by Jessica Martin-Weber
What does it look like to breastfeed a 2 year old? Is it gross? Creepy? Or is it just a continuation of the sweet and simple nurturing experience the mother and child already have together? I can’t keep her safe and protected from everything but while she still wants to be in my arms and finds comfort at my breast, I’ll continue to do what I can.
What does it look like? This:
This past weekend we celebrated Sugarbaby’s 2nd birthday. The day was fun, special, and she understood it was all about her. And cake. With 6 big girls in the family, it was a loud and energetic, ushering in her next year of life with enthusiasm.
And without much notice, I now am breastfeeding a 2 year old. This doesn’t feel significant to Sugarbaby, nor to my family. The only reason this is noteworthy is because breastfeeding beyond the first 12 months is hardly normal in our society, let alone breastfeeding beyond the first 24. Many myths surround breastfeeding in general and they just increase after the deadline some have assigned (see Six myths about breastfeeding toddlers and preschoolers). For many, breastfeeding this long is strange, extreme, extended, and questionable, at best. abusive, pedophilia, and psychologically damaging at worst. A view point I don’t understand and research doesn’t support and when I asked a 12 year old that breastfed until she was 4 to share, she didn’t see what the issue could be either.
Breastfeeding beyond the first year makes many, many people uncomfortable. Breastfeeding a child that walks and talks and plays, going well beyond the 2nd year makes most people uncomfortable. It’s understandable too. In our culture the majority of babies aren’t breastfed past 6 weeks and of those that are they usually are weaned off the breast by 12 months. It’s rare in the majority of western culture to see a child over the age of 1 breastfeed, let alone 2.
But imagine you were in a different culture. A culture where the average age of weaning was between 3-5 years old. It would be common place to see a young child breastfeeding and nobody would think it’s odd. In fact, if those people were to come here they would probably wonder why our children don’t continue breastfeeding at that age and perhaps find it unsettling and concerning.
What it boils down to in many ways is what we’re conditioned to. The WHO and the AAP both recommend breastfeeding until it is mutually agreeable to the mother and child. Which, for a good number of families would be well beyond that 24 month mark. But we rarely get to see it. For that to become an acceptable reality in the States it needs to be seen and not just as something to be laughed at in movies. In other words, we need to start conditioning our culture to accept a new normal. Which is totally possible. Just look at standards of dress. What was once considered in appropriate attire is now every day wear. Adjusting our standards to accept a new normal is something that happens in culture on a daily basis. Over time, we’ll get there and it may not ever be common place (though I sure do hope so) but it will seem less odd. So while I don’t breastfeed to make any kind of point or in pursuit of any particular agenda, I do share the breastfeeding images and videos to help bring about that change.
This isn’t to say that women have to breastfeed beyond any point at all. In fact, women don’t have to do anything and manipulating, shaming, or attempting to force someone to do something they really don’t want to do only serves to make the issue a controversial one and doesn’t help society to accept it as normal. How could they when a portion of the population would resent it. The messaging isn’t that it’s better to breastfeed longer or that those that don’t aren’t loving parents willing to sacrifice for their children. The message is simply that there are reasons to and every family has to weigh those along with their personal reasons to make the right decision for their situation.
For our family it is simple. Breastfeeding beyond societal accepted norms isn’t about anything but the simple, sweet, loving continuation of what we already have. As I shared on Facebook, the decision to continue wasn’t about or for anyone else but us, and at 2 years old now she’s quite happy with our arrangement and blissfully unaware that others may look down on her continuing to find nourishment and comfort at my breast. A strong and confident little girl, I know that when Sugarbaby is ready to move on, she will have no problem doing so. For now though, I won’t be cutting her off even though some don’t understand. No arbitrary deadline can dictate how I care for my daughter and continue to meet her needs as she experiences them. Your breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be, are about you and your child, reach for them and don’t worry about what others think or say. Two weeks or two years (or more or less!), we support you.
For more on natural duration breastfeeding or breastfeeding beyond infancy, see what a toddler has to say here.