Recently I was asked, “What would you have said if someone had told you that you would be nursing well beyond the first birthday when you had started your breastfeeding journey?”
I would have told them they were on the crazy train…that I was never going to nurse beyond the first birthday. My plan was to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding for six months, and then breastfeed our child until their first birthday. It was going to be one and done in all senses of the phrase: one child for one year, and then I was going to be going back into my career and dancing.
God had other plans for me…he must have laughed as he was growing me.
As it turns out, as Puma was approaching her first birthday, I told Daddy Bruss that I didn’t think we were close to being done with breastfeeding. She still felt so small, and nursing a soon-to-be toddler wasn’t weird, as I had imagined it might be.
She went on to nurse for 22 months all together. There was a time when I got pregnant when she was 18 months old. At that point she started to decline breastfeeding. When I miscarried, she was back to the breast as she had been before the pregnancy.
She weaned herself at 22 months…about two weeks after she weaned, she asked to nurse again. We tried, but it seemed the milk was all gone.
We went on get pregnant again (how could I say no to my amazing husband who has provided me my dream life?!!), and we welcomed Night Owl to the family. He got to nurse for about 18 months. When I got pregnant with Charger sooner than we had planned on being pregnant again, I started having contractions when I was nursing. Out of fear of miscarrying again, we made the choice to do an “emergency wean” and over the course of a week that breastfeeding journey came to an end.
Charger had different plans when I got pregnant with Otter, as we expected, around the time he was 18 months old. I tried to wean him, because I was having contractions again every time I nursed. He flat out refused. I sought help from our IBCLC, Debbie Gillespie, and my La Leche leaders…they had lots of suggestions, none of which worked for us. I decided to go with prayer and lots of self-talk. For whatever reason, he was not ready to stop breastfeeding, I knew of other moms who had breastfed through pregnancy so I knew it was possible. I told my body every time I nursed that the oxytocin that was being created was just for milk and not for labor.
Eventually the contractions subsided. I watched Charger’s bowel movements turn back to baby poops as my colostrum came in the last month of Otter’s pregnancy. He even told me the milk tasted saltier than usual. But he was not ready to stop nursing. By the end of the pregnancy I could only nurse him for a few minutes at a time, once in the morning, once in the evening, and it always had to be in side-lying position.
We welcomed Otter to the family when Charger was two years and two months old. He was thrilled to have creamy milk again – he LOVED it. It totally helped to have a nursling with a good appetite and more stomach capacity to ease engorgement. We set some guidelines down – Otter first, him second. We started offering other alternatives to comforting instead of going back to nursing now that he was enjoying milk again.
His third birthday came and went…still nursing. When Otter went on an 11-day nursing strike around her first birthday (he was 3.5 then), I was so grateful to have a nursling to keep my body informed that I still needed milk. As the two nurslings got older, they had fun with nursing. Every once in a while they would nurse together. They definitely had ideas about which “side” was theirs and got upset if the other would start nursing on their side first. Mostly, they enjoyed the camaraderie of having something in common, and would call out to each other when it was the other’s turn with mommy.
Charger went on to nurse through his fifth birthday. Around that time, we did wean him. I really felt that at five years old, he could give it up.
To this day, he still tells me at least three times a week that he wishes he was still nursing. When I ask him why, he says because the milk was warm.
Otter is turning five years old in October. I don’t know what we are going to do when we hit her fifth birthday. Since weaning Charger, I have learned that mammals nurse their young until they lose their milk teeth. In the case of humans, that is the loss of what we call “baby teeth”. Which does mean that all our children weaned too soon – and that we do as a country. None of our children had lost a tooth before they weaned. I really don’t know of anyone except our first Bradley Method teacher who was nursing a seven-year-old when we met her.
For anyone who is reading about extended breastfeeding for the first time, let me assure you that it is not the same as nursing a newborn, or even a toddler. She only nurses in the morning or in the evening. Sometimes once a day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes not at all. Nursing is still her safe place, our place of connection. Every once in a while, when she is inconsolably upset, she will ask to nurse and we will connect during the course of the day. I can’t express milk anymore, but I see it and hear it as she nurses.
I can only go back to what I know. Breastfeeding is a dance between the mother and the nursling. The lead and the follow changes, and as long as both partners are willing, the dance can continue. Charger definitely has memory about breastfeeding, so I know Otter will, too. I want those memories to be peaceful for her, not ones of regret. So we will continue, dancing as long as it works for both of us. I try to treasure each nursing session, never knowing which is going to be our last.
That day is coming, and my season as a breastfeeding mother will come to an end. I hold on to the promise that a new season awaits, one in which my accumulated knowledge will still be able to serve and encourage other breastfeeding families although I am not an active participant any more.