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Why Would You Nurse a 4-Year-Old?

You may be expecting a snarky blog post aimed at critics of “extended” breastfeeding filled with awesome comebacks to sling around comment threads of breastfeeding posts. But I have written enough of those. A recent conversation in a thread on my own page reminded me that some people just… don’t get it. Some people just really don’t know why someone would breastfeed a toddler. They ask, “But doesn’t he eat food? Drink regular milk? Isn’t he too busy playing?” This post is dedicated to all of the people who want to know more about this. The people who ask questions, hold back judgement and have an open mind to listen to someone else’s experiences.

Abby Theuring, The Badass breastfeeder breastfeeding her toddler.

I can’t tell you why everyone nurses a toddler, but I can tell you why I personally breastfeed my 4-year-old. I didn’t plan to breastfeed Jack this long. If someone had asked me when he was born about breastfeeding a 4-year-old I would have said that was weird and gross. Now that I am here I can say that it is a lot of things, but it is not weird to us and it is not gross to us.

To answer your questions: Yes, Jack does eat food. He eats everything that you and I eat. He eats at every meal and has a zillion snacks throughout the day. He doesn’t however, drink regular milk, if by “regular” you mean cow’s milk, then, no. But it’s not because I won’t let him or have some “beef” with cows. (Get it? Beef?) I have offered it and he just doesn’t like it. I have offered every kind of milk and he’s not into it. Is that because he’s breastfed? I doubt it, I think he’s just Jack and picky about every damn thing. He drinks tons of water and some juice. I don’t feel any need to cut him off from human milk to provide milk from another source.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder, tandem breastfeeding.

Jack also plays. I mean try and stop a 4-year-old from playing, right? Jack does not spend all of his day lying on my lap nursing. Neither he or I want to have anything to do with all that. Nursing for Jack has taken many forms over the past 4 years. As an infant it obviously met all of his needs; nutrition, comfort, security, attachment, etc. As he has grown so has his world and he has begun to get some of these needs met in other ways. Certainly nutrition is mainly through solid foods these days, but don’t believe the hype; breastmilk does not lose nutritional value. Ever. Jack’s means of meeting his need for comfort, security and attachment have also grown as any other child’s would at his age. But breastfeeding is still a big part of it. I believe that weaning is a process and it will take time for him to fully replace breastfeeding.

Jack does still love to nurse. He likes it, needs it and benefits from it. He nurses about 3 times day although he asks more frequently. I do not nurse him every time he asks because it’s just too much for me. I also nurse a 1-year-old so I need boundaries for my own comfort. If he asks I make sure he has some water if he is thirsty and some food if he is hungry. But I can usually tell what’s going on when he asks. If we are at a park and a bunch of kids from a local daycare come stampeding in I can guarantee you he will ask. Jack has some sensitivities around auditory stimulation and if a kid screams near him I can predict him approaching me to nurse. If we have been out for a long time I’d bet you my right arm he’ll be coming to me asking for “boobie.” Jack also nurses to sleep.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder breastfeeding her toddler.

Non-breastfed toddlers react to all of these situations too, they just do it in slightly different ways. Nursing meets many needs for Jack at this point, but I appreciate that this is not what is commonly acceptable in our country. But you know what? It’s acceptable in my household and it’s what works for Jack. It’s not always wonderful. There are plenty of times when it’s exhausting, when nursing aversion is in full swing, when I just want to run away and hide in a closet. It’s like anything else with parenting, it’s hard and there are good parts and bad parts.

I have many friends who breastfeed their 4-year-olds. I also have friends that do not. But all of us meet the needs of our children in ways that work for us. This is what works for us.

Abby Theuring, MSW