumulated overnight. We pour rain out of the watering can and watch each drop fall onto our plants. Inside, we play superheroes and puzzles. I let him “play his phone” (which is really an iPod touch, but he insists on calling it a phone). While he has his screen time, I do the dishes and make lunch.
Then it’s naptime. Today, he’s tired, and it isn’t a struggle to get him to go to bed. I lie down with him and nurse him. As we nurse, he pulls on my lips, plays with my hair. Then he’s out like a light.
Now comes the part that I have to explain, right? It’s not the carrying him home from school drop off. It’s not the playing in rain puddles, the superheroes, or the puzzles. Maybe you have a judgment about me letting him play on an iPod for a few minutes, but I doubt that. It’s the nursing, right? It’s that he’s 3 and still nursing.
To us, as you might guess, it’s not a big deal at all. At this age, he only really nurses at naptime and bedtime, and sometimes if he’s upset or needs to reconnect with me. It’s part of his sleep time ritual in much the same way that some 3-year-olds suck their thumbs, a pacifier, the end of a blanket, or cuddle up with a parent. Except in this case, we nurse.
If you only think of breasts as sexual objects, I can understand how the idea of an older child nursing sounds strange. Sexualized breasts are splashed all over the media and our lives: it’s deeply ingrained in most of us that sex is their purpose — their only purpose — except for the few months when an infant breastfeeds.
But this is a culturally constructed belief. In other countries, and in other time periods, breasts were seen as feeding and comfort objects well past the infant. The age of weaning throughout history — especially before formula existed — was much later than it is today and remains so in many countries. Even in America, there are more older children nursing than you might realize — you just don’t see it because it usually only happens at home.
Both the Academy of American Pediatrics and the World Health Organization have statements about breastfeeding past babyhood. Not only is it approved, but encouraged. The World Health Organization recommends nursing until 2 years and beyond, if desired. The Academy of American Pediatrics states that “there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
Still, it’s hard for many of us to break free from our discomfort. It is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from the notion that breasts are for sex only and that a walking, talking child who nurses is somehow perverse.
I will tell you for sure that this is not the case for me and my sweet son. It was not the case for my older son who was “still” nursing at 3 years old as well, nor is it the case for the countless mothers I have befriended over the years who do the same.
My breasts are comfort, love, and — at this stage — even a small source of nutrition.
Now, you may have heard that breastmilk loses its nutritional value after a certain age. This is a myth. My breastmilk still has the same nutritional value that it did when my son was a baby. It also has antibodies and numerous anti-viral agents in it. When he is exposed to a virus, I almost always get exposed, too (can’t stay away from your kid’s germs). As soon as I am exposed, my body starts to produce antibodies against that very virus, which are delivered to him via my milk and help him fight off the virus.
Not all of my friends nurse their kids past 3. Many don’t. And they all find ways of comforting their kids and keeping them healthy. So of course, it isn’t essential. But it works for us. That’s the bottom line with most parenting things, I think.
How and when will it end, you ask? Well, I’m not sure, because weaning unfolds differently for all children. Eventually, he will stop napping, for one thing, and that nursing session will slip away. Eventually, we will just be down to nursing before bed. The way it worked with my older son, is that he began to prefer talking to me before bed, and days of nursing were skipped, until they finally just disappeared. I think I encouraged it a little, by not reminding him and sometimes by changing the subject if he asked. Weaning is not a one-way street.
As for how it will unfold with my younger son, I’m not sure. But I have faith in the natural process of weaning, the give and take between mother and child. To me, it’s like everything else about him growing up. Soon enough, he will be too big for me to carry him home. Soon, the water from last night’s rain storm will not be as thrilling as it was for him today.
All the little pieces of babyhood, toddlerhood, and childhood will float away as he grows up. And as bittersweet as it will be to watch him grow, I will be proud of every step he takes toward independence.