My almost-4-year-old is starting pre-kindergarten this fall. His interests include superheroes, surprise egg videos, playing in the dirt and arguing with his big brother. He officially got totally out of diapers a few weeks ago and is learning how to navigate public restrooms (my least favorite part of potty training). He knows his ABC’s and is even learning how to sound out little words like “cat” and “bat.”
He’s a happy kid and is in good health, both of which I am thankful for everyday. Considering he’s a “threenager” and would eat only bread if I let him, he has a pretty varied diet.
Oh, and he’s breastfeeding: once before his nap, once at bedtime and first thing in the morning.
Now, some of you would think nothing of the fact that he’s nursing. Some of you are also nursing your 3- or 4-year-olds too (fist pump to you!). Others might think, “Well, it’s not for me, but to each their own.” Thank you for that.
To us, it’s the same as saying, “I love you” before bed. It’s goodnight kisses and hugs. It’s how we reconnect after our long days.
But some of you don't get it at all. You think there’s something strange about it—or you think it’s downright gross. (Don’t worry: I’ve read the comments section on hundreds of breastfeeding articles. I know how some people really talk about it.)
I am not here to plead my case to you. I don’t think nursing my son is something I need to justify. Breastfeeding him is not something that’s done out in the open; no one beyond friends and certain family members even know we do it. It’s a brief, private moment between the two of us right before he falls asleep, much in the same way that some children might like to cuddle with their parents before bed or suck on a blanket, a pacifier or their thumbs.
All children eventually outgrow those things, just like all children outgrow breastfeeding.
Lots of people are uncomfortable with a idea of a child this old “still breastfeeding,” but to those of us who do it there is nothing weird or taboo about it at all. It’s a choice between a mother and her child, does not harm anyone else and is not damaging to the child—and frankly, it's none of anyone else’s business.
But I want to tell you that I understand where people are coming from when they say they don’t get why someone would breastfeed a child who is old enough to walk, talk, drink from a cup and attend school. I was once that person too. While I thought I was pretty open-minded and tolerant, I just didn’t understand.
We should be able to (practice extended breastfeeding) with pride, without feeling like it’s something we need to skirt around in conversation or hide from others.
I didn’t understand because I hadn’t done it myself. I didn’t know that breastfed preschoolers almost never breastfeed outside their homes and would never need to be nursed at school. I didn’t understand that breastmilk is not a significant part of their diet at this age (though the antibodies it contains still protect them from illness), but that it's more of a comfort, a cuddle, a special way to connect to their moms.
Until I became a mother of a breastfed preschooler, I didn’t know just how ordinary it would be. To us, it’s the same as saying, “I love you” before bed. It’s goodnight kisses and hugs. It’s how we reconnect after our long days.
And it ends on its own, in good time.
I breastfed my older son when he was this age. He weaned easily and gently when he was halfway through pre-k. I was certain no one else at his school was still breastfeeding, but I found out the next year that a friend’s daughter was nursing too and had weaned around the same time my son had.
But the real reason I am telling you any of this is because even though I personally feel confident nursing my son—certain that nursing hasn’t thwarted his independence and sure that he will wean soon enough—there are a lot of moms out there who have been shamed by continuing to nurse this long.
Frankly, I’m pretty annoyed that so many people are quick to judge something they know nothing about. The fact is, there are more of us out there nursing our toddlers or preschoolers than you might think. And we should be able to do so with pride, without feeling like it’s something we need to skirt around in conversation or hide from others.
So the next time you see or hear about a toddler or child who is “still” breastfeeding, take a moment to think to yourself, “Is this something I am well-informed about? Do I know enough about it to comment or judge?”
And if the answer is no, maybe take a moment to ask that mom what her reasons are for continuing to breastfeed. If you asked with kindness and an open mind, you’d be surprised how happy the mother might be to answer you. If it’s something you are seeing online, do some research on the topic yourself before spewing judgments or hateful words.
Women who breastfeed for extended periods of time are not doing it to prove anything to anyone. And they are not better or worse mothers for doing it. They have simply made a particular choice for their children, and it’s one that deserves respect and compassion no matter how you might feel about it.