Philomena is two and a half years old, and she still nurses.
American culture is funny. I could say my way of bonding with her at night is to snuggle in front of a t.v. screen together eating a packet of sugary fruit snacks and most wouldn’t give that ritual a second thought.
But say that you two rock quietly in a chair nursing, me talking about our day, and her getting the most amazing milk specially designed for her and Zelie’s needs… and the reactions are varied, and almost always strong.
Every once in a while it comes up and someone will say how awesome it is, but more often then not, people seem totally confused, weirded out, or even disgusted. Why on earth would I bother with this? Why wasn’t she just weaned at one?
And I get it, per the CDC, only 30% of breastfed babies in America are still nursing at a year, with 20% of babies not breastfed in the first place. So I live in a culture where only 10% of all children in the United States are nursing beyond 12 months….nursing my toddler probably does sound weird.
So in a world of weaning by one, why are we still nursing?
(Obligatory disclaimer: This is not written to shame others who don’t nurse, who couldn’t nurses as long, or who have made other decisions for feeding their kids. I’m just sharing our journey and what has worked for our family so far.)
Breastfeeding Was Extra-Important
Philomena has food allergies and didn’t care for solids until much later than is typical. Our allergist and local La Leche League leaders reassured me that it is common for kids like her – it is like a self-protection mechanism since they know food makes them feel sick.
It wasn’t until about 18-20ish months when we had her eczema and allergies under much better control that solid food had become her primary source of nutrition.
Nursing was not “just” a comfort measure for my girl after 6 or even 12 months… it really was her food, and she was thriving on it.
When I was morning sick and exhausted that first trimester carrying Zelie, I could always help my endlessly on-the-go 1.5 year old girl settle down for a while with a nurse in bed.
When Philomena got an awful ear infection and vomiting bug at 20 months, she had no interest in eating or drinking, but I could still nurse her to keep her hydrated and fed, as well as have a supply of milk for those sick ears.
Philomena is a very independent, fast-moving child. (Not the “cuddly” type in the slightest.) Nursing and baby wearing are the only two times that Philomena would slow down and just connect.
When Zelie arrived and Philomena was suddenly not the only child, the transition went *way* smoother than I expected. In fact, there was no change in Philomena’s behavior at all; she loved her little baby sister, and was happy as could be. She has not struggled with any jealousy/frustration/anger with a new sibling so far.
Maybe she would have been this way no matter what, but I think the security of knowing that we still have special nursing times and that it isn’t something just for baby has helped her make the transition with more comfort and confidence than if I hadn’t been able to provide that to her.
When Will We Stop?
So now comes the question of how long will I nurse my kids for. There is no arbitrary cut off date for us, because I can’t know our future needs.
When night nursing was becoming super painful while pregnant, and I could no longer sleep through Philomena sucking, we night weaned her. (Daddy took over for a few nights, comforting her and helping her adjust to the change.)
When she was starting to have meltdowns a few months ago whenever I had to stop nursing her to move on with our day, I found that the stability of set, expected nursing times actually worked better for her. So, Philomena nurses before nap, and before bed. She calls these our “special nursie times,” and they are special and treasured indeed.
We take our life one day at a time, and like everything else with parenting, we tailor our nursing to our needs, not some random age rule.
She Said No
Just when I have moments that I think Philomena will never wean, she will surprise me.
Three times recently Ethan put her to bed because I was helping Zelie, and she forgot to ask to nurse.
And just a few days ago, after Zelie had very oddly refused to nurse my right side all night, I asked Philomena in the morning if she would nurse, and she said, “No mommy, I am playing.”
The day is going to come when I will realize that Philomena and I had our last nurse and didn’t even know it. Even though many in our culture can’t understand why we are still nursing, I am treasuring each time, because this special relationship has benefitted us more than I could adequately describe, and it will be gone so soon.
When it’s over, Philomena will be off happily playing, and I think I’ll be the one shedding a few tears.
Even though in America breastfeeding rates drop off drastically after 6 and 12 months, there are many benefits nursing beyond those ages.
From improved neurological development and increased immune system health for the toddler, to a significant decrease in the risk of cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis for the mother, this well researched and referenced page from KellyMom.com features a ton of great information on breastfeeding beyond infancy.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF say that “Review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for six months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up two years of age or beyond.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics said in the March 2012 issue of Pediatrics, “The AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant, a recommendation concurred to by the WHO and the Institute of Medicine.”
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