by Jessica Martin-Weber
Today my 4 year old Smunchie who hasn’t breastfed in quite some time, asked for bobbies. She hadn’t been feeling well all day and though it had been a while since she had breastfed, it was obvious that she found even the idea comforting. Her eyes wide and a seriousness about her, she implored for some mama milk. I offered to try to express some into a cup for her and the tiny bit of hope in her face dropped as she said ok but she really wanted to try to get the milk herself. Without missing a beat, her two year old little sister rushed over, hands out, and screamed “my bobbies!”
Yes, my children were fighting over my boobs.
I gently reminded 2 year old Sugarbaby that they were my bobbies but that I share them and decided to invite both girls to cuddle up to nurse.
I expect this post will make some people uncomfortable but we need to talk about it anyway.
Sometimes, older, weaned children will ask to breastfeed. Whether it be a new baby added to the family or just what seems a random interest, it’s not unusual for a child to see breastfeeding and want to give it a try. They may be quite insistent or perhaps shy and act embarrassed. It may come when you’re sitting there feeding their younger sibling or when they get a moment alone with you. There is a possibility that they are more than a little curious and will want to re-establish a breastfeeding relationship.
Before you freak out (probably too late), keep in mind that children don’t have a developed sense of sexuality or even what makes something sexual. Unless the child is more like a teenager, the interest in breastfeeding has more to do with curiosity than sexual confusion. Even though adults in much of westernized society place a heavy emphasis on the sexual function of the female breasts over the nutritional and nurturing functions, children just don’t see it that way so you can take a deep breath and know that there is nothing wrong with your child, they’re just a normal child with normal curiosity. Breasts are another body part made intriguing by the fact that children have yet to develop breasts themselves and if a child encounters breastfeeding and had it explained to them without shame, they are going to understand breasts as a food source rather than identifying breasts for sexual pleasure. Please note: gender identity, the differences between the sexes, perceived gender roles, attachment, emotional bonds, body autonomy, and understanding appropriate touching is developing from infancy.
And no, feeding children well past infancy into early childhood is not messing them up. You don’t have to worry about psychological damage from breastfeeding past one or two years old. That myth has totally been debunked both through scientific research and anecdotally by many older children and adults that remember breastfeeding at such an age. Read one such account from an outspoken 12 year old who breastfed until she was 4.
If their sexual awareness has yet to develop, they don’t yet buy into society’s emphasis on female breasts primarily as sex objects, and it’s not messing kids up to breastfeed well beyond the 1st year of life, how should we respond?
With patience. With love. With acceptance. With gentleness. Without shame. Without fear. Without judgment.
As is often the case, the manner with which we respond to our children is more important than what we actually do. If your older, weaned child asks to breastfeed, saying yes or no is less important than how you say it. Before you respond, ask yourself what your reaction could be communicating to your child. Is it loving? Does it communicate acceptance? Or is it expressing shock and disgust? Could they confuse your response as a rejection of them? That they did something wrong? That breastfeeding is shameful?
What should you do if your older, weaned child asks to breastfeed? I have no idea. Whatever is right for you. I would just encourage you not to rush your decision, take a moment and reflect on why or why not you may be comfortable with that. With older children, a conversation is usually possible and a reasonable place to start. Involving them in a conversation as part of your decision making could be a bonding experience for you both.
Your decision is completely up to you and your personal boundaries. If you’re not comfortable letting your older, weaned child breastfeed then don’t. If you think you may be ok with it, then let them. Your boundaries and modeling bodily autonomy is important too and an older child is capable of understanding such boundaries. If you decide you’re comfortable with it and even want to encourage them to relearn how to properly latch (yes, that is an option) and that works for both of you, that can be significant journey as well. Whatever you decide, just do so gently and you’ll both be fine.
My two eldest children never expressed an interest in breastfeeding once they weaned, not even when siblings were born. Curiosity and copying with their own babies (dolls), absolutely, but they were never interested in trying to breastfeed for themselves. Since then though I’ve had each of my 4 younger ones ask to try. It weirded me out at first and I refused but that particular child began to ask repeatedly every time I sat to feed her younger sister and eventually I decided I didn’t actually have a good reason not to. Having such a large child at my breast (she was 4) seemed strange to me but it only took one try and then a polite thank you with a hug to make me realize that was about my issues and what I considered normal than it was about somehow being wrong. She did enjoy having my milk in a cup for months afterward though and that was something that meant a lot to her. The most common reaction my children have is to have no idea what to do at the breast, attempt a couple of sucks, giggle, pull away, and inform me they aren’t babies any more and “bobbies are for babies.” Sometimes they do get milk and don’t like the taste. Even if they are interested in trying again, once their curiosity was satisfied they were happy to move on and leave breastfeeding to babies.
But that’s not what has happened with my current 4 year old. She returns every so often to the breast, has even figured out that if she can get her little sister to start on one breast and then switch after let down, it’s easier for her and she’ll get more milk. It doesn’t happen often, increasingly less and less, but she does still ask from time to time. This time, after latching and not getting any milk, she decided she was good with just a cuddle.
“I like your milk, mommy, but I like your cuddles best.”
For us, it was worth letting her try.
What do you think you would do if your previously weaned child asked to breastfeed again?