Breastfeeding Revisited: Now You Are Three

10 Jun

When my son was a few weeks old, we did he requisite Extended Family Tour. We drove to Montreal to see my grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles, and then we went to Kingston to chill out at my mom’s and see even more aunts and uncles. During these visits I felt like a queen receiving supplicants – I would sit enthroned in a big, comfortable chair, my breastfeeding pillow on my lap and my son nestled against my chest. Breastfeeding back then was a bit of an ordeal – we were still using the nipple shield, which meant that in order to get Theo to nurse I had to expose my breast, fiddle around with the little silicone shield, get it firmly in place and make sure that it was airtight, and then try to get Theo latched (not always an entirely successful endeavour).

This trip marked the first time that I’d ever breastfed in public. I hadn’t planned on it, but halfway to Montreal the baby was doing that whole enraged purple-faced screaming, and it didn’t seem like the soothing bumpiness of the drive was going to lull him back to sleep anytime soon. So we stopped at a rest station, and I proceeded to the furthest, dimmest corner table to set up my boobtacular operation.

I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t pull out my breast, engorged and leaking milk everywhere. I couldn’t expose my nipple, red and inflamed and a little cracked. I just couldn’t.

Meanwhile, my son screamed beside me, guaranteeing that everyone in the place was now staring at us.

My mother came up behind me and said, “Just do it, Annie. Just do it. No one is looking. Just do it.”

And, clumsily, fumbling with that goddamn nipple shield, I did.

I scrunched down in my seat, waiting for one of those rent-a-cops to come over and tell me that someone had complained, that I needed to cover up, that I needed to go somewhere else. But nothing like that happened. Instead, my son finished, I packed my gear up, and we hit the road.

I had to nurse him again at my grandmother’s house (god, what is with these babies, always wanting to eat? it’s almost like they’re growing or something), and whenever I did, all my uncles would studiously look away.

“I think breastfeeding is wonderful,” said one of my aunts, “but some women seem to do it for themselves. I saw a woman on the metro the other day just sitting there with her kid hanging off her. She couldn’t have waited until she got home? When it’s public like that I think it’s more about the mother than the baby.”

The next day, when we were back in Kingston, my uncle and his three kids came over to meet Theo. They were fascinated by breastfeeding, and would crowd around me whenever I did it, shoving their heads as close as possible to my chest to get the best possible view of the action.

The youngest cousin was three, and she seemed enormous compared to Theo. Afterwards, I said to Matt, “I’m not breastfeeding him when he’s three.”

Matt, whose mother had been a La Leche League leader and who had been breastfed until he was nearly four, said, “You don’t have to.”

“Did you see how big that three year old was? I can’t breastfeed someone that big. I just can’t.”

“Yeah,” he said in agreement. “She was pretty big. I can see why that would seem weird. You don’t have to breastfeed Theo when he’s three – just do it as long as you feel comfortable with it.”

“I’m only going to do it for a year. That’s what all the books say. A year. At twelve months they can have cow’s milk.”

Because, see, I wasn’t going to be one of those breastfeeding mothers. Oh sure, I thought breastfeeding was great, and I was proud of how hard I’d fought to be able to do it, but I wasn’t going to be some kind of breastfeeding weirdo. No way.

And yet.

Here we are.

My son turned three in January, and still nurses once or twice a day – usually first thing in the morning, and right before bedtime. I’m not even producing milk anymore, but I don’t think that matters to him. It’s a comfort thing for him, and at a time when he’s going through so many changes, it’s hard to take it away from him. On top of all that, it doesn’t feel weird like I thought it would. It just feels normal – it’s  thing we’ve been doing every day for nearly three and a half years, after all. I guess I thought that there would be some magic cut-off date, at which point I would be like, “oh, ew, this is too gross to continue,” but that never happened.

I don’t feel weird when I’m breastfeeding Theo, but I do feel weird when I think about how society views me. All I have to do is look up all of the articles written about Jamie Lynn Grummet, the woman who was photographed nursing her three year old for the cover of TIME Magazine. She’s sick, she’s depraved, she’s doing it to satisfy some perverted sexual desire. Her kid is going to be fucked up. Her kid already is fucked up, and that’s why he’s still breastfeeding. She purposefully fucked her kid up so that he would always be tied to her apron strings. She is everything that’s wrong with modern parenting (never mind that extended breastfeeding has a long history in many different cultures around the world).

Breastfeeding older children (and by “older” I mean more than 12 months old) is associated with spoiled, bratty little kids and sexually deviant, overindulgent mothers. If you don’t believe me, I can easily trot out a bunch of example of this in popular culture. Peyton Place‘s Norman Page and his mother certainly fit this mother. Same with Lysa Arryn and her son in Game of Thrones. Or Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, whose titular event takes place because a bratty, breastfeeding three year old is slapped by an adult after hitting someone with a cricket bat.

Or you could look at the comments on a recent Facebook post I made, jokingly saying that I’m now basically the TIME breastfeeding mom – people reacting in disgust (as I once did) that they could never, ever imagine breastfeeding a three year old. People wondering how this would affect him as an adult, since he will probably have conscious memories of nursing (to which I replied that if they’re so curious, they can ask my husband, since, you know, he was older than Theo is now when he weaned). People saying that they couldn’t do it with their three year old because he’s too smart and too aware of the world (which is hard not to take as a dig at my own kid’s intelligence).

As a society, we are still pretty uncomfortable with breastfeeding in general, and we are hella uncomfortable with breastfeeding toddlers in particular.

But anyone who thinks it’s gross should meet my kid. My hilarious, bright, amazing-as-hell kid. My kid who snuggles up beside me and says, with an impish glint in his eye, “Can I have some mama’s milks? Can I have the left side first? Which side is the left side?” My kid who pretends to breastfeed his dolls, who says that when he grows up he wants to be a mama first and have breasts and make mama’s milks, and then be a dada and just have nipples. My kid who tried to make me nurse his Spiderman action figure the other day.

Breastfeeding gives him one certain thing in this wild new world he’s exploring and learning more about every day. It’s something solid for him to hold on to, while from minute to minute he gathers in new information that slowly but surely pulls the rug of what he understands out from under him. So many things about life are confusing and contradictory and even downright scary for him right now – how could I possibly take away something that’s not?

The answer is that I can’t.

Theo at 19 months - Photo by Diana Nazareth

Theo at 19 months – Photo by Diana Nazareth

23 Responses to “Breastfeeding Revisited: Now You Are Three”

  1. deweydecimalsbutler June 10, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    I was always worried someone would say something to me, but no one ever did. Even in church, folks just kept on rolling. If it makes any less sense, I think some folks raised eyebrows because I stopped before 12 months. You just. can’t. win.

  2. Louise Frith June 10, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    Good for you! I really don’t understand people who think it’s unnatural to breastfeed beyond the baby years. It’s how the human race survived, after all. I breastfed my older son till he was three and it always felt like the right thing to do for him. I love the black and white photo too – really beautiful.

  3. adrianademoura June 10, 2014 at 5:22 pm #


  4. ceruleanstarshine June 10, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    This is really good. I bottle fed my first, and attempted breast feeding with my second. It didn’t last long–unfortunately, because she didn’t take well to formula. We were living with my family and they made it so uncomfortable I just couldn’t stick with it. Which, now that she is seven, makes me really angry. If we had been at my husband’s family, it would have been viewed as normal and not a big deal. Instead, it was awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing—but it shouldn’t have been. That is, after all, what boobs are for. Feeding babies.

    Do what feels right for you. Who cares what other people think? And trust me…I’m sure you already know, but there are about 10 zillion things worse than breast feeding to screw up kids, and people do them thoughtlessly every single day.

    I am happy for you (and him) that he has that comfort and stability to hold on to.With my daughter, it’s sleeping in our room. She *can* stay in her own bed all night, but I’d say 4/7 nights or mornings she ends up with us. We do not care (we all sleep in pjs) and I honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks. The funny thing is my 16 yr old (who slept with me until he was almost 6!) seems to have the biggest problem with it! I learned with her not to listen to other people about my kids and my family. We know what is best for our children.

    I applaud the women who are brave enough to breast feed in public, and who aren’t embarrassed. I also think it is awesome that he wants to be a mama first. ;D That is fantastic!

    • jessicalangblog June 10, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

      Awesome – do what feels natural – not what society or culture dictates.

  5. jgroeber June 10, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    I breastfed my first three but between ear infections with the first and crazy life schedule with the twins they/I stopped at around 9-11 months. And I remember seeing women feeding twelve-month-olds and thinking, “Gees, that kid’s old.” And then our surprise baby number four arrived (that’s what I get for weaning) and suffices to say, she was walking when I weaned her. She was the one I could literally walk around the playground lifting up toddlers by their waistbands with one hand while simultaneously breastfeeding with the other. And when we stopped, she was ready, I was ready. They were all ready. Motherhood is like that. We all have our own schedules, our own timelines, our own needs and comforts. So what I say now to you? You go, Mama. (Gorgeous pic by the way!)

  6. evelyneholingue June 10, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    Have you read the beautiful book Room? An important part of the book explores the topic of lasting breastfeeding. In this case it is mostly due to the mother’s forced seclusion. The little boy and his mother live a unique, loving relationship, partly because of the breastfeeding. The vocabulary used by the author matches the words your son is using when talking to you.
    I longed for a day when women will do whatever they feel is right for their child and themselves, without having people giving their opinion. Our bodies belong to us and as long as we are loving and aren’t hurting anyone, we shouldn’t have to defend our choices.

  7. makalove June 10, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    Beautiful, wonderful, YAY for you and for Matt and for Theo!

    I had no support with my first, and bad advice led to us weaning to bottles of breastmilk supplemented with formula at 3 months, but then he returned to nursing at his request at 3 years and nursed for comfort until he was 6-1/2. My second nursed until the day before he started kindergarten (weaned then because his father was making it an issue in our custody battle, trying to claim it was sexual abuse ).

    I believe both of my kids are happier and healthier people because of being nursed for as long as they were.

    • jessicalangblog June 10, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

      Abuse? Comfort and closeness? Sigh!

    • Trisha December 8, 2015 at 5:11 am #

      I nursed each of my three kids for more than 2 years. But just to illustrate the differences between individuals, my oldest weaned AFTER my youngest, with five years between them. That’s what worked for us : )

  8. jessicalangblog June 10, 2014 at 11:30 pm #

    Awesome article, but what in the world is a nipple shield? I’ve never heard of it. I nursed in all sorts of public places, including Sea world, and no one noticed because we covered up with a baby blanket.

    Both my kids weaned themselves around two years old, and by then they were just letting go of that one last night time session. Yes, my kids also slept next to me and never used a crib. We humans are so strangely detached to our natural instincts at times. Anyway, my kids are now 14 & 17, and completely without allergies.

    That breastfeeding is somehow sexual is absurd. When I started to breastfeed, my nipples became completely non-erogenous and didn’t “recover” until some time later. If I ever hear a comment like that again (and I have heard them,) I’d like to ask that person if THEY think that nursing a baby is sexual, since they somehow draw a connection and I don’t? Pervs, lol! 😉

    • welliswan June 11, 2014 at 1:40 am #

      A nipple shield is a thin, flexible cover that fits to the nipple and areola and has holes for the milk to pass through (usually clear silicon these days, but they used to make them of latex or plastic). They protect cracked nipples while they heal, and can also help with latch difficulties, especially transitioning from bottle to breast.

  9. Harmony June 11, 2014 at 12:33 am #

    Warning: This comment is going to end up being ridiculously long because this is a subject I’m pretty passionate about.

    You’re SO lucky to have such an awesome support system! So many women are not nearly as fortunate. If it weren’t for my mom, I don’t know if I could have stuck it out through those first hard weeks. Nobody tells you how HARD it is. You think it’s supposed to be natural and easy. They don’t tell you about latching or cluster feeding or the excruciation of engorgement. They don’t tell you about having a baby with reflux where you sit there through a 45 minute feeding with cracked nipples, toes curled because you have no idea that your baby is latched wrong, just to watch all of that milk you worked so hard to produce (and get into your 5lb 6oz baby) come RIGHT back up and have to go through it ALL over again because her stomach is now empty again and she’s crying with hunger.

    And the judgyness! Holy shit. Like, what business is it of anyone’s how or where or for how long I feed my kid? Why do people feel like this is something they’re aloud to have an opinion on? I’m hoping that it’ll be like interracial marriage – like, 50 years ago, people would have been very vocal with their opinions on my marriage, but now? Meh. And even if they have opinions, they know enough to keep their bigoted mouths shut!

    I nursed both mine for exactly 25 months and 10 days each (odd coincidence that they were the same age to the day when they weaned).

    I got Hannah down to nursing once before bed and then one night, she just didn’t ask to nurse again. I was devastated, but also really glad that she made the choice. I also kind of wished that I had known that the last time she nursed would be the last time she would nurse. I found out a week later that I was pregnant with Carter – probably why she weaned (some women’s milk changes taste and some kids don’t like it – although I know a lot of moms who tandem nursed too).

    Carter was the same way – he just stopped asking to nurse and again, I went through the whole feeling of sadness and even rejection. I think it was harder with him because I knew I would probably never nurse again which made it that much more heartbreaking. But again, I was glad that it had been his choice.

    I remember when Hannah was around 6 months old and being asked by my mother-in-law if I would be weaning her soon and the reaction of shock and disapproval (pursed lips, skeptical stare and an incredulous “Really?!”) when I told her that a minimum of 2 years was my goal. I also remember taking Hannah to India when she was 23 months and casually mentioning that I was going to drop a feeding (really more of a snack than a feeding at that point) each month and see how it goes. She was nursing 3-5 times a day at that point. The reaction from my aunt was the same – shock and disapproval. This time because she was too young to be “weaned” and that I shouldn’t even consider not nursing on-demand until she was 3. Amazing the difference across cultures, huh?

  10. welliswan June 11, 2014 at 1:53 am #

    I always feel mildly wistful when I read about extended breastfeeding, because it was so hard to get breastfeeding off the ground with both my kids. I was the first mother in my peer group and didn’t have any living relatives around (not that it would necessarily have helped–I was adopted and formula fed), and even after working with a lactation consultant, my first and I basically never made it work–he was on bottles exclusively by three months and formula by six. I did better with my second, but he still failed to thrive and we were ordered to do supplemental formula. I used tubing and tried everything I could think of or find information on, but he lost interest in even trying the breast by his first birthday.

    I can’t even begin to describe what an unutterable failure I felt like, stopping breastfeeding, but at the same time, I totally got side-eyed for breastfeeding even my very tiny babies in public. It seemed like every other person was either lecturing me about how breast is best, while the rest were telling me to be happy not to have the hassle. This is all pretty confessional, I realize, but I guess my point is that as far as our culture is concerned, there seems to be literally no right choice, nothing a woman can do that won’t be questioned and judged, and immense pressure from conflicting expectations at, frankly, a super exhausting and complex time. And fuck that.

  11. Monika Tillsley June 11, 2014 at 2:05 am #

    I can’t imagine breastfeeding my daughter when she was three but that is no good reason you shouldn’t. Why do people assume there is one correct way and only one correct way? That is almost never true. I went back to work after 16 weeks which I don’t particularly recommend but was necessary and my supply dried up fairly quickly so we switched over to formula. I was quite sad about that but guess what she is turning out just fine. Loving your child(ren) is the most important thing to get right.

  12. Meg June 11, 2014 at 3:14 am #

    What a beautiful post!!! I, too, breastfed my daughter until she was three…and a few months. I, too, wasn’t going to nurse that long. It just felt natural and sweet and brought us closer as she grew up.

    What an amazingly touching photo. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Susan P June 11, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Awesome! I was blessed – I had all of my children in Portugal. I had a whole cheering squad in the Portuguese people who thought it was awesome. My three children had the option to nurse until they didn’t want to anymore. And eventually, and at different ages, they gave it up on their own.

  14. princessbunnycakes June 12, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    I think it’s great that you have the ability, patience, and desire to breastfeed your son. I support your decision to continue breastfeeding until either you or your son feel it’s time to stop, but of course it’s not my place to support or denounce your personal decision any more than it’s my place to support your decision to wear a ponytail or set your kid’s bedtime.

    I will say that after a certain age breastfeeding is a comfort mechanism that might need to be outgrown, and I think every parent needs to decide at what point they want to challenge their kids to build independence and face the world without a crutch or a security blanket. For instance, at what age is it best to take away the pacifier? The beloved stuffed bear? This is usually a decision made by a loving parent, although of course sometimes the child decides, oh, hey, I’m tired of diapers, binkie, Teddy, etc.

    Everyone, including adults, have comfort mechanisms. Some of us drink, some overeat, some deep breathe, some read, some practice yoga, some take drugs. Obviously some of these coping mechanisms are healthier than others, and I think breastfeeding is just a practice in determining when this coping and comforting mechanism has been outgrown and can be replaced.

    • Tina (@usmcvet85) December 8, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

      Well, my daughter is 9 and still takes her lovie (stuffed nala she’s had since she was 3) to school in her backpack everyday. She nursed until she was 4, and is the sweetest most independent little girl. Her brother on the other hand, is 7, and my ex husband forced me to wean him at 2, forced me to let him cry it out, and would not let him get attached to a lovie, and is my clingy more aggressive, moody child. He loves to cuddle though and only gets that with me, never with my ex. I’d rather my children have a coping mechanism that is them carrying around a stuffed animal than one like say, cutting…IJS.

  15. Barbara Racca July 14, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    Thank you for your article. I was the ‘weirdo’ in our group, nursing past one then past 2. I had to stop due to taking medication that was detrimentally passed via milk otherwise I would have kept on going. Now, going on 3, my little guy continues to use the ‘boobies’ as his source of security- a touch, a hold, a squeeze or snuggle. Definitely not the norm for my circle but it’s ours– my son is friendly and outgoing and I refuse to reject my loving little guy for wanting to remain close to that which provided him nourishment and comfort for the first 2 years of his life– this is what my breasts are for. Cheers to all of us!

  16. Judy Pottins January 6, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    I really love the photo of the 3 of you. It made me tear up.

  17. Pam December 8, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Coming from a Caribbean culture and born in the 50ies, lots of women breast fed and many in public, some without blankets or anything to cover the breast. I never really got over how demonized women were when I came to live in the USA and there were so much anti breast feeding sentiments. Like the mother whose kids were born in Portugal,, it was the norm.. Here, if u sleep with a young child of the opposite sex , they want to lock u up. CRAZY!!!! Go to Africa or India or many other parts of the world and try imposing that craziness on people there and see what happens.. Good luck American and Americanized parents… and good for u for sticking to it!! The haters would have preferred u to give your child milk produced by a cow to keep the people pushing that agenda rich.. WOW!!

  18. Mel December 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm #

    So at what age should children not be breastfed? I once had a mum offer to feed her 15 year old son to get him through a procedure and I must admit I thought that was most definitely inappropriate.

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