Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Still" Breastfeeding

I thought I'd share the incredibly simple and non-political reason why I am, at 38+ weeks pregnant, nursing my almost 2.5-year-old son.

We haven't had a reason to stop.

I'm very tempted to end this post right there.  Because, truly, that's why we're "still" nursing.  It's no great ideology on my part.  I don't think it's for everyone or in any way a requirement to raise healthy, happy, fabulous kids.

Of course I can go into detail and tell you all about the difficulties of nursing at this age (they're pretty much the same as parenting at this age), as well as the benefits (there are a lot of them for our family), but that would just be another demonstration of my not having a reason to wean him.

I won't end there, at the request of a friend who wants to arm herself when other people tell her it's time to wean before she or her baby/toddler/child is ready.  I think she would also like to gently bring her support system around to not worrying about the duration, but focusing on establishing breastfeeding in the first place!

There are lots of reasons people give for why a baby/toddler should be weaned by whatever age or developmental milestone.  Thankfully for me, in my real life these reasons always seem to be posed as questions, rather than authoritative bits of advice or harsh judgments.  So I thought I'd start with some of these.
  • What about when he has teeth?
    • You can still nurse a baby/toddler/child with teeth.  If they're truly nursing, they can't bite because their tongue covers their lower teeth.  It can require a little gentle discipline and a lot of vigilance to curb biting.  Bean bit me a handful of times.  He never drew blood (yes, I have friends whose babies drew blood, and some decided they were done nursing while others continued).  For some, teeth are a reason to wean.  For me, they were not.
    • If nursing a toothed baby/toddler/child is hurting, seek out some help and suggestions from other moms of toothed nurslings.  It can be really painful and frustrating, but there are lots of tactics to try depending on whether the issue is biting or it's actually the top teeth rubbing.
  • Once they can ask for it, they're too old.
    • What about "asking for it" makes them too old?  If a gesturing/signing/talking baby/toddler/child indicating that they want to nurse makes you uncomfortable, then you have the option of weaning your baby/toddler/child.  It didn't make me uncomfortable, so it wasn't a reason for me to wean.  Is there something besides discomfort that makes this a reason to wean?
    • I'm not even sure where on the continuum of communication between mother and baby this "asking for it" thing is happening.  Babies communicate their need to nurse from birth with feeding cues.  An older, more coordinated baby might reach for Mom's shirt or breast, sign for milk, make any number of other gestures, or even do some full-body flinging at Mom to indicate their need to nurse.  In my own experience, the actual verbal requests have been much more subtle than the flinging, bobbing, and shrieking that came before them.  I even chose the word that Bean uses to refer to nursing (luckily he adopted it!). 
  •  I don't think I could stand a toddler being all over me like that.
    • Nursing is currently one of the least "all over me" of Bean's activities I can think of.  Yes, there are some (in my opinion hilarious) acrobatics in nursing a toddler.  And I can see that driving some people nuts, but it generally didn't/doesn't bother me.
    • Since I've been pregnant, I've had to be a little bit more insistent with Bean about the positions he can nurse in and how active he can be while he nurses.  If he's too wiggly, we're done nursing for now.  I really can't take it.  And then, when I end the nursing session, we begin the negotiations about not climbing me, not kicking my belly, not messing with the tiny little mole he recently discovered on the inside of my elbow and wants to run his finger over repeatedly...  (OMG why did I end that nursing session?!?)  Sometimes I want to wean him from touching me altogether, but save the sweet and snuggly nursing.  Is that an option?
  •  Shouldn't he/doesn't he get all his nutrition from solids and cow's milk?
    • My own kid didn't really eat a lot of solids until after his first birthday, and knowing he was getting a nutrient-dense and well-balanced food every time he nursed gave me peace of mind.  And what's the problem with adding another nutritious food to his diet?
    • Now that my toddler is eating a well-balanced (ok, some days I think it's a little heavy on the dried fruit and peanuts) solid diet, and he's taking in plenty of cow's milk and water, the nutrition of nursing is not as big a selling point (especially since pregnancy has pretty well done away with actual milk for the time being).  But every time he nurses, he's also getting antibodies, stem cells, and lots of amazing stuff that's still being discovered (and the purpose of which is still being figured out!). 
    • There are non-nutritional benefits:  health benefits for me, plus the obvious comfort Bean finds in nursing.  When he's reached the edge of toddler sanity, and can't even hear me comfort him or tell him to take deep breaths, he'll still nurse.  Even if he was kicking and screaming and throwing things he'll calm down, he'll look me in the eye, and he'll hear me.  Of course we are working on things like taking deep breaths, or walking away to calm down, etc - but sometimes he is simply too far beyond to learn or try out a new method of calming himself down.  (And, no, it's not always roses and sweetness.  Of course not.  Especially in pregnancy, there have been plenty of times where I've said "You're just going to have to scream...")
  • But it makes me uncomfortable to see moms nurse in x situation or with a kid who is such-and-such age or can do y or z.
    • I'm uncomfortable with a whole lot of things I see people do, but I don't get to tell them to stop unless it's illegal (it's good to know where and how breastfeeding is legally protected).  If you tell me you're uncomfortable - or do things to indicate you are uncomfortable (like look away, leave the room, or cease to be able to carry on a conversation while I nurse Bean) - then I will do what I can to tactfully warn you I'm about to nurse, or I will try to minimize the nursing I do in your presence.  I am almost always what I consider discreet (for me, using a blanket or cover was never discreet - it was a spectacle.  And discreet with a toddler is....challenging).  I do not aim to make people uncomfortable (in public places I will move aside, or generally try to not be at the center of any action), but unfortunately (for you) someone else's discomfort is just not enough reason for me to turn my family's life upside-down by weaning my son.  Please know that I'm not at all happy that you're uncomfortable.  If you have other suggestions, let's discuss.  Sometimes just acknowledging the elephant in the room, or answering questions about it, can put people at ease.
    • If you never see moms nursing and would like to feel a little less like the only person in the world whose nursling is as old/big/capable as yours, I strongly suggest attending a La Leche League meeting, or seeking out some other sort of breastfeeding support group.  Seeing toddlers nursing at our weekly playgroup, in all their indiscreet glory (do they do anything discreetly?) allows me to see the range of normal.  Toddlers are weird.  They say funny things and they can't keep anything private.  Nursing toddlers are no different! :)
  • What about your doctors?  What do they have to say?
    • My son's pediatrician, my obstetrician, and the specialist I see for a chronic illness all know that we are currently nursing, and none of them has ever expressed even a little concern.  I've even practically invited the specialist to give me reason to wean because I wanted to be clear that I am more concerned with my health in the long-term than nursing my babies in the long-term; I am open to certain medications that are not entirely breastfeeding-friendly if he thinks they would keep me healthier longer.  He chuckled, told me why he doesn't think I need to be on those medications right now (they get name-dropped in discussion of my possible prognoses), and told me to keep nursing.
This list is just a start, and I haven't even gotten into the concerns (and fascinating answering information) that have come along with nursing through pregnancy.  I hope readers will expand on these in the comments, and I may write a second post.

Further information
Benefits of extended nursing
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (book)
Adventures in Tandem Nursing (book)

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