By Wendy Wisner
We need to come up with new language for long-term breastfeeding.
Here’s the thing: I’ve used all the terms myself. I have said I’m doing “child-led weaning.” I’ve called it “natural weaning.” I say often that I am nursing my children “until they are done.” I have called myself an “extended breastfeeder” and I have said I am nursing my kids “long-term.”
But all of it sounds either too absolute or too vague.
If I try to eliminate a nursing session, am I not being “natural”? What exactly does “extended breastfeeding” mean? To some, nursing past six months is “extended.” And “child-led weaning” makes it sound like it’s a one-sided thing, with no agency for the mother—like the mom is just lying back and letting her child decide how long the nursing will go on.
None of this language really describes what it’s like to nurse your child for a longish time. Nursing is a relationship. There are two people here. Me and my kiddo. You and your kiddo.
Of course my children “need” to nurse, and I’m cool with them doing it for many years (if you aren’t, that’s cool too). They are attached to nursing, in much the same way they are attached to me. Nursing calms them, it helps them navigate the crazy world of little-kid feelings, it grounds them, brings them home.
And while they’re babies and young toddlers, breastmilk forms a large part of their nutrition. For the whole time I nurse them, I am protecting their little bodies against viruses they encounter; my milk helps them fight off the illnesses if they get them. And my milk provides lifetime health benefits for them.
Yes, they need to nurse. And yes, they ask to nurse. And in all those ways, I am following their lead.
But I get something out of nursing them too (oxytocin rush, extra snuggles, lifelong health protections, love). I recently published an article about this. It was a personal essay about why I nurse my two-year-old, and a lot of it had to do with the benefits to me. You’d be surprised how shocked people were that I had a stake in this “extended breastfeeding” thing! Of course there are endless benefits to kids, but it benefits moms as well.
Sometimes I don’t like nursing at all. I’m touched out, I can’t sit down to nurse again, I don’t want to nurse all night long. My period’s coming, and my breasts are sore and tender. And so I’ll delay a bit. I’ll try to distract my son with a toy, a snack, a conversation, and yes (I’ll admit it) an iPad.
This is totally normal, even if you want to breastfeed long-term. But does that mean the weaning isn’t “child-led,” or that I am not letting things unfold “naturally”? Of course not! I have chosen this path of long-term nursing. I have chosen to be mindful of letting my children nurse when they need to, for however long they do. But nothing is black-and-white in parenting. Nothing. We are figuring things out as we go along. We are listening to our kids, and to ourselves.
I think when we use absolute terms like these, we are setting up mothers for feelings of guilt, or confusion. New mothers especially want to belong to a tribe. They want to know how they should do this parenting thing. They want a choice with a clear path. But nothing is like that, exactly.
It would be strange if mothers just nursed “on demand” forever. We need to trust ourselves to know when it’s time to say no sometimes. We have to trust that the relationship of breastfeeding will endure. It’s really awesome when both mom and child feel good about how weaning unfolds. I have gone through a full weaning myself, and there is nothing like the feeling of reaching a milestone like that with both the mom and child feeling good about it.
I nursed my first child well past the “norm” and am doing the same with my younger child. But there are limits; there are times when I steer him away from the breast. I see myself doing this sometimes, often at night, or in the early morning. With my first child, I felt pangs of guilt about this—I wondered if I was being “pure” about his weaning. But now there is no guilt, no wondering if this is the right thing to do, or if I am “unnaturally” speeding things along.
I am doing what comes naturally to me, while listening to him. This is our story. We own it—not any book or movement or website or group on Facebook.
The same is for you, whether you want to nurse for a long time, whenever you feel that it is time to stop. It’s your child’s story. It’s your story. No one can make it up for you. No one can tell you how to do it.
Breastfeeding is a relationship that goes on for as long or as short as you and your child want it to. There are no rules. You make them.
Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books), and her writing has appeared in such publications as Huffington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Mamalode. She lives in New York with her husband and two sons. She does all her writing on her phone while she lies in the dark waiting for her kids to fall asleep. Find Wendy at www.wendywisner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.