In nursing a toddler, I've opened myself to scrutiny, but extended breastfeeding is what works for us.
My son recently turned 3 years old. Avan is a hilarious little guy, learning all about comedic timing from his big sister. One of his favorite activities is pretending he's on American Ninja Warrior; he'll create elaborate obstacle courses crafted from blankets, toys, and couch pillows. He loves to dance and sing, making up all kinds of funny tunes. One recent ditty basically consisted of the rapped/sung refrain "I gotta baby dog, I gotta baby dog" over and over. (For the record, he doesn't have a baby dog.)
Avan also still breastfeeds. The most interesting thing about this to me is how many strong opinions people have about it. The reactions range from the amazed ("Wow, you still have milk?") to the curious. Namely, the big question is: "So, when are you planning on stopping?"
I've been out to dinner with friends when my son—who wasn't yet 3 at the time—asked for "boo boo" and I nursed him using a nursing cover. While breastfeeding him, my well-meaning but bemused friends basically interrogated me about it. I felt frustrated that I even needed to explain my choice to breastfeed to anyone.
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Though breastfeeding (or not breastfeeding for that matter) is a completely personal decision for a mother to make, other people feel incredibly invested in that choice. I know some people reading this will have a negative reaction to it, and when I nurse my son in public, which happens less and less these days, I typically use a nursing cover for other people's comfort. When he was a baby, I felt much less compelled to cover up.
Like Avan, I also nursed my daughter Aria—who recently turned 9—until she was a little older than 3, but her breastfeeding story is a complicated one. Born prematurely at only 32 weeks via emergency C-section because I suffered from HELLP Syndrome, she weighed only 2 lbs. 10 oz. and spent six weeks in the NICU. In the early weeks of her life, she was so small that she didn't have the strength to nurse so I pumped and she was fed my milk through a feeding tube (and eventually tiny bottles). When she was finally able to try to breastfeed at five weeks old, it was very difficult. Though my husband encouraged me not to beat myself up about it if it didn't happen, I felt like nursing was the one "normal" thing I could do: I didn't experience a full-term pregnancy, I didn't have a vaginal birth, but I could try to breastfeed. It took using nipple sheilds and three lactation consultants before we were successful.
My nursing experience with Aria came to a close just weeks before she entered preschool. Knowing that she would be encouraged to be more independent, I felt the timing was right and breastfeeding somehow came to a mutual end. Interestingly, because she had been a premature baby, people seemed to be more understanding of my decision to nurse her and there was less scrutiny involved.
With my son, breastfeeding has been a different experience. He still wakes up to nurse during the night. If you asked me how many times, I couldn't honestly tell you because I'm half asleep when he does. He still sleeps in a crib in our room because there's no space for him in my daughter's tiny bedroom in our New York City apartment. At some point in the night, he ends up joining us in bed, much to the chagrin of my husband, who ends up with my son's foot in his face. Do I think we should stop nighttime feedings for all our sake's so we can finally have an uninterrupted night's sleep? Probably. Do I have a plan for how to make that happen? No. I've discussed it with my pediatrician, whom I love. Though she encourages me not to nurse him during the night, she'll just say, "Well, when you're ready you'll stop."
At this point, I'm not quite sure how that will happen. Because he's 3, we have conversations where I'll say, "During the night, sometimes Mommy's boo-boos need to sleep and you need to sleep, so we can't always have boo boo." But when I'm completely groggy at 3 a.m. and he asks for boo boo, that resolve goes out the window.
I know that breastfeeding is a source of comfort for my son. If he gets hurt and I'm there, he'll often come over to me and ask to nurse. At night when we're lying in bed and I'm reading to him, the routine is always "boo boo and books." He can fall asleep without nursing but he is used to that comfortable feeling of drifting off while nursing. And I am used to that comfortable feeling of having him in my arms, reading him stories while we nurse. Because I work full-time I often feel guilty about not being there for all his moments, but breastfeeding is something only we share.
Avan will enter preschool in the fall. I don't yet know if, unlike his big sister, he will still be breastfeeding when he goes.
What I do know is that it's a decision for only my son and me to make.