When we start out nursing our babies, most of us aren’t thinking about the future of the breastfeeding relationship. We’re thinking about how to get through each sleepless night, and the endless demands of our bundles of love. And for those of us who have breastfeeding challenges at the beginning, we are thinking about how to make it through one feeding to the next. But once a mom and baby find their “groove” with nursing – whether it’s in a few weeks or a few months’ time – the question of how to long to continue nursing is sure to come up.
The answer to how long to nurse is: It’s entirely up to you and your baby! There is no right or wrong way to do it.
There are certainly benefits to prolonged nursing. First, there’s the milk itself. One of the most important differences between breast milk and formula is the antibodies and antiviral agents present in breast milk that are completely lacking in formula. Your child will continue to get these virus-fighting agents for the entire duration that he or she breastfeeds. Additionally, breast milk continues to provide important nutrition for growing children – much more of a variety of nutrients than cow’s milk or formula. Breast milk, after a year and beyond, provides a substantial amount of protein, calcium, vitamin A, B12, healthy fats, and more.
This is especially helpful for toddlers, who are notoriously picky eaters. I was always reassured that my breastfeeding toddler was getting adequate nutrition even if he shunned yet another plate of food. If you continue to breastfeed past one year, you don’t need to supplement with cow’s milk, as many pediatricians recommend, although you can offer cow’s milk products if you wish. Your breast milk is the dairy that your toddler needs!
But, as many moms of nursing children will tell you, after you’ve reached the one year mark, it is so much more than simply nutrition. It is a relationship, an exchange of love, the ultimate soother, and a magic sleep aid. There is nothing like watching a cranky toddler melt into your lap and let out a big sigh of relief as he or she starts nursing. Your child is soothed by the familiarity of your scent, the closeness of your skin, and the sucking itself – which releases calming hormones in both of you.
I recently took an informal poll of moms who nursed past a year, some into the third, fourth, and fifth years of their child’s life. I asked them to describe what it was like in just a word or two. Some of the responses included:
But perhaps the most poignant responses were from mothers who expressed how deeply they missed nursing their toddlers and young children. Everything about babyhood and early childhood goes by faster than one realizes; nursing helps us hold onto our children just a little bit longer. And the children themselves find nursing grounding and stabilizing as they branch out as independent little beings. I always said that my son – who was potty trained and reading before he weaned – was holding onto his last shred of babyhood through nursing.
It’s important to mention, too, that breastfeeding a toddler or child isn’t all fun and roses. It’s totally normal to feel “touched out” and frustrated with your nursing child. Sometimes the week before you get your period is the worst, when your breasts are tender and your hormones are raging. You might find that there are times when your child becomes more interested in nursing after seeming to drop a few sessions, which sometimes throws a mother off. All of a sudden your toddler is nursing like a newborn again and you wonder if you’ve done something terribly wrong, or if it ever will stop.
It will. Everything that is beautiful and everything that is difficult dissolves on its own. Every child weans at his or her own pace. Some mothers choose to encourage the weaning, substituting other soothing activities and lots of extra cuddles as they redirect their child away from nursing. Others just wait to see how it pans out for their child. Mothers who wait tend to find that it happens very gradually, their child going weeks between nursing sessions before the last time.
However it happens for you, know that humans have been nursing their young past infancy for eons, and there are moms still doing it all over the world. Some women of older nurslings tend to feel alone in their choice to continue, but know that you are not alone. Seek out friendship with other mothers of older nurslings. Know that by nursing past infancy, you are helping develop a healthy, secure child who will venture out into this world confidently, and with love.
Wendy Wisner is a writer, board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mother. She is the author of two books of poetry, and her poems, book reviews, and articles have appeared widely. Visit her website.