Each year, around the time of my second daughter's birthday, I've written about my thoughts on the extended nursing experience. To be honest, I thought that this year I'd be writing about my experience with the bittersweet process of weaning, but my little nursling had other ideas. As we enter her fourth year of life, we are very much still a breastfeeding duo.
I never thought I would be nursing a three-year old. I always thought, before having kids, and even after my first daughter weaned herself at 18 months that is was a bizarre notion. But faced now with the reality, I can really understand where all those nutty extended nursing advocates were coming from.
I can't say I "advocate" extended nursing to this age the same way that I strongly advocate nursing for the first year of life. I believe that breastfeeding in general is something that is necessary for nearly *every* child, and that and essential part of new motherhood is adjusting to and accommodating (and dare I say, enjoying!) this need. I also believe that the first birthday is not a standard signal that nursing should be done I think that most women and babies that make it that far find that some period of time beyond age 1 is right for them.
But the key to extended nursing is to nurse as long as both mother and baby mutually desire the experience. As in most parenting, there is no "medal" for nursing each subsequent year. A mother who nurses four years isn't a "better mom" than one who nurses for one or two, or six for that matter. What's important is that both the mother and baby find joy and love in the experience, because extended nursing, certainly once the child is eating a regular, wholesome diet, is about much, much more than nutrition.
If it was entirely up to my daughter, I think she'd still be nursing a dozen times a day, whenever the mood struck. While I have known mothers for whom that worked just fine for them, it doesn't really work for me. So for us, it's a bit of a negotiation. My daughter still nurses before bed most nights, as well as nurses down for nap most days (for my thoughts on Breastfeeding and Naps and why I have chosen to continue this pattern, see this article through related links, below) . I recently began redirecting the morning nursing, as it was starting to really interfere with my sleep pattern, although I am sometimes flexible on this if she is really, really insisting. The occasional injury or illness might also call for some additional mama's milk.
I really don't know how much milk she is still receiving, although there is definitely still something there, as I can sometimes still see the milk in the corners of her mouth and hear her swallowing. And I do occasionally get the "antsy" feeling that comes along with reduced milk supplies, that comes presumably when she has removed most of the available milk.
But for me, the key has been to make nursing a special time for connection, but not a necessity in the daily functioning of our lives. If I have a meeting, her Dad can get her to bed without nursing first. She can occasionally skip her nap, or will fall asleep in the car or stroller if we are out and about (she can be put down for nap by others as well, but this is a more difficult process than sometimes it is worth although I think that is more a factor of age than of breastfeeding, as it was the same with my first daughter, who was weaned at this point). A couple months ago, I left town overnight, and both of us were just find and simply resumed nursing when I returned.
I think what I didn't realize when I used to find it odd to nurse a child this age is the extent to which they are still very much babies. When she's running around playing with her older sister's friends, sure she looks like a "big kid." But when she is nursing, she still feels very much like a baby and it's helpful for me to remember that in many ways she is. I think that continuing to nurse has helped curtail the natural tendency of a younger sibling to grow up too fast, and to expect too much. These little time-outs in our day have allowed her to confidently venture out in the very independent world available to her (much more than with my first) while knowing she'll be able to retreat into her baby self and connect with Mommy.
I think I'm ready to be done whenever she is, although that bittersweet article will I'm sure follow. But for now, I enjoy sharing those moments with her, so long as I am able to maintain the ability to pursue my outer life of occasional evening meetings and even trips. As for nursing a four-year old
I doubt it, but she may have other ideas, so only time will tell.
For a great book on extended nursing, check out "Mothering Your Nursing Toddler" by Norma Jane Bumgarner