In spite of having been formula fed myself, I always assumed growing up that I would breastfeed my babies. I had only the vaguest idea of what that entailed, given that for the first twenty or so years of my life I saw babies being nursed on exactly two occasions – once when I visited my aunt and once when a Mennonite woman was discreetly nursing her infant in a craft store. I think it’s a sad commentary on today’s society that both times left me feeling awkward and embarrassed.
As a college student, I had the good fortune to take an anthropology class which was frequently taught by Kathy Dettwyler – the world’s foremost expert on extended breastfeeding and weaning. (Her website is well worth checking out: http://kathydettwyler.org/dettwyler.html.) Prior to her lectures, I had never dreamed of nursing a baby after his teeth came in (roughly six months is what I was thinking). Afterward, I was sold on the benefits of nursing well past a year or two, but I wasn’t too sure about wanting to nurse much past the first birthday.
Several years later I became pregnant with my first child. In the hopes of improving my chances at successful breastfeeding, I started attending La Leche League meetings in the beginning of my third trimester. I was taken aback when a handful of women there were nursing toddlers – and really blown away by the tandem nursers (women nursing two children who are not twins). After a couple of meetings I was accustomed to the sight and began to think that perhaps I would do what a friend said she was planning – “don’t offer/don’t refuse” at around 18 months with the hope that weaning would soon follow.
Unfortunately, I had a very painful, negative experience with nursing during the first several months after my son’s birth. My midwife later told me that this was because I had flat nipples, although she didn’t mention it to me at the time! I’m sure that my son’s bad reflux, which was causing him to extend his neck and thrash around while feeding was complicating an already painful situation as well. As a result, I did not have the natural, relaxed nursing relationship that I had dreamed about during pregnancy – the reality was that I had to have him tightly swaddled and totally immobilized on my nursing pillow at every single feeding until he was nearly nine months old. It took every ounce of determination I had to continue nursing him and I didn’t enjoy a single moment of it.
It was a huge relief when I was finally able to hold my baby in my arms to nurse him at around nine months – it felt so much snugglier and more natural. I still felt a fair amount of discomfort while nursing, but I finally began to see why some women loved nursing so much. At least I no longer hated it! As each month passed, I enjoyed nursing more and more. The thought of weaning was very far from my mind as his first birthday came and went – we had both only recently gotten the hang of it, and we were enjoying it more and more as time went by.
When I originally pictured nursing a toddler, I thought it would be the same as nursing a baby – on demand with very long feedings, many times a day. It can be like that (and for many nursing pairs that arrangement is satisfactory), but it doesn’t have to be. In our case, my son had much bigger fish to fry most of the time, and by the time he night weaned at fourteen months it was a rare day that he was nursing more than first thing in the morning, prior to each nap, and before going to bed at night. The thing about nursing a toddler is that he is old enough that you can set limits that you can live with – after all, if you can’t handle nursing more than once a day, that’s still better than weaning entirely. There is a middle ground between complete weaning and nursing on demand!
Throughout his second year of life, I envisioned gradually encouraging weaning with a cut-off on his second birthday. To my surprise, I became pregnant during my husband’s mid-tour leave on a fifteen month deployment to Iraq. My son was 17 months old. Although I had never dreamed of nursing during pregnancy, I decided to continue, partly because it was fall, and cold and flu season were beginning. I wanted him to have the benefit of an immunity boost as long as possible. Also, according to Adventures in Tandem Nursing by Hilary Flower, the majority of nurslings wean during pregnancy. As the months went by, I realized that he wasn’t in the least interested in giving up his three-times daily nursing routine. My husband was due back from Iraq within days of my son’s second birthday, and within weeks we would be having another baby. That is a lot of change for a small boy to go through at once, and I couldn’t bring myself to remove a major source of security and comfort for him during such a tumultuous time. I committed to going past two years and tandem nursing if that was what he wanted to do, even though I had said many times before that I would never want to tandem nurse.
That’s exactly what happened. Even after his sister was born (at 39 weeks 5 days gestation and weighing 8 lbs 5 oz, for those who might be concerned about low birth weight or premature birth due to nursing), he continued nursing three times daily. It turned out that my son gave me a beautiful gift in return for nursing him during pregnancy – I was able to nurse my new daughter completely pain-free. I didn’t even experience normal newborn nursing soreness! (I know that it was nursing during pregnancy that caused this because I have since had a third baby under different circumstances, and breastfeeding was quite painful for two weeks after his birth.)
Weaning was a gradual process with my son. I never managed to juggle both children at once, so they nursed separately. As a result, the naptime feeding was the first to go because his sister always cried at that time of day when I put her down. I tried to nurse him anyway, but we were both upset by her crying and we agreed to stop nursing then. Morning worked better, but that gradually tapered off as well, in part because I started offering exciting distractions. We were lucky to have my husband home at bedtime most of the time during those early months, which meant that we could have a nice snuggle and nurse every night at bedtime. My son was 29 months old the first time he didn’t ask about nursing at nighttime, and he started nursing less and less frequently and for much shorter durations after that point. He was only nursing a couple of nights a week for about 30 seconds at a time by the time he was 31 months old, and he stopped asking entirely when he was 34 months old. I can’t remember the last nursing session because I didn’t know it would be the last. I encouraged a certain amount of slowing down in nursing, but the final decision was his, just as I eventually wanted it to be.
Just to show that every nursing experience is different, I will share my daughter’s story. Unlike my son, she was extremely slow to eat solids in spite of regular and enthusiastic offers. She was still almost exclusively breastfed and very much a mama’s girl at 13 ½ months when I became pregnant for the third time. I was certain that I was in for another tandem nursing experience, but to my shock, once my vanishing milk supply forced her to get the hang of solids, she would only nurse with encouragement and reminders. By the time she was 19 months old, she was only nursing a few times a week in the morning and then only for a few minutes. It tapered to a few seconds once a week or so until she refused to latch on again about three weeks before her younger brother was born. She was only 22 months old when he was born, but she was utterly uninterested in coming back to the breast.
So there you have two different toddler nursing/weaning stories. In both cases, I was gently encouraging them one way or the other (my son toward weaning, my daughter toward continued nursing), but both made the final decision on their own.
I guess extended/tandem nursing is just something we arrived at gradually. We didn’t plan it, it just happened. When you have a little baby, 12 month olds look so big that you can hardly imagine what it would be like to nurse one. When your baby gets to 12 months old one day at a time, he is still your baby, and it’s no big deal to you. Many women, especially in places where there isn’t such a powerful cultural taboo against it, are happy to nurse past that arbitrary point. After all, many women (myself included) find nursing an 18 month old much more rewarding than nursing an 18 day old or an 18 week old. We become “extended” breastfeeders one day at a time, and just like other mammals, we can feel it when it’s time to start supporting our little ones in the gradual weaning process, however long that takes.