Meet Your Local Extreme Breastfeeder

The other day one of my seven year old daughter’s guinea pigs died and it is the first death my two kids have dealt with up close and they love their guinea pigs, and I do, too, and so it was really very sad. Their father was away trekking for two weeks – because I am a saint and I gave him the gift of solitude for his birthday – and so, I found myself alone in a way too, with all of this. (Huge eye-roll in sympathy to the real single parents who do this solo parenting gig all year around and who get crapped on by so many people for their, frankly, friggin’ heroic efforts). The guinea pig death happened on this very chaotic morning. Actually, all the days where I am working in the city are chaotic because ‘school + kindy + workplace’ and back again in the evening equals a whole lot of trips in opposing directions and a very long day for all. The three year old was being a really obnoxious griever, entirely missing the point of why his big sister and I were so upset, and just wanting to endlessly explore the nature of death in gruesome detail. All he knows about death is that it is something that can happen when people fight with guns and it is why his mother is a bit sensitive about gun-play for little kids and why he gets frowned at when he pretends to shoot anyone. So, every second phrase out of his mouth was “who killed her, but who killed our guinea pig?”. Didn’t matter how many times I explained that death just happens sometimes, all he wanted to do was be a frickin’ detective. Meanwhile, his poor sister was getting more and more distressed by her brother’s death carnival. It was awful. And I did think quite a lot – why me, why am I having to deal with this alone while their father is out in the wilderness enjoying himself?

But by that night, when we three got home from ‘work + school + kindy + after-school care arrangements’ and I showed them where the little pig was buried, the three year old finally appreciated the finality of death and he was suddenly on the same page as the rest of us. We were all in my bed together (see the title of this post above), and I was breastfeeding him because that’s what he likes to do when he goes to sleep and also because I thought that breastfeeding might be a better comfort than story books. But he immediately came off the breast because he was sobbing too much to feed and it seemed he wanted to talk to my breasts about the guinea pig’s death. So, if your rule is ‘kids should stop breastfeeding when they are old enough to ask for it’ how do you feel about kids who are old enough to emote their grief to it? I don’t even know how I feel about that.

Sometime in their first year babies go through a developmental stage where they finally understand that the hand you wave in front of them or the nipple you pop into their mouth whenever you appear, is actually part of you and not some random toy you happen to pick up. Considering babies arrive in the world knowing almost nothing, you can see why this would be a concept that would require some thinking about for them, but apparently, that developmental stage can be incomplete. Three year olds exist in this really trippy stage of life where they know puppets aren’t real, and that’s why they’ve stopped screaming when one approaches them, but they are still capable of getting completely lost in ‘pretend’ and they really do imagine that inanimate objects can be kind of real and have personalities. So, when he started talking to my breasts (“breastfeedings” he calls them, in case you were wondering), and he was being so sincere and sad I did not know quite what to do. Should my breasts be answering him, it seems rude to remain completely indifferent to someone who is sharing the most tragic moment of their life with you? I mean, my breasts aren’t cold-hearted. And if my breasts answered him should they have my voice, which, would kind of take you out of the moment, or should they have a unique voice of their own, and in which case, what does a breast’s voice sound like?

So, this is breastfeeding beyond babyhood. It’s both strange and normal.

I hear you have a reality TV show coming to your screens in the US about ‘extreme breastfeeders’ and I thought you might like to know one of those weirdos for yourself. Here I am. Before I had children I thought breastfeeding for twelve months was pushing it. Six months is fine, but if they can eat solids then why breastfeed any further? With the first child I really surprised myself and I breastfed her for just under two years. Now I am breastfeeding a three and a half year old who is tall enough to look like a five year old. We could definitely do an impression of that notorious TIME magazine cover. He’s partial to a bit of standing-up breastfeeding, too. ‘This me’ would totally have horrified ‘old me’. Public breastfeeding? Wasn’t keen on that. Breastfeeding toddlers? Really wasn’t keen on that.

The thing I didn’t realise back then when I was repulsed by the idea of breastfeeding a child ‘old enough to ask for it’ is that babies ‘ask for it’ right from birth and they never stop asking for it, their methods just get increasingly sophisticated. And that sophistication, like all other milestones your baby achieves, makes a parent beam with pleasure. If you found yourself compelled to respond to their earlier requests you will quite likely feel compelled by their later requests.

Here is how a baby ‘asks for it’: they cry shrilly, they nuzzle you, they suck on your finger, and they turn their face towards you if you lightly brush their cheek. Then one day, while balanced in your lap, they throw themselves backwards to be laying down near your chest. You think, holy hell, your little neck is going to break, because they do this when they’re still in their floppy stage and haven’t developed proper neck muscles. Sometimes, they clamp on to the fleshiness of your arms and they suck you a hickey. If you teach your baby to sign, like I did, of course I did – see the title of this post, then they might even begin signing ‘breastfeed’ to you at five months old. When someone else holding them passes the baby into your arms they will tilt their head sideways with their mouth gaping in anticipation. They can burst into impatient tears at the sight of you undoing your bra. Sometimes they will reach their arms down your dress or lift up your t-shirt. They usually do all of this before they finally ‘ask for it’ with a spoken word and even then their word may be nothing more offensive than the adoption of a particular pitch when they plead “Mama” at you. At what point are ‘they old enough to ask for it’, and at what point is it too much? Depends on you, their mother, but don’t be surprised if you start to find the notion of ‘old enough to ask for it’ absurd.

Maybe you want to ask me, your local extreme breastfeeder, some questions.

Am I an earth mama?

No, I’m an economist, remember? I do not fit the stereotype you probably have of extreme breastfeeders and I would be surprised if you find all that many mothers do. I vaccinate my children, I wear pencil skirts and high heels, I ride a motorbike, I can’t sew, I like sex and violence in my TV shows (hello True Blood!), I used disposable nappies (diapers) on my babies, I am an atheist, I have never learnt yoga or meditation, and I am argumentative (so, I really should have taken the time at some point to learn yoga and meditation). I love earth mama types, they’re some of the most generous mothers I know, but I am not one of them.

Do I feel like breastfeeding for so long has taken over my body?

I think this is the number one concern I hear coming out in discussions where certain feminists are sounding a little anti-breastfeeding, and this notion that breastfeeding undermines your bodily integrity is definately what I sense in some of French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter’s work. I can see that breastfeeding may feel that way for some women but for me so much of mothering ‘takes over my body/life’ that it would be difficult to identify exactly which aspects I can attribute to breastfeeding. I hope women aren’t stuck resentfully breastfeeding for months and months because of the pressure to breastfeed, but the truth is, plenty about mothering is done with a little bit of resentment on the side. Breastfeeding can be terribly annoying when you urgently want to get up off this damn bed and get on with something else for the night, but for the most part, breastfeeding is a lazy parent’s best friend.

Motherhood is a very challenging identity for many of us. There’s a huge fear of losing yourself, and your boundaries, and your sex appeal, and your focus and direction, and control over your body when you transform into a mother. Breastfeeding can push all of those buttons. We live in a very misogynist culture. The worst trolling on my blog has always been about calling me a cow and trying to humiliate me about breastfeeding. Clearly, the concept that we can be lactating animals scares the shit out of some of us.

Do I feel forced into breastfeeding for so long by society’s expectation of what the perfect mother should be?

No. I have really, really enjoyed breastfeeding, it’s as simple as that. I understand that not everyone finds breastfeeding to be so nice but for me it has been a very lovely, intimate, relaxing experience. Breastfeeding fills me with love and that’s a nice thing to feel with your children. And for someone like me, who has had a love-hate relationship with their breasts, I have to acknowledge that breastfeeding has been a rather healing experience for my psyche.

Do I feel smug about breastfeeding for so long?

To be honest, I feel kind of embarrassed about breastfeeding for so long. It’s a terrible thing for a feminist mother who advocates for breastfeeding to admit but the stigma attached to breastfeeding kindergarteners (and beyond) is really strong and I have not really outed myself in my writing before as an ‘extreme breastfeeder’. I think that says quite a lot, that a ranty feminist like myself can feel so intimidated by the prejudices against long-term breastfeeding in our culture.

Do I find breastfeeding for so long to be sexual?

Very much not. Three cheers for women who manage to have a discreet orgasm while breastfeeding because they like the sensation so much. There are not enough orgasms in motherhood. But for me, breastfeeding is not a sexual experience. And let me clarify, no mother finds the concept of their child breastfeeding to be a sexual experience; really, they don’t. You might just as well try to convince us that wiping toddler’s bottoms is sexual. So Much No.

Does my child find breastfeeding sexual?

No. He doesn’t find sippy cups sexual either. He’s a little kid and he doesn’t know about anyone finding breasts sexy yet.

Does my partner resent me for breastfeeding for so long?

If I’m going to be really honest here (why not?) – I think he feels a little impatient with the fact that significant amounts of breast-play have been off my menu for a while but he doesn’t feel in any way competitive with his son for my body, and he doesn’t find breastfeeding repulsive, and he doesn’t think my decision to breastfeed is particularly any of his business. (He knows that my breasts belong to me – he successfully went through that developmental stage as a baby).

When will I stop breastfeeding?

Soon, I hope. I am getting a little sick of breastfeeding and the right time for weaning for me is coming soon. Get in now with your questions before I am no longer your local extreme breastfeeder.

(Post-script: my blog is and you can follow me on twitter @bluemilk).

81 comments for “Meet Your Local Extreme Breastfeeder

  1. August 15, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I’m only a baby extreme breastfeeder (my son is a year younger than Blue Milk’s). Some other things about it for me:

    I found it most annoying at about one-and-a-half, where he fought me the most about my “all done” and so on. At two-and-a-half he stops when I say. Otherwise he’d be weaned by now.

    He calls my breasts “milkas” and he thinks that you can’t have nipples if you have milkas. Thus, I have milkas, he has nipples. He varies on what he thinks his father has.

    He tried to convince me this morning that it would be dangerous for me if I didn’t feed him, like how it is dangerous for him to go near the stove when I’m cooking. Nice try.

  2. Deborah
    August 15, 2012 at 4:49 am

    Great post, BlueMilk.

    And let me clarify, no mother finds the concept of their child breastfeeding to be a sexual experience; really, they don’t

    Hmmm…. well… no, not for me. But I did find that I was “touched out”. By the time I had fed my baby (only my eldest, I bottle fed my twins from about day 10 because of reasons), I found that I had had enough touch for the day, particularly in the early days, when I was feeding All The Time. Later on, when we were down to three feeds a day, I found that my touch quotient for the day wasn’t exhausted by breastfeeding. But then I am not a very touchy person, so I have a limited amount of touching that I can tolerate each day.

  3. August 15, 2012 at 6:40 am

    Thanks a lot for your post!

    Would you mind if I translate it into Russian language and post it in my blog? There are still a lot of people in my circle who think that “extreme” breastfeeding (or breastfeeding and having a family at all) and being a feminist is a dichotomy.

  4. blue milk
    August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Liza, thanks for the nice comment.

    I’m fine with you translating it and putting it on your site if you can please include a note saying that I don’t speak Russian and obviously can’t therefore endorse it as my words. But otherwise, go for it, and thanks for asking.

  5. Chataya
    August 15, 2012 at 8:07 am

    I thought of nursing while skydiving when I read the title and was relieved when I read the article.

    Wow, the imagery of someone reaching down my shirt and demanding access to my body was triggering in a way I totally did not expect.

  6. ks
    August 15, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I don’t have any strong feelings about extended breastfeeding for other people, although it does sort of squick me out. But I recognize that as my issue and not really having anything to do with anybody else.

    But I hated breastfeeding. I really, really did. I know a lot of women really like it and more power to them, but I am not one of those women. I breastfed both mine for about a year, because it is cheaper and really convenient and good for the baby and that’s what breasts do and all those other “correct” reasons. But I really hated it and I was so happy when the doctor said they were old enough for regular milk. I felt like having a party both times.

    I didn’t find that it helped me to bond with my babies, like some people say it does, and I really did resent them because I felt like I “had to” feed them that way, for various reasons. I had them attached, I pumped and bottle fed breast milk, I never had any problems with it at all, physically, but mentally and emotionally, I was like Deborah above. I am not a touchy person and I had touchy babies. Even more than pregnancy, breastfeeding made me feel like my body wasn’t mine and like I couldn’t have any boundaries for myself. Not that I enjoyed being pregnant either, but at least then they were on the inside and more or less part of my body and I could enforce outside boundaries just fine.

  7. August 15, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Blue Milk, you have a new reader! I really struggled with breastfeeding early on, and I only managed to keep with it because I’m stubborn and because my LO turned out to have a dairy intolerance. Once I got past the struggles, I wondered why no one has realized that breastfeeding is the perfect solution for lazy mothers. I know that I can always calm my almost 2 year old, no matter what has made him upset. And I know that I can generally get him to go to sleep, which is a major hurdle with this kid.

    I am starting to get some major pushback from my family, as they are uncomfortable with the fact that LO will come along and lift up my shirt. I’m trying to teach him manners–letting him know that breastfeeding is on my terms and not at his demand. He has learned to take a no calmly, although he will occasionally then lead me into an empty room (you want privacy for this, Mom? I’m flexible!).

    I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that I’m still breastfeeding, for the same reasons you state. I know that I’m being judged. I was judged for breastfeeding in public (under a cover!) when my son was about 4 months old, so I’m already a little leery about societal expectations of nursing mothers. But society doesn’t have to deal with my son’s meltdowns or the fact that no one in the house will sleep if the magic boobie juice dries up.

    Ultimately, I need to own my decision to be an extended breastfeeder, even though I became one without it being any kind of statement or major conviction.

  8. William
    August 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Just a friendly interpretation:

    The first thing he tried didn’t work, he figured he could understand death or find someone to blame so that he could control it and what he was feeling, so you get the questions about the nature of death and how you can find who killed the poor animal. And yet, he still felt Stuff He Cannot Understand and what he’s been doing lately when he feels that wasn’t working so he needed something else to soothe himself. That talking to the breasts thing? Classic regression. He was scared and sad and had no idea what to do so he reached back to an earlier developmental stage and found something that worked. Its how a lot of people, especially children, deal with trauma and stress and it sounds like you handled it beautifully. He found a way to self-soothe, you let him do it and didn’t force him to “act his age” (like a lot of parents would) in such a way that he was left with no means of managing what he was feeling or forced to hide how he coped. All he did was take his grief and process it in a world where things are less connected and complicated, but it sounds like he was actively processing his grief and coming to terms with what happened in the way he needed to. So what if it was less nuanced or a little disjointed, he’s three.

  9. FashionablyEvil
    August 15, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this post, blue milk. I’m expecting my first child in February and all the horror stories start to freak me out after awhile. It’s nice to hear the flip side.

  10. er
    August 15, 2012 at 11:39 am

    @ks – I had the opposite experience – I’m a touchy person and had non-touchy babies, especially my first. It’s been hard to learn how to accept *their* boundaries and not impose my touchiness on them. I can imagine how challenging (even frustrating) it must be to have physically demanding children.

    @Fashionablyevil – I felt similarly to you before I had my first baby. All I ever heard, mostly from well-meaning people, was about HARD and AWFUL breastfeeding was, and that I probably wasn’t going to be able to do it. As you read in @ks’s post, some women don’t like breastfeeding, and some women encounter insurmountable problems. But me? I loved breastfeeding, more than I could imagine; it absolutely helped me bond and also kept me from PPD. Moreover, I found it easy. I’m cautious about saying that in public, since many women have trouble and I don’t want to come off smug, but I’m saying it now so that you can have access to the full spectrum of experience. I had all the worries that new mothers usually have (is he getting any? is he getting enough? how do I know? why is he spitting up so much? why is he screaming? am I doing this wrong? ohgod his poop is green now that’s bad what do I do? etc etc etc) but I found the whole thing so easy and relaxing and wonderful, like a superpower (nursing a toddler who has a nasty stomach virus or a high fever is wonderful; human milk is super easy to digest, and it’s way better for them than pedialyte).

    @Bluemilk -I’m nursing my over 2 y.o. now and I’m surprised that I feel a little embarrassed, too. I definitely don’t go out of my way to tell anybody. I wanted to make the 24 month WHO rec, and then was like, well now what? But I don’t want to wean abruptly, so we’ll see.

  11. August 15, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Very happy to read this post. I’m an IBCLC, a feminist & a retired La Leche League Leader. I breastfed for many, many years :) Anyone wanting to find support for nursing toddlers should consider contacting their local or online LLL group.

    I do have to say I look forward to the day when nursing a toddler no longer merits the adjective extreme. It’s just normal.

  12. August 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I love this post. My oldest two weaned themselves at 15-18 months, but my youngest would still be going at 3 1/2 years old if I’d let her. I weaned her about a year ago, but she still asks, and still refers to my breasts as her friends and wants to snuggle them. I do miss breastfeeding some ways, as it was always the simplest way to handle stressful situations for her.

  13. dk
    August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I love this post. My first kid is due in 11 days, so I’m absorbing everything I can. This was well-written, interesting, funny, and thoughtful. I’m following you on WordPress now!

  14. Icaarus
    August 15, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Here’s a couple of things I always wonder about prolonged breast feeding.

    When does breast milk stop providing the correct nutritional balance?

    At what point does the digestive system require more solid food to start developing advanced digestive processes?

  15. Alix
    August 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I was very much surprised to find I liked breastfeeding my children. Both self-weaned early (one at a year, one at 9 months), probably because I worked and, although my job allowed me to leave to breastfeed on demand, the kid had to wait the 15 minutes or so till I got there and by the time they were 4-6 months were willing to accept baby food while waiting…then were often not so hungry for breast milk. My best friend stayed home while her child was small and breastfed till age 5 and that turned out OK too.

    Things seemed to have been a little different 25 years ago when we were raising our children, and breastfeeding for longer terms and breastfeeding in public seemed more acceptable then. No one ever gave me the evil eye when feeding in public, and I wound up feeding in restaurants, the mall, waiting rooms, the zoo, on airplanes…even sometimes got compliments along the order of “It’s so nice to see moms breastfeeding again” from people much older than me. My friend sometimes got questions after her child turned 3, but she lived in an area where there were a lot of moms doing the same thing and mostly people were OK with it.

  16. Alix
    August 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Oh, meant to add: It almost seems as though as our media/culture became more focused on sexuality, the less people seemed to be OK with breastfeeding.

  17. August 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I am nursing my 3yo, and also feeling embarrassed about it (despite being a doula and childbirth educator). I’m pregnant and due in Oct, and I’m getting slightly worried that my little toddler will start demanding the boob when family and friends are around visiting the baby. I haven’t come out and said I’m still breastfeeding, but I think my parents/in-laws suspect I am (and do not approve). Thanks for your story – made me feel much more normal.

  18. Bagelsan
    August 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I think the reaching down one’s shirt thing would just bug the hell out of me. Sure, it’s two, it doesn’t know better, but I don’t want anybody grabbing at me like that. Especially somebody old enough to go to preschool. Gah. Hackles up.

  19. tinfoil hattie
    August 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Ha, bagelsan, you should see what it feels like when they demand to coume out of your vagina! Talk about hackles!

  20. Jane
    August 15, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Yes, grabbing was not ok with me either, and I nursed my kid for 2+ years. Teaching nursing manners is key. Small babies can be pretty grabby in general, however older babies and toddlers can be taught not to grab. Mine learned that signing or asking verbally (or enthusiastically doing both at the same time) was a much surer thing.

    blue milk – this is a really lovely post and I am so happy you are guest-blogging here. I loved breastfeeding too, after finding it completely mystifying and exhausting in the early weeks. I totally agree that it can be a lazy parent’s best friend.

  21. Razzby
    August 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    I breastfed all my babies until they self weaned at around 18 months. Yes, to reaching in the shirt, and yes, that’s an adjustment. I know this will sound odd, but one of the strangest parts to get used to with babies/nursing was how little they think there’s a separation between their body and yours. In a way, it’s impersonal, like absently touching your own hand. What I’m saying is that the touch isn’t loaded, like it is with adults.

    With my children, I found that even when they weren’t nursing, if they got stressed or anxious, they would stick a hand down my shirt and rest it on the upper curve of my chest. As they got older and into school, I redirected the touch to my hand and would take their hand and hold it, so that now they reach for my hand as a default.

    A few months ago, my sixteen year old daughter, who was acclimating to a new and more difficult school schedule, was talking to me and without even thinking, she slipped her hand down the front of my shirt while we talked. I tapped her arm and pointed at her hand. Her eyes went wide and she pulled it out, then laughed. It was instinctive comfort, in her stress. It wasn’t weird and it made us both smile.

  22. Cathryn
    August 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    My daughter nursed until she was about two, and I was happy and satisfied with the experience. I did get some unkind comments and some nasty overheard remarks from my mom friends when they found out (I often tried to hide it for that reason and generally didn’t discuss nursing after the first few months, when I needed advice from other nursing moms,) but I have no regrets. I wasn’t concerned about breastfeeding but it ended up working out for us.

    I admit that it’s kind of emotional for me to see a nursing story like this on a feminist blog I like. Opinions on breastfeeding swing back and forth, and often a positive breastfeeding article can sometimes get angry responses. It is comforting to know I’m not the only woman who identifies as a feminist and enjoyed nursing until toddlerhood, and would do it again. With all the breastfeeding arguments going on, it’s nice that there are places to be comfortable with all feeding choices.

  23. August 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    I said the same thing about “asking for it”, back in the day, when I knew everything about having children (ie, before I had any). Now I have three I know how much I don’t know.

    Anyway, no one told me that it came with a dance. Maybe I would have changed my mind if I knew it came with a dance.

    I am so glad I didn’t wean before he developed a sense of humour.

  24. August 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm


    (Pre-warning: I am not a health professional.)

    First a quick note: “extreme” breastfeeders (the actual term I see people using is either “extended” or “physiological”, since ‘late’ weaning is probably our physiological norm) are also giving their children food! You probably realised this but clarifying just in case.

    In terms of timeline, the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding as the only source of nutrition for six months and then other foods with breastfeeding continuing. Breastmilk is a milk, it has fats and sugars and protein, and continues being nutritious.

    In my personal story, I had read a lot of things about children being eager for other foods before 6 months (eg grabbing for parents’ food etc). Since my son was really tall (about 1 in 500 for his age) as a baby, I expected to feel some pull towards early introduction of other foods. However, he was reluctant to take food and probably relied on breastmilk as his almost-exclusive source of nutrition to about 9 months of age and as his main source until about his first birthday. (This is approximate, it’s hard to tell exactly how much a baby eats!) But he was regularly offered other foods from 6 months of age. He also had dairy milk from a year old: that was when I stopped pumping my milk for him to drink at his daycare.

  25. Tamara
    August 15, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    @icaarus #14 – prolonged breastfeeding doesn’t mean the child is not eating solid food. The breastmilk is just complementary to the food diet. Mine BF to 14 months and 3 years respectively. They ate plenty of food from 6 months of age too.

    As for the grabbing etc, it is a pain and it doesn’t only only happen with breastfeeding. My kids want to eat dinner on me, hang off my legs, be carried etc etc. I find all of it equally tiring and invasive if I’m not in the mood for it. Sometimes it’s nice. Often it’s not. We’re trying to teach them to ask first and they often do. Most of the time I have to suck it up cause they’re little kids and they need the physical contact.

  26. IrishUp
    August 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    “Ha, bagelsan, you should see what it feels like when they demand to coume out of your vagina! Talk about hackles!”

    TFH, you owe me a Pepsi, a new package of tissues and 4 clorox wipes for my monitor, desk and keyboard. I’m sending the bill via intertubes forthwith. I will just soldier through the stinging in my nose.

    blue milk, thank you for this post, I recognized a lot in it. We also did extreme nursing (until ~4yrs) and I feel very lucky that my PCP and pediatrician were both VERY supportive. But after weeIrish turned 1, I really stopped talking to “outsiders” about it, keeping it on the DL. After about 2, this was really pretty easy to do though.

    Funny aside – we were able to be discrete (ahem) in part because of how he asked for nursing after he started talking. Generally, he’d start off nursing on one side, and then I’d switch him off, and as I did this I’d cue him that it was time to “let go” by saying something like “OK kiddo, it’s time for the other side now”. Sure enough, as soon as he could talk, he’d ask to nurse by coming up to me and saying “Other side?”

    One thing I realized is how much misunderstanding there is about what nursing looks like when it’s no longer a primary food source, and I think this is where a lot of the negativity that EBF gets in the US comes from. People are picturing your toddler latched on the way baby-babies do, and that’s just not how it is.

  27. Becky
    August 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Icaarus – to expand on what a couple people have already answered – what the public health system here says is:
    From 0-6 months babies don’t need anything except breast milk or infant formula.
    From ~6 months-1 year babies need solid food AND breast milk or infant formula.
    From 1 year – 2 years babies need solid food AND breast milk or whole cows milk.
    After 2 years the child doesn’t need breast milk or a breast milk substitute, but it still provides nutrients and may be a source of comfort for the child or a way of bonding between parent and child.

  28. Becky
    August 15, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    As far as my own thoughts on extended breast feeding – I think parents should do whatever is working for themselves and their babies, and I think it’s crap that women are judged for continuing to breast feed past what people arbitrarily assign as the “correct” age to wean.

    Personally I thought I’d wean at 6 months because that’s when I was going back to work full time, and although my work would probably have been supportive if I had wanted to pump, it wasn’t appealing to me. But as it turned out, breast feeding didn’t really work out for us and she was on formula by the time she was 1 month old. So I never dealt with the question of when to wean. Maybe with the next one.

  29. IrishUp
    August 15, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    In addition to Becky @28’s list, breast milk transfers important immunoprotection that toddlers benefit from.

    This is not just a third-world kind of issue, either; my kid got shigella at around 14mo. We were able to avoid a hospitalization, and BF played its part; he was able to stay hydrated (he would nurse but would NOT take in any other fluids/foods) whereas dehydration is the #1 reason kids with diarrhea have to be admitted. Also, breast milk has anti-inflammatories and aids in GI function, and I can’t but think those properties helped.

  30. Jade
    August 15, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    My strongest feeling about extemded or “extreme” breastfeeding is really just that I could never have done it. I’m one of those moms who hated breastfeeding. Though that wsn’t the reason my children were each only breastfed in the early weeks of life, I was never sad when breastfeeding came to an end. As for everyone else, breastfeeding should be a choice that is supported, but not forced or coerced. Extreme breastfeeding isn’t a matter to be decided by anyone besides the mother and her child. Only they can fully know what is right for them. If it works for you and your child(ren), Awesome! No judgement from me, but maybe a little jealousy because I wish it had been a better experience for my kids and I. lol

  31. Megan
    August 15, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I loved the question/answer format you used. So very informative.

    My son and I loved breastfeeding too. He self-weaned at 24 months and for the last 12 months I felt enormous pressure from other mothers and some relatives to stop, which is completely outrageous. But at the time I responded by keeping it quiet and not telling anyone I was still feeding. This makes me very angry now. People are so weird around breastfeeding.

    My husband was very respectful and supported my son and I in our breastfeeding relationship wholeheartedly. Also my mother, who had four children and didn’t manage to breastfeed any of them for longer than six weeks was in awe of our breastfeeding relationship. She thought feeding him for two years was an amazing achievement. And so do I.

    Thanks bluemilk for your honesty and clarity.

  32. irishup
    August 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Word, Jade. If it doesn’t work for the parent(s) OR the child(ren), for WHATEVER reason, that’s a good enough reason not to BF. Fullstop.
    And on the flip side, if it’s still working for everyone, that’s all the reason you need to continue.

  33. Azalea
    August 15, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Yeah I’m with Jade.

    Breastfeeding was NOT fun at all. The whole thing was icky to me. To each her own I preferred pumping the milk and then bottle feeding it to my boys over feeding them directly from my breasts.

  34. Ruth
    August 15, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    @IrishUp, my older son said “other side” for nursing too!! I never thought I’d hear about another child doing that! And when he first started talking it wasn’t clear, of course, so it sounded like “uh shide.” Cracked me up.

  35. August 15, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    To be honest, I feel kind of embarrassed about breastfeeding for so long.

    I really appreciate your honesty. I’m a mom who has (through many tears and five lactation consultants) resigned myself to the fact that I’m lucky if I can make it three months, and for everyone’s sanity there needs to be formula supplementation from there. I’m really not a fan of formula and am often jealous of extended breastfeeding moms. Sometimes I feel judged by them, though undoubtedly that’s my own insecurities and guilt coming into play.

    Anyway, thanks for such an honest look into your experiences! It’s refreshing to know that we all have our challenges, no matter what paths we take.

  36. ragingzebra
    August 16, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Many thanks for this post. My non-parent friends are often shocked when I reveal how many parents (including me) breastfeed their kids into toddlerhood. And before I had kids, I myself never suspected it was so downright common. While the TIME cover sensationalized toddler BFing, in a way that I felt was deeply obnoxious and divisive, I think this post helps raise awareness of and NORMALIZE the act, which I feel is really, really important and wonderful.

    I BF my oldest until she self-weaned at 15 months, and my youngest until I weaned her at 2.5. For the most part I loved the convenience, ease, and bonding aspects of it, but must admit it felt invasive at times, especially with my youngest, Miss Touchyboobs McCopafeel. I gradually set boundaries with her, asking her not to grab me or touch me when we weren’t actually BFing, and tapered off the feedings slowly. After we stopped she continued to fondle me quite a lot for several months, but she’s finally gotten the message (now just fondles my elbows and armpits when she’s needing contact, which is sometimes annoying but also kind of adorable). I’m not sure I can say I wanted to BF that long, only that it was easier than making the effort to wean. Like so much of parenting, it’s really about whatever works for you and the kid.

  37. Helen Merrick
    August 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Love the post, and so many of these comments resonate with me. As my youngest is now 7, its been a while, but thought I’d offer my two cents worth both in support of breastfeeding as long as you want, or can, but also to acknowledge how hard it can be.

    But first up, a story about ‘elbow love’.

    Elbow love is a sign that my darling daughter loves you to bits, or feels really safe in your company. It began when she was breastfeeding as quite a tiny baby – her hand would sneak up around my arm and she would start tweaking the nice interesting, slightly roughened skin on my elbow. It may have been a bit strange at first, but I soon got used to it being part of our routine. But then we found that she would try it on other people who were important carers/people in her life. And as she got older, it became a way she just used to check in with the people she loved.

    Aged 2, 3 even 4, standing next to dad, or big brother, or grandparents – if she felt really comfortable while doing something cosy like reading a story, or conversely was in a situation where she was a bit nervous, or unsure .. the hand would sneak up and tweak, tweak, tweak, on that lovely flabby elbow skin. It used to totally freak my dad out until I explained that this was not some new form of toddler torture, but actually a really beautiful way that my daughter showed her level of comfort in being with him. It became clear that only really trusted, loved people in our circle were entitled to the joys of ‘elbow love’.

    It still happens to me, very very rarely now (sniff). And like another commentator noted, she will still sometimes unthinkingly have a bit of a pat around my top breast. And we look, and laugh, and giggle at each other when this happens. Awesome. Yes, my darling girl, this is what my breasts were/are for, and you have some kind of weird body memory of them being important. That is what I would call a healthy body image for a girl, quite frankly.
    Happily I fed my daughter jut past her second year. The last 6 months was mostly just for comfort, help with sleep and for traumatic moments like injuries, going on a plane and so forth. I was back at work full time at 6 months, so I managed this by insane pumping activity and freezing of milk.

    [if notions of pumping in public places upsets you, look away now]

    Not only did my work give me great freedom to manage this, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I was surrounded by awesome feminist women who would be ok with me expressing milk while having talks / meetings with them. And so I did. And put the milk in the staff fridge. Appropriately concealed, of course.

    I can’t remember when we weaned – around 2.5 years? And while still sad, that was fine. My first – born almost 12 years before, was a different matter. He weaned himself at 7 months for various reasons, which devastated me. Importantly, however, this showed me how much I loved and enjoyed breastfeeding.

    i really needed this background because, in contrast, feeding my daughter was, initially, an incredibly difficult, painful and fraught experience. This made no sense to me – I was now in my late 30s, had successfully breastfed before, was confident, knew what I was doing, and yet I struggled for the first three months with horrendous mastitis, latching-on problems, bleeding, blockages, etc. If I hadn’t previously had the experience of successful feeding I am pretty sure I would have given up. This certainly helped mellow my approach to BF – In all honesty, I used to be very judgmental (at least in my own head) about women who didn’t breast feed. After that experience, I realised that the agony, trauma and frustration of those first three months would totally have thrown me if not for the fact that I HAD successfully fed before and loved it.

    And I can also recognise that not all women get the same satisfaction/ joy or release that I did.

    That is fine. What is not fine is to berate ourselves, or anyone else, about the choices we make for ourselves or our children. Surely we can all agree that we what we most want is for all mothers and children to be happy and healthy, whichever way that works for us (and our families).

  38. WestEndGirl
    August 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    As someone who just bought some Folic acid supplements to begin the process (*fingers crossed, please G-d*) of getting pregnant and is seriously considering questions around AP, BF etc, a question with context.

    My sister who mostly AParented, breastfed my niece (overcoming some huge hurdles, like her left nipple nearly literally falling off) who self-weaned entirely at 9 months old. Just one night turned her head away, even though my sister had anticipated an 18-month+ BF duration. My niece seemed to self-wean because she was very independent and didn’t need the comfort.

    So that makes me wonder, is it actually *beneficial* for a much older child (e.g. 3-5 yrs old) that they are not learning alternate self-soothing and coping skills by that point? Does BF in this context actually hinder a child’s emotional development?
    Please NB this is not a criticism of BF at all, but something which continues to puzzle me.

    (Clearly, in countries where there is inadequate food, children breastfeed because of the nutritional value up to the age of 6 but that’s not what we’re talking about here)

  39. Ashley
    August 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    WestEndGirl, what your sister experienced is called a nursing strike. It’s very common and doesn’t actually mean weaning. They tend to occur during times of stress, such as teething or illness; if their mouth or head feels uncomfortable a baby may refuse to eat for awhile. It’s distressing but normal. They usually last only a day or two then baby is back on the breast as normal.

    Typically with self weaning you see a gradual diminishing of requests to nurse. Instead of nursing several times a day and then stopping, you’d see them cutting back on nursing sessions, asking for other food, and then after awhile of only nursing once or twice a day stopping. Babies don’t go from nursing being their main source of food (as would be expected at 9 months) to just quitting it.

    And yes, there are benefits to any breastfeeding at any age. Immune function for one. Weaning doesn’t get rid of the need that breastfeeding fulfills, but just the method of fulfilling that need. When I weaned my 2 year old last year she needed a lot more snuggles, we had to find ways to calm her during tantrums, she’d wake up to have snacks in the middle of the night, etc. The only thing that changed was no boob. And as kids get older they naturally learn more coping skills. I know many extended breastfeeding families and I have never met a child of any age who is only comforted by breastfeeding. My exclusively breastfed 4 month old was being fussy but didn’t want to nurse, and is currently comforted by laying belly down on my lap.

  40. Bagelsan
    August 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    And yes, there are benefits to any breastfeeding at any age. Immune function for one.

    I’m not sure that’s actually true, past a certain age. For babies certainly, but most young children (and older people) are happily developing their immune systems just fine on their own; the antibodies can be generated “in house” if you will.

  41. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I don’t think having a 3yo breastfeed is any different, from a self-soothing perspective, than having them suck a paci while you give them a hug.

    I’ve never really understood the whole “self-soothe” concept, anyway. I mean, I need a hug when I’m very upset. I sleep better with a loved one around. Does that mean I never learned to self-soothe?

  42. IrishUp
    August 16, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    *fistbump to Ruth* The Other Side Club. Sahweet.

    @WestEndGirl, our experience was that weeIrish *was* learning other self-soothing methods, although, tbh, BF was his favorite early on. But during that last year or two, he had a rotating cast of lovvies (our word for the favorite stuffed animal at the3 time), and would also accept and ask for other kinds of snuggles.

    Really, after BF stopped being the primary source of food, we weren’t nursing on demand any more. During year 1-2 it was in the am, before nap, and before bed, and as needed for comfort, and in the middle of the night (wee was and still is VERY ahm, metabolically active – he woke up hungry in the middle of the night well into his 3rd year, and he was so low on the BMI chart we didn’t wean from night feedings. We figured he *needed* them). During year 2-3, the daytime nursing pretty much dropped out of sight – only occasionally in times of EXTREME duress or illness would he even ask. The last year of nursing was only occasionally in the morning, and before bed – and not always then, either.

    As they get beyond infancy, you can tell them “no we can’t now, that’s for at home” or whatever. You get to start working with them about how to accommodate your needs and/or social requirements and expectations. It’s a MUTUAL relationship, and rather than interfering with his emotional development and independence, provided yet another context in which to learn those skills. As a matter of fact, that is when we started teaching about bubbles and boundaries. Ladiez are not to be assumed to be open for consumption – Starting with your Mother! Kid! ;)

  43. IrishUp
    August 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Bagelsan – they can and certainly do, but the immunomodulatory benefits of EBF continue. It’s not *necessary* by any means, but it’s still beneficial.

  44. August 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Love this post! I’m currently on my way to being an extended breastfeeder; I’m only a year in so far. I thought breastfeeding would be a chore and a thing I only got through because I thought I should. I’ve turned out to love it, though. It’s one of my favorite parts about parenting. Now that I’m entering the toddler breastfeeding stage, it’s still not giving me much grief. No one gives me a hard time (even though we sometimes impersonate the Time cover, even in public – just the other day I fed the kid while he was standing in the shopping cart in a Home Depot). I always thought the “old enough to ask for it” thing was suspect, but I’m certain of it now. Sure, they have ways of asking even as tiny babies, but as he gets older it’s even easier to interpret. I’m not sure why I would suddenly stop breastfeeding just as we’re really getting into a communication groove.

    Also, now I must contemplate what kind of voice my breasts would have were they to talk. Hmm. :-)

  45. WestEndGirl
    August 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Ashley, it wasn’t a strike as you described it, it was a gradual stop with only one late-night before bed feed and then head away.

    Chava “I don’t think having a 3yo breastfeed is any different, from a self-soothing perspective, than having them suck a paci while you give them a hug.

    I’ve never really understood the whole “self-soothe” concept, anyway. I mean, I need a hug when I’m very upset. I sleep better with a loved one around. Does that mean I never learned to self-soothe?”

    I’m struggling a bit here because I really don’t feel that answers my question at all. Breasts belong to a totally independent sentient being and so in no way are like a pacifier. Furthermore, I would also wonder why a child of 5 years old would be using a pacifier either.

    In terms of needing someone else’s comfort, hugs etc, of course many or most of us like other people’s soothing touch on occasion – but we don’t need a very specific part of their anatomy to do it! Moreover, you need to be breastfeeding at a certain level to maintain milk supply which therefore implies the child is not feeding on an intermittent, occasional comfort basis but is clearly doing so consistently. Why would this be necessary at age 5 or 6 etc? Surely a parent or other close caregiver could be hugging at that point?

  46. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    I’m struggling a bit here because I really don’t feel that answers my question at all. Breasts belong to a totally independent sentient being and so in no way are like a pacifier. Furthermore, I would also wonder why a child of 5 years old would be using a pacifier either.

    In terms of needing someone else’s comfort, hugs etc, of course many or most of us like other people’s soothing touch on occasion – but we don’t need a very specific part of their anatomy to do it! Moreover, you need to be breastfeeding at a certain level to maintain milk supply which therefore implies the child is not feeding on an intermittent, occasional comfort basis but is clearly doing so consistently. Why would this be necessary at age 5 or 6 etc? Surely a parent or other close caregiver could be hugging at that point?

    So, you had mentioned the idea of “self soothing” specifically, which is what I was responding to. I do think that breastfeeding can be more inconvenient for the parent, and it is absolutely legit to teach the child different ways to soothe themselves. I have just never gotten the strange ways people seem to use the word “self-soothe.” Nursing is just as much a form of self-soothing as sucking on a paci–both use the infant’s desire to suck to relax and calm the baby. Some people limit “self-soothe” to “things that require no parental intervention and no external aids” and some seem to only find the first part of that important.

    ( Disclaimer: I use and love pacifiers. I just don’t think they are somehow a categorically different method of soothing than my breasts. They aren’t even always easier–getting up 8 times a night to pop a paci back in = annoying.)

    The whole necessary/not necessary thing with bf-ing gets my back up a little, I guess. Because it is never truly *necessary,* there’s always formula. It should be something desired and ideally enjoyed by both parent and child. If the parent is miserable doing it *at any age,* not just 5 or 6, they are not only within their rights to stop but I personally think they *should* stop.

  47. Ashley
    August 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    WestEnd, ok that’s really unusual. Most instances I hear of children under 1 “self-weaning” are actually nursing strikes.

    One of the properties of breastmilk is that the mother’s immune system creates antibodies that are then passed onto the kid through breastmilk. Anecdotally, my daughter was almost never sick when she was nursing, but within a month of weaning (at not quite 2 1/2) she started getting every bug. She spent this winter ill every few weeks, the 10 days around xmas barfing, it was really awful. I know others who’ve seen similar night and day immune things with weaning.

  48. WestEndGirl
    August 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    IrishUp, thank you so much for your take on BF actually helping re: boundary setting issues. A Mum up the thread mentioned how her children were all over her all the time and it gave me the wiggles!

    Chava, again, I’m not sure I’ve had my question answered about whether very extended BF benefits or hinders the child’s emotional ability to ‘take care of themselves’ without the mother necessarily being there due to the boobage question. A pacifier or hug does not need a mother, it means that Dad, or other Mum, or Grandma can do it which broadens the child’s ability to be comforted by other people and by itself. That’s what I mean by the necessary issue. BF needs just Mum and it needs her there at least once daily and/or pumping to maintain supply.

    At a certain age, we know BF is not about nutrition, it’s about other stuff, comfort etc. If we can all agree that adult age BF is not a healthy parent/child relationship, we all then accept that at some point it has to stop in order to allow the child to develop emotionally independently. I’m just asking when is that point? I would love to see some good reseach on this (have been Googling but alas). I feel like people are responding to defend BF per se (which I am a firm advocate of and plan to do) when I’m asking about the effects of being at the extremity on the child and the parent.

  49. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Chava, again, I’m not sure I’ve had my question answered about whether very extended BF benefits or hinders the child’s emotional ability to ‘take care of themselves’ without the mother necessarily being there due to the boobage question. A pacifier or hug does not need a mother, it means that Dad, or other Mum, or Grandma can do it which broadens the child’s ability to be comforted by other people and by itself. That’s what I mean by the necessary issue. BF needs just Mum and it needs her there at least once daily and/or pumping to maintain supply.

    Well, yeah. But they still aren’t “taking care of themselves,” exactly, Dad or Mum or Grandpa are still helping them. That’s the point I was trying to make; that this idea that BF somehow hurts the child’s development by hindering this somehow superior idea of “self soothing” is a little bit of a false dichotomy. Most kids have multiple ways they can soothe, there’s nothing worse about having BF be one of those if you, the boob having person, still want it to be. I don’t buy the idea that it hinders other forms of soothing.

    I’m sure there is some theoretical cutoff point at which an individual mother-baby dyad will be better off Not Breastfeeding. But I want to push back against this idea that Research will tell us when the optimal time is for all women. It just seems too individual a process, for both the mother and the baby.

  50. Tamara
    August 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    @WestEndGirl #50 – sorry to freak you out. It’s not all the time thank goodness. But it is par for the course. I do try to find a balance between their needs and mine and it isn’t always straightforward.

  51. Bagelsan
    August 16, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    I know others who’ve seen similar night and day immune things with weaning.

    Ooh, don’t go there. That kind of magical thinking is how “vaccines cause autism!!” gets started. *wince*

    Out of genuine interest, does anyone have a link to research that supports the idea that breastfeeding past age 2ish is beneficial for the immune system?

  52. August 16, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Yeah, while we’re doing breastfeeding and illness anecdotes: daycare risks totally overwhelmed us. Our son and both me and his father were continually ill with respiratory and gastrointesinal illnesses (really, continuously) for about six months after he began daycare, despite him receiving breastmilk exclusively for the first month there and breastfeeding continuing for the remainder (and past) that time. (Of course, sans breastmilk maybe it would have been worth. Without multiple universes it’s hard to know!)

    PhD in parenting has a good summary of the research established health benefits, at least, as of five years ago.

  53. August 16, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    A further note to #50:

    BF needs just Mum and it needs her there at least once daily and/or pumping to maintain supply.

    While I certainly wouldn’t make any promises to any other extended breastfeeder on this one, this has become less and less true for me. I recently had a 13 night separation from my 2.5yo son, during which we were on different continents and during which I neither needed to express due to fullness, nor did so in order to maintain supply.

    To my surprise, frankly, he resumed breastfeeding when I returned. Again, no promises, but for people who have well established lactation over a long period of time, the need for very regular milk withdrawal to retain some supply (I doubt I have much, I limit him to about 20 seconds a side these days) is reduced.

    I wanted also to comment on boundary setting and ooky feelings. I thought I would struggle with this and breastfeeding, and I know some mothers do struggle with it. I did a little. But, my personal experience was that other things were a lot harder. My son went through a hitting and biting phase at 18 months old. He would hit me (and 18 month olds can hurt pretty bad, it’s not a cute weak little pain) and laugh at my pain. He especially targeted me, it wasn’t equal opportunity for all carers of his. And he wasn’t sorry that I was angry. He thought anger was such good fun.

    Damn that was hard. It was so hard. Obviously that would be outrageous for an adult relationship. But since he wasn’t an adult all we could do was disapprove and disapprove and wait until he cared that we did so. Breastfeeding was actually great because (unlike food) he was calm and non-oppositional while he did it. (Suddenly, about six months later, the empathy/emotion reading lightbulb came on very very suddenly and he went from laughing uproariously at my anger to crying and hiding his face, literally overnight. We suddenly realised we’d really escalated in anger and had to back way way off!)

    There’s no real conclusion to this: I’ve found that boundary issues, even mother-specific (or primary-carer-specific) boundary issues, can crop up in places that are very independent of the biologically privileged relationships (pregnancy, lactation).

  54. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    @ Bagelsan–

    Hmmmm. So, two things.

    1) Antibodies are not actually transferred to the baby during BF, they’re dumped across the placenta in late pregnancy. Antibodies do exist in breastmilk, but they’re only present in the gut, de-activating any swallowed pathogens (esp helpful for diarrheal diseases)

    2) I *think* that antibodies continue to be present in milk regardless of BF duration; those given across the placenta “wear out” in the bloodstream after about 6 mo or so (immune cells have a certain life cycle, etc etc).

    So, theoretically, there would continue to be a protective effect in the GI system at age 2 and beyond. I’m not sure if anyone has tested milk from a lactating woman with a child of that age, however.

  55. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Also, PhD in parenting is terrible with statistics. She has no PhD, in anything, is horribly biased in her information-gathering, and sorely lacking in basic critical thinking skills. I recognize that thinking like a statistician is hard for laypeople, but then maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t pass on health dogmas you don’t know anything about. No knock on you Mary, just something I’ve noticed after reading her blog for some months.

  56. August 16, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    So, I do have a PhD. It is even in a biological science.

    I did a quick PubMed search and found this summary book chapter:

    That would probably answer your questions if you wanted to pay the access fee to read it (or go to a university library to access it).

    This older article is open access, and covers a similar topic:

    From what I’ve read in other, more fragmented sources, breastmilk has both antibodies (which are proteins) and macrophages and neutrophils (which are cells that can help clear infections).

    I have NOT taken the time to carefully read and evaluate the research summarized in the reviews linked above, because frankly, I don’t need to. I don’t know of a single reputable scientific or medical source that disputes the idea that breastfeeding is what is best for the infant in almost all cases. Which is not to say that for some mother-child pairs, breastfeeding won’t be the best decision. That decision involves more than just a straight analysis of the biological benefits of breastfeeding for a baby.

    Frankly, I think the focus on whether or not a mother “has” to breastfeed so long (or at all) is completely missing the point. Being a mother is part of my identity. It is an important part, but not the only part. I should be able to mother how I see fit without sacrificing the other parts of my identity. I consider myself a feminist. I work in a reasonably senior position in a male-dominated field. I have a very equal partnership with my husband, including in parenting. Breastfeeding has not created any problems in these other aspects of my life. To the extent that I have encountered problems in, for instance, my professional life related to having children, I consider those problems to be caused by sexism, not my children.

    For whatever it is worth, I breastfed my first child until she was 21 months old. I quit because I was pregnant with my second child, whom I nursed until she was 27 months old.

    And yes, my second child is prone to sticking her hand down my shirt. She continues to do this despite being weaned. My first child never did that- she stuck her hand in my hair instead. Really, motherhood places physical demands on the mother regardless of how she chooses to feed her child.

  57. August 16, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    My son, who just turned 1 last week, weaned a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t expect to be so sad about it! I had expected to do it for a year and then decide if I wanted to continue. I didn’t expect him to make the decision for me. Everything I’d read about extended breastfeeding led me to believe that kids, if given the choice, would want to keep nursing past 1. But I guess there are exceptions to every rule. The first time he refused to nurse I felt so sad and confused that I had to call my mom so she could console me…which is kind of funny in retrospect.

  58. Ashley
    August 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Bagelsan, it’s not magical thinking. I stated something known to science and followed it up with a personal anecdote. Here’s a link with more links to studies, etc. WHO, AAFP, etc. agree that there are immunological benefits to breastfeeding past 2.

  59. chava
    August 16, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    OK, I love Kellymom, and they’re a valuable source of BF info/troubleshooting, but you can hardly call them an unbiased source on this (or on many others). They’re never going to put any evidence indicating that milk is not the Bestest Thing Ever on their site…

  60. LoupEtLapin
    August 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    My daughter weaned at just under three. It was gradual enough that I cannot recall her last feed, just the realisation that she’d stopped. It wasn’t after the five day trip but close I think.

    And as far as self-soothing goes it’s just as bad as ‘independence’ – they are a CHILD. Not an adult. Self soothing comes on its own, forcing it regresses the whole process. I am lucky enough that my partner is a fully involved parent, and was a stay at home dad for teo years, and our daughtere always had different cooping patterns depending on who was primary carer at the time. And now she’s older, it is different with non-family carers as well. That’s how children work out people as a group.

    Self soothing is a bit of a red herring in that it assumes our goal of parenting is to get them not to need us when as people we always and forever will need other people. I would rather teach her that people who love her will help her, than people who love her will walk away until she’s fit for adult company again (I won’t lie, now she’s three we are having discussions about how fake crying is not how we would like her to communicate with us). As an infant, or toddler, that level of emotional capability is non-existent.

    As an adult I am slowly relearning to trust my friends, to reach out and lean on them. I don’t want some fear of dependency to dictate my relationship with my child.

    And, on the triggery note, yeah. It can be triggery as fuck. When she was an infant it wasn’t too bad and I could usually push through. When I couldn’t I would swap out care duties. As a toddler we worked on the ‘appropriate ways to treat each other’ and that included not grabbing my breasts, not grabbing my nipples, not yanking at my shirt. Our usual routine was “boobie time please?” and she isnt terribly handsy so it was easier for me but it was a thing that we made a decision to actively teach. And it’s good y’know? It isnt just about breastfeeding, it is about everything. If someone says stop, or don’t treat me like that, you stop.

    It’s just with toddlers it is an ongoing lesson. Over and over and over…

  61. Ame
    August 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Great article!

  62. Ashley
    August 17, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Chava, I agree, but that post does link to statements by major health organizations and 13 other hard references, whether policy papers from the AAP or abstracts from PubMed. It’s easier to just give the one link than recreate the work that KellyMom already did.

  63. Ashley
    August 17, 2012 at 12:21 am

    From the Journal of Nutrition, includes a detailed list of the immunological compounds found in breastmilk.

  64. August 17, 2012 at 1:31 am


    “At a certain age, we know BF is not about nutrition, it’s about other stuff, comfort etc.”

    This isn’t true. Where there’s milk, there’s nutrition. (And where milk is being regularly removed, in the absence of pregnancy or other interference, there is milk.) An adult drinking milk from another species derives nutrients from that milk. So does a child drinking milk from their own species. There is no point at which human milk “turns to water”, as some people – even health professionals – still seem to think. In fact, certain nutrients become more concentrated as nursing goes on.

    “If we can all agree that adult age BF is not a healthy parent/child relationship, we all then accept that at some point it has to stop in order to allow the child to develop emotionally independently. I’m just asking when is that point?”

    What we do know is that at some point, which is somewhat different for each child (but mostly falls between the age of around 2 and 6 or 7), it does stop. Emotional development continues whether the child is breastfeeding or not – it doesn’t hold child development in suspended animation. Kids who breastfeed for a long time develop emotionally. So do kids who breastfeed for a short time, or not at all. And yet, societal concern for potential emotional development problems seems mostly reserved for children who breastfeed to what we can reasonably consider is the physiological and evolutionary norm – and not for those who don’t.

  65. Ida
    August 17, 2012 at 4:46 am

    Lovely post, and lovely discussion! Just need to clarify one thing: extended breastfeeding does not stand in the way of someone else than the mother / breastfeeder being able to comfort (or bond) with the baby. The father or other caregivers can be just as participative (is that a word in English???) as the milk-giver in the life of the baby.

    (I have two children. With no 1 I wnt back to work at 6 months, the father was at home until 12 months. I breastfed exclusively until 6 months, and eventually weaned at 19 months. With no 2 I had part-time work from 12 months, full job from 18 months. Breastfed exclusively until 8 months, weaned at 3 years. Both times I went back to work this included holidays and businesstrips without the baby that lasted up to 7 days. Both my children are really clos to their father (and their grandparents) and do not necessarily need me to be around if a crisis arises.)

  66. chava
    August 17, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I have NOT taken the time to carefully read and evaluate the research summarized in the reviews linked above, because frankly, I don’t need to. I don’t know of a single reputable scientific or medical source that disputes the idea that breastfeeding is what is best for the infant in almost all cases. Which is not to say that for some mother-child pairs, breastfeeding won’t be the best decision. That decision involves more than just a straight analysis of the biological benefits of breastfeeding for a baby.

    You’re right. If you did read it, though, you might notice that what the numbers on BF actually say is that BF is always better, but by a fairly slight margin (all other factors, like access to clean water, being equal). The differences are important on a population level, not so much on the individual. The AAP’s recommendations were not based on any hard evidence that says 6 months EBF is optimal*, and most of those Kellymom studies about IQ, health, and social skills rely on correlative or associational effects.

    My point here is not to knock BF. It is that we rely far too much on this “Breast is Best!” mentality to justify our choices. It should not MATTER if, tomorrow, someone invented a formula that was as good, nutritionally speaking, as breastmilk. How a woman chooses to feed her baby should still be respected and supported.

    *there’s some evidence that EBF LONGER than six months may be an issue, but it’s theoretical–maternal iron stores go down around then, etc. AFAIK there is no good evidence that EBF to six months is the magic time, as opposed to 4, or 5. The allergy research is…iffy.

  67. chava
    August 17, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Sigh. I fail the internet. The block quotes above are supposed to be reversed.

  68. blue milk
    August 17, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Sorry I haven’t been active in this thread.. I keep seeing interesting notions/questions and then by the time I get back here (with time zone and work/parenting interruptions) someone else has already responded to it.

    I have some general thoughts.

    One, extended breastfeeding isn’t like breastfeeding a newborn. I should have made that clear in my post. For example, my kid is night-weaned and I have been away on business trips, like others here, and have found that my milk supply kept going with those breaks.. I have also been back at work since just before he turned a year old and again, my breasts seem to bounce (hah!) back with days of several feeds and days with only one feed a day, so it’s quite a different style of feeding. My son is old enough to be comfortable being soothed by various people, particularly his father and older sister but he will still preference me over them.. and that’s normal for his age. He is more independent than his sister, and his sister did daycare and was weaned at least a year earlier than him.. but to be honest, I think we’re talking personality differences here.

    I see some interesting themes emerging in this thread.

    Independence is a big one. I understand the value of independence in our cultures – it’s really important for American and Australian cultures, although it is worth considering that the importance of this value varies across cultures, so, it’s relative.. but, I’m also the kind of person who likes independence as a quality in people, including myself and my partner, so I get it on that level, too, that this would be a big deal in parenting for some of you.

    You may or may not know that there are two broad schools of thought influencing parenting styles – one is the idea that if you attend to your child’s needs, use and encourage reciprocal communication, respect their concerns etc.. that they develop a secure attachment and then feel safe enough to become independent and move out into the world.

    The other school of thought is that if you respond to all your child’s needs and respect their concerns that you can train them to be needy. You reward them for a negative behaviour, like crying, and so they cry more for your attention. That school of thought believes that you create independence by giving them early opportunities to look after their own needs – crying themselves to sleep, for example. There is evidence to support both schools of thought. (I did a lot of reading on this about 6 years ago and I was overwhelmingly convinced by the evidence for the first school of thought, probably goes without saying given my parenting style).

    At its heart I see some of this stuff coming out in the questions about extended breastfeeding – is there evidence to support it being done for nutritional needs, is there a cut-off where we can say that it is no longer necessary for nutritional needs, is it preventing children from learning how to self-soothe etc? That’s ok, just think it is good to be aware of the school of thought influencing your own perspective.

    WestEndGirl – Rest assured, I don’t see your comments as a criticism of AP.

    AP troubles some feminists a great deal, with good reason, there are some very rigid ideas within certain sectors of the movement that need challenging, but AP is also terribly misunderstood by some feminists. (I’ve written a lot about this on my own blog if you want links?). My argument is that AP needs feminism, but that AP has more in common with feminist goals than conflict with them. Because AP is supposed to be about allowing a mother to continue participating in the world rather than seperating herself from ‘the real world’ in order to ‘mother’, and that AP is about respecting everyone’s needs and communication regardless of their status/age/size/power.

    But all feminists need to be careful in the way we approach the notion of ‘independence’ for mothers as opposed to it being a goal for children. There is a gross tendency to talk about how mothering traps mothers, or prevents them from being their own person when a lot of mothers will tell you that it is not mothering that traps them, but rather patriarchal institutions and workplaces and attitudes that prevent them from participating in the world while also being a mother. It’s kind of a blend of my first and second posts on Feministe.

  69. August 17, 2012 at 9:12 am

    Chava, yes, I agree. The measurable impact of breastfeeding in any one area of infant health is small. So what?

    But that wasn’t the question. The question was what immunological components are in breastmilk. The articles I cited answer that.

    I don’t bother to carefully evaluate research about the benefits of breastfeeding because I see no evidence that makes me think it is worth spending my precious time on that. Breastfeeding my children was clearly not harmful to them or me. The available evidence indicates that it was beneficial to both of us. I liked doing it. They liked doing it. That really is all you need to know.

    Why do you care how long I breastfeed my children? Why should it matter to anyone other than me and my children, and possibly my partner?

    Why are some feminists making women defend this choice? Why don’t you instead look at the ways in which our society needlessly disadvantages mothers, whether they breastfeed or not? Studies have shown that people discriminate against mothers in the workplace, while actually discriminating in favor of fathers. While we’re wasting our time and energy debating whether or not it is OK for an adult woman to choose to use her body to feed her child past some arbitrarily chosen age, that obviously sexist, obviously unfair dynamic continues largely unchallenged. In fact, some feminists’ arguments about the role of motherhood actually add to the problem. When I became a mother, I expected to take some crap from right wing types about my decision to also remain in the workplace. I didn’t expect to take crap from feminists about how I feed my children. I didn’t expect to see feminists explaining away any problems I might face as a mother in the workplace in the exact same way my right wing cousin does- as being a function of my biology. I certainly didn’t expect to see feminists telling me what I should and shouldn’t do with my body.

    Really, the fact that we’re discussing this makes me sad. It should be a non issue.

  70. August 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

    To be honest, I feel kind of embarrassed about breastfeeding for so long. It’s a terrible thing for a feminist mother who advocates for breastfeeding to admit but the stigma attached to breastfeeding kindergarteners (and beyond) is really strong and I have not really outed myself in my writing before as an ‘extreme breastfeeder’.

    I breastfed xCLP until he self-weaned somewhere between 3 and 4, in a large part because I liked it and it made me feel better about my body and my chest. I also feel a bit embarrassed talking about it, although for different reasons. I feel as if parents who didn’t breastfeed at all or as long might think I’m judging them, purely because it’s such a sensitive topic with so much judgement already flying around. I’m also afraid that people will think I was trying to be some sort of Supermum or score points, even though the only reason I went so long was because it worked well for us both.

  71. chava
    August 17, 2012 at 11:40 am


    I don’t care one bit, aside from wishing you well w/it (seriously, not trying to be snarky). My point was that I feel the health benefits of breastfeeding should not be at the forefront of this debate. Even if BF at 2 years had “no nutritional benefit” or whatever drivel is often bandied about, that SHOULD NOT MATTER. It seems we’re locked in this debate where if we admit that BF is not “absolutely necessary” we lose.
    It’s nice to know the health benefits, and its been helpful in the struggle to get BF supported at all, but I feel like it will fail us as an advocacy tactic in the end.

  72. SWNC
    August 17, 2012 at 11:51 am

    There is a gross tendency to talk about how mothering traps mothers, or prevents them from being their own person when a lot of mothers will tell you that it is not mothering that traps them, but rather patriarchal institutions and workplaces and attitudes that prevent them from participating in the world while also being a mother.

    Beautiful. My life as a mother definitely has more worry and stress than my life before I had kids. However, my daughter herself is not the source of most of that worry and stress. Things like affording insurance, juggling childcare, spending 9 hours a day away from my three-year-old, etc, are.

  73. catalyst
    August 19, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Blue Milk, thank you for talking about breastfeeding past infancy and congratulations for ‘outing’ yourself as an ‘extreme breastfeeder’. I wouldn’t call you extreme. You’re doing something that mothers have done for thousands of years of human history, and which is still ‘normal’ in many parts of the world.

    I would love to know what you think of The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer. I read it a few years ago and found it seriously eye-opening. Basically, if you don’t have reliable access to clean water, modern sewerage, ample fuel, and medical treatment for common illnesses, then breastfeeding is a matter of life or death. Not just for babies, although they are the most vulnerable to the risks of not breastfeeding. But also for toddlers, young children, and their mothers. Breastmilk is an incredibly safe way to rehydrate and nourish a sick child, as well as actively combating illness (because it contains antibodies to all the diseases that the mother has ever come into contact with). Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, so it gives the mother some protection from the physical stresses of going through another pregnancy and birth too soon.

    For families who live in an industrialised or post-industrial society, and who are moderately affluent, the risks of not breastfeeding are much smaller. There are still risks, but for most families they will not amount to the difference between life or death. But it is worth remembering that breastfeeding, and the child’s impulse to suckle until its immune system is mature (which I believe occurs at around 6 years), are basic human survival behaviours. Of course, we can weigh up the risks and benefits and choose alternatives if we are fortunate enough to have them available to us. But when we start labelling normal duration breastfeeding as ‘extreme’, it’s time to question the language we use.

    That said, I I am breastfeeding a four year old and a one year old and recognise the embarrassment about admitting to something unusual and which people seem to think is freaky.

  74. robotile
    August 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    I chose not to breastfeed. I realize that people can have equal parenting with breastfeeding, and that it can be a great bonding experience for both parents. But it seems pretty obvious that, in the usual circumstances (where men in dual-earning families typically make more money, where both parties were raised with traditional gender norms that tend to rear their ugly heads when you have a kid), that breast feeding changes the landscape so that the woman becomes a much more logical first person to turn to for many parenting decision. If supply is good, it’s not so hard to go back to work, but many women can’t keep up their supply once they work. I know several women who chose to stay home with their second kid because their supply with their last kid tanked when they started pumping and went back to work.

    So while I knew I could have an equal parenting relationship with breastfeeding, I wanted to start off with the best conditions to promote it. I didn’t think I was strong enough to combat all the pressures for me to be the primary parent, given my circumstances, if I breastfed. I know lots of other strong, feminist parents who were able to bf while equal parenting.

    It was also a lifesaver to not breastfeed when I came down with some serious PPD and simply needed a break. When my kid was two months old, my husband took him to his parents house and they looked after him for two weeks. The two weeks of complete freedom from childcare responsibilities really saved me. When he came back I was able to give him much more love and was able to bond sooo much better. But I know that wouldn’t have been possible if I felt like I had to pump every day.

    Combined with being a very not touchy-feely person, it helps me feel bodily autonomy a bit more. Everyone talks about the blurring of the boundaries between your body and the child’s body, but to me that idea was really frightening and suffocating. Maybe this makes me a bad parent, but I have a limited capacity for physical contact, and breastfeeding would have maxed it out pretty much just during feedings, leaving no time for me to play/read/cuddle my kid. The few times I tried it it felt pretty violating.

    As an aside, several researchers are investigating whether compounds in breastmilk could be fed to smaller, preschool-age children in the developing world. Basically, the main compounds that have immunological effects tend to be related to the gut, and kids in countries with unsafe water typically do great while on the breast but start to get diarrheal diseases once they eat regular food. So the idea that it can be beneficial past age 1 is quite solidly grounded. Breast milk is definitely good stuff. If there was a way of giving it to my kid without actually getting it from my breasts, I would totally have done it.

  75. August 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    Lovely post!

    And for someone like me, who has had a love-hate relationship with their breasts, I have to acknowledge that breastfeeding has been a rather healing experience for my psyche.

    I especially appreciated the above! I also have had a conflicted relationship with my breasts since… well, puberty… I am so much more confident & comfortable with them (& my body in general) because of breastfeeding.

    Anyway, so much of your post resonated with me, BlueMilk — It was really a pleasure to read. Extended breastfeeding has been on my mind a lot lately (actually recently posted about it on my blog). It’s been a totally unexpected experience for me, but I love it.

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