Otter and I in 2015 – she is three years old in this picture. Image: Erin Rudd Photography
I have been going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to share this part of our breastfeeding journey most of the summer. It is hard to talk about breastfeeding beyond the first year in our US culture, let alone past the second birthday and beyond.
Otter and I have been nursing since her birth-day in October 2011. So that is now 5 years and 10 months…and we are still going. She tells me that we are going to be nursing until she turns seven. I am not so sure about that. She just lost her first baby tooth, and in my mind we were going to go until this point in her development. Most mammals nurse their young until they lose their milk teeth, otherwise known as baby teeth in humans.
Did I ever imagine I would breastfeed a child this long?
Absolutely not! Never in my wildest imaginations did I ever think it was even possible. When I heard that people nursed into a child’s seventh year, I thought NOT ME. It’s crazy, it’s gross, it’s weird…yes, I thought all those things, too.
How did we get here?
Puma and I nursed until she was 22 months old. She weaned on her own, it was an easy process. We cut out one feeding at a time when she was around 18 months old. I happened to get pregnant around that time and she didn’t like the way the milk was tasting anyway. After our miscarriage, she carried on as before, nursing 2-3 times a day. Then one night, she said she wanted to go to sleep without nursing, and that was it. A couple of weeks later, she asked to nurse again; I said no because I assumed all the milk was gone. Come to find out, it’s possible I may have made milk for her. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20.
Night Owl nursed until he was around 18 months old. I stopped nursing him when I got pregnant with Charger. I tried to keep nursing through the pregnancy. My OB did not support that choice, and since we had already had a miscarriage, I didn’t want to take any chances with having more contractions. I was feeling them pretty much every time we nursed…so wean we did. It broke my heart – I knew he could use the boost of extra antibodies through the winter months, and I felt like I had to choose between breastfeeding and pregnancy.
Along came Charger…he was almost two years old and still nursing when I got pregnant with Otter. I assumed he would naturally lose interest as Puma had when the flavor of the milk changed as my pregnancy progressed. I was wrong. I could tell he wasn’t ready to wean – I tried all the things that had worked when I weaned Night Owl: replace the sessions with play time, or other food, or snuggle time. He would take those options, and then insist on nursing after we had finished whatever we were doing to distract him.
I was definitely having contractions when we nursed again. Two years after our first experience of trying to nurse through a pregnancy, I had met people who had been able to and not miscarry. (Thank you, La Leche League!) This time around, armed with more knowledge, I made up a mantra that I would repeat as I started nursing to remind my body that the oxytocin I was making was for nursing, not for labor. Thankfully, it worked and the cramping during nursing sessions subsided.
He was still nursing when my milk changed to colostrum. I could tell because all of a sudden he was having newborn-like diapers. YUCK when you are pregnant and you are changing toddler amounts of seedy, yellow, mushy poops.
He did tell me once that the milk tasted salty. I asked him if he was ready to stop then, and he just said, “No,” and kept on nursing. Then came the mad scramble on my end – how was I going to feed two children at the same time? (set boundaries and expectations) Will there be enough milk for both children? (YES) Clearly the milk was adjusting to feed the newborn…would he still want the milk after the baby was born? (YES)
Thankfully, my wonderful La Leche League leaders helped me prepare and navigate tandem nursing. One of the leaders who had tandem nursed prepared me that the milk for the baby was going to be very creamy and full of fat again, and that most older nurslings LOVE to nurse again after the newborn milk comes in. This helped me set the boundaries and expectations that worked for us…after he ignored me for two days after his sister was born, he was right back to nursing without any hesitation.
We made some great memories as a tandem nursing family – as the sweet peas got older, they had quite the time telling each other when it was each other’s turn, and sometimes they made “reservations” to nurse on a particular “side”. Hilarious. They usually took turns – I wasn’t crazy about having them nurse at the same time. We do have some Kodak moments captured of the few times they did happen to nurse together – for that I am grateful. Any way you look at it, I now understand the term “bosom friends” in a different light. Those two children remain close to this day.
Charger ended up nursing through his fifth birthday. At that time, I felt confident that I had honored his desire to nurse. He still wanted to keep going, however, he accepted that his fifth birthday was the time to end this part of our journey. I sure did miss the added immunity boost he got from breastfeeding. He was more sick that winter than he had ever been before. The first time he got sick, I actually did nurse him and he recovered pretty quickly. It seems like there might have been an emotional component to healing without breastfeeding. Once we reminded him that he had a very strong immune system thanks to the years of breastfeeding, he seemed to stop getting sick so often. To this day he continues to make a quicker recovery when he is sick.
If you are doing the math, Otter was almost three years old when he weaned. She was kind of happy at first – both breasts all to herself…and then she was sad when she realized she and Charger were really not going to share in breastfeeding anymore.
Two things influenced my decision to allow Otter to self-wean. After seeing the remorse Charger had at being “forced” to wean at five, I did not want to make her have an end date. I also got to see a presentation by Dr. Nils Bergman in which he taught the biology of breastfeeding across mammals. He is the one who pointed out that the majority of mammals nurse their young until they loose their milk teeth, aka “baby teeth”. LIGHTBULB. Okay, so now I really understood that nursing a human child until their the sixth or seventh birthday made sense from an evolutionary biological level.
Is nursing an older child like nursing a newborn or a toddler?
Not in our case. Newborns nurse around the clock. Around 6-8 months of age, most human children develop an interest in eating what is known as “solid food”. At that point, they breastfeed first, then try the solid food, and top off with breastfeeding to make sure they have gotten enough nutrients for that meal. We never stressed about what our children ate. We love that mantra that comes from the baby-led weaning crowd, “Food before one is just for fun.”
Around the first birthday, we would naturally lose a breastfeeding session as our children went from two naps a day to one. Then you drop some sessions around meal times as they become better eaters. As they start to move more and become toddlers, the interest decreases again. Our toddlers (18+ months) would nurse upon waking in the morning and before bedtime; anything in between was incidental: tired, overstimulated, injured, etc.
Somewhere between the second and third birthday, we told the sweet peas that they could only nurse at home. I was always willing to honor our children’s need/desire to breastfeed, however I was not willing to push social norms outside our home.
We kept to this morning/evening pattern until Charger and Otter were four years old. At four, they had to choose: nurse upon waking or nurse at bedtime. At this point, any nursing during the day was as a last resort because all other comfort methods had failed.
I noticed that Otter’s pattern changed when she was 5.5 years old. She would go 2-3 days without nursing, and then ask again. I will always tell her, you can try and see what happens. So far, she has always gotten milk. How long will this last? I have no idea.
Why would anyone breastfeed this long?
For us, the benefits far outweigh being an outlier on the social norms scale. The ones we have enjoyed are the bond between mother and child, the seemingly endless enjoyment of food and willingness to eat a large variety of flavors, and the immunity boost that lasts throughout the breastfeeding relationship (and beyond in Charger’s case).
I love this image from The Alpha Parent that outlines the many benefits of breastfeeding into the toddler years:
What does my husband think?
He supports this choice. There is no way we would have breastfed Charger as long as he was, or continue breastfeeding Otter this long, without his support. It meant he had to be mature enough not to feel jealous of the children, which he always has been, thank God. In addition, he very readily accepted that my breasts were not “his” or the children’s. They were MY breasts, and they could be used to feed our children, and still be sexy when we had our time together.
Is the choice right for every family? My guess is probably not, even though it would be lovely if more children were fed until at least the second birthday if circumstances allowed. If it is something you are mulling around and you would like more information, I would be happy to help if I can. Please leave me a comment and I will do my best to answer any questions you might have.
Other blog posts I have written about our extended breastfeeding journey:
Our Journey Into Tandem Nursing May 2012 intro about our chosen path
Still Tandem Nursing August 2012 update
Tandem Nursing – Extended July 2013 update
My Take on Toddler Nursing – Today August 2013 photojournal of “gymnurstics”…thank goodness that was only a phase!
Breastfeeding a Toddler August 2015 Otter was four years old and my only nursling at this point
Nursing By Example: The power of peer-to-peer support
Nursing a Toddler: Benefits, and why it’s good to follow your instincts and your children’s cues
Extended Breastfeeding: the science behind why it’s beneficial
Breastfeeding & Tandem Nursing: Encouraging parents to follow the right path for their family