People get weird enough when you’re breastfeeding a baby over six months of age, let alone over three years of age. The World Health Organisation may well recommend babies are breastfed for the first two years or beyond, but here in the UK, that doesn’t happen in the majority of cases. In fact, only 0.5% of babies are still breastfed at the age of one year. So you can see why it’s considered to be unusual for those of us who have breastfed babies beyond that point – through toddlerhood and sometimes a bit longer.
My eldest was breastfed until he was 18 months old. He still felt like a baby to me, so it didn’t feel like I was doing anything unusual. We had gradually reduced feeds and night-weaned, and then we stopped. It was pretty easy to do. Nine months later, I had another baby, and the boobs swung back into action for their second stint in the milking parlour. As I nursed my newborn for the first time, I had NO IDEA I’d still be doing it three and a half years later. But I was. And it’s been a real education on some of those mis-truths about extended breastfeeding, natural-term weaning, breastfeeding older babies – whatever you choose to call it. Let me fill you in…
Five Truths About Breastfeeding Beyond Babyhood
1. The mother does not keep on breastfeeding for her own selfish reasons
As the keeper of the boobs, the mother of course has to be a willing participant for breastfeeding to continue. But in my experience, and in the experience of friends who have breastfed for a similar length of time, the ball is very much in the child’s court. It isn’t physically possible for a mother to continue breastfeeding solely because it’s her wish to do so and she is desperately clinging onto her child’s babyhood. The child simply wouldn’t latch on. In my case, and all of the other mums I’ve known in the same boat, it was more the case that the child really didn’t want to give up breastfeeding and the mum was ready to stop for a long time but just didn’t have the heart to stop their little one from doing something which they loved, and needed. So please, less of the judging.
2. It’s not weird
In much the way that breastfeeding a baby is natural, so is breastfeeding a toddler. In our case, most breastfeeding happened at bedtime, or during the night to soothe back to sleep with a cuddle and a little drink. Never is a toddler more baby-like than when they are sleepy. It just didn’t feel weird to me at all. Even with a full set of teeth, because she was nursing, not eating chips.
3. The longer it goes on the harder it is to give up
My second baby was in no way ready to give up breastfeeding at 18 months like my first was. We had both taken to breastfeeding much more easily than I had with my eldest, and she was still regularly feeding at the point he had stopped. She didn’t night-wean until about 9 months after that, and still continued to have a feed at bedtime for over another year. And all through that year, I would mention that she was a big girl and soon she would be ready to stop, but she was certain that she was not ready. And then about six months before The End, she began playing with the idea of stopping: she would tell me she didn’t need it any more, then buckle at the last minute and change her mind. I went with the flow, wondering whether I was doing the right thing, whether she would ever choose to stop.
4. The last feed might not be as momentous as you hoped
I had imagined that the last feed would go something like this: we would have a heartfelt mother-daughter conversation about how she wasn’t a baby and didn’t need to breastfeed anymore. Then we would have one last little snuggle and feed for old time’s sake. I would focus on her and drink in the vision of my beautiful girl falling asleep, happy and contented at my breast as a tear gracefully slid down my cheek. A memory to savour forever. What actually happened was: she was a bit of a shit at bedtime (scribbling on the sofa, colouring in her legs with felt tips, running away when it was time to brush teeth – you get the picture) and I told her how cross she had made me feel when she was in bed. “But can I still have booby Mummy?” “Yes, you can, but I’ll be honest, I feel cross and I don’t really want to”. I knew it was a bad thing to say, but I was being honest. The last thing you want to do with someone you are cross with is put your breast in their mouth. And when it came to the last feed, she messed about, didn’t latch, and so I stopped and pulled my top back down. She cried a little, but didn’t want to try again. She fell asleep in my arms. I felt awful. I waited all this time so she could stop when she was ready and I’d messed it up at the last moment.
5. No matter how long you spend wishing it would end, the moment it does, you miss it
I felt terrible that I’d made such a mess of that last feed, I agonised over making her feel rejected rather than it being her decision to self-wean. The next night when she said “I don’t need booby any more. I want to go to sleep all by myself” I felt a pang of regret. I asked whether that was because I had been grumpy with her, or because she was ready to be a big girl. I was relieved it was the latter. I told her I was so proud of her, and I loved her very much and again, we snuggled until she fell asleep.
After speaking to a wise friend who is far more knowledgeable about these things, she explained that often when a child needs to make a big leap, they need there to be a battle first. My daughter wanted to stop being a baby and be a big girl, but she needed a bit of a shove to get there.
So after three and a half years, our breastfeeding days are over. They lasted a lot longer than I ever could have imagined, and at times it was a feat of endurance and tolerance. The ending was not beautiful or memorable, but the journey to get there was.