Why I don’t plan on weaning my 4.5 and 2.5 year olds any time soon

Baby

Before my first was born, I read three breastfeeding books cover to cover. I’d graduated from college when I was five months pregnant and I spent the next five months turning motherhood into my new course of study. I soaked up as much information as I could, and thought I was ready to ace this test. But as it turns out, within hours of giving birth, nursing felt clumsy and painful and I couldn’t remember a word of advice I’d read.

I knew it wasn’t supposed to hurt, but I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do if it did. In those first few days, I swore loudly every time my little piranha latched on and I could barely keep my eyes open through her endless feeds.

But as the days and weeks went on, it got easier. Time and practice helped, as did the lactation consultant with whom we scheduled regular visits.

Slowly, I stopped worrying whether she was getting enough milk—she clearly was, given her growing rolls and how content she looked after a feed, eyes rolling back in her head and milk dripping from the corner of her mouth. I didn’t have to watch as carefully for hunger cues anymore, I just unconsciously noticed her subtle signals and began to lift my shirt without thinking about it.

Breastfeeding became my super power, solving every problem that arose throughout our day. Tired or cranky? Boob. Sick or teething? Boob. Rolled off the sofa and hysterical? Boob, boob, boob.

Everything I had read had extolled the virtues and health benefits of breastfeeding past infancy. But that’s not really why I continued nursing through solids, her first birthday, a second pregnancy and in tandem with her new baby sister.

I stuck with it because it just worked. It wasn’t something I had to think about too much. I loved how nursing continued to meet her needs as she grew. New situations or overwhelming crowds? Boob. Clinginess as my belly grew with a new baby? Boob. Toddler tantrums, mishaps and boo boos? Here, have a boob.

Contrary to what I’d heard, I never found that nursing made her any more clingy. She was born clingy, but I saw how the security she found at my breast helped her adapt to changes and gave her confidence to try new things on her own.

After all the pain and stress we’d overcome in the beginning, it felt silly to just stop when we arrived at an arbitrary milestone. She clearly still adored nursing and I would have felt terrible taking that comfort away from her. Weaning just didn’t seem worth the stress or hassle it would have entailed.

I decided to get pregnant with her sister when she was a year old. The baby fever had been mounting as her infancy came to a close and I wanted my babies close together, so she’d have a built-in playmate.

I developed horrible perinatal anxiety in my first trimester and some suggested that I wean her, to take some pressure off of myself. I couldn’t bear the thought. I didn’t want my pregnancy to take anything away from her and besides, breastfeeding her had become my lifeline. As I waited for my new antidepressant to take effect, nursing was the only thing I felt well enough to do for my daughter. It was something only I could provide and I could do it from the couch.

As the pregnancy progressed, my milk supply dried up and nursing became painful again, but she still enjoyed “dry nursing,” and I still didn’t want to take it away from her. It was uncomfortable and at times made my skin crawl, but this still felt more manageable for me than the stress of weaning her before I believed she was ready. As she grew older and more active, nursing was our quiet time together. I could lie down and watch Gossip Girl while she nursed, without her getting into trouble or making a racket.

After I gave birth to her sister, she visited me in the hospital. I had someone else hold the baby when my toddler arrived, so that she and I could have a moment together first. We were ecstatic to be reunited after 30 hours apart, and she went immediately to my breast. I was still producing colostrum, but all the pain and aversion I’d felt in pregnancy had dissipated. Soon, the baby fussed, so my mother helped me latch her on to the available breast. My toddler balked at this and insisted on using the breast her sister was on. We switched around and I told her if she wanted to nurse, she had to share now. She wanted to nurse, so that was that.

My colostrum began to transition into mature milk the next day, and I arrived home the day after that. This first time she nursed and milk came out, she was all shock and aw, popping off again and again to squeal, “Mulch? Mulch!!”

While it might sound overwhelming to some moms, tandem nursing has come easily and naturally for me. I have loved being able to occupy my toddler while nursing my newborn, by just letting her join in. It helped her adjust to her sister’s arrival, since she was never displaced and they were able to bond with each other at my breasts. As they got older, they started holding hands while nursing.

Over the years, nursing has evolved. By the time my eldest daughter was a year and a half, I knew she was no longer dependent on nursing for nutrition, so I was able to begin setting boundaries and no longer nursed her every time she asked. She was usually willing to wait.

I sent each of my daughters to school when they were two years old. They both transitioned just fine to going without breastfeeding throughout the school day, but continued to nurse frequently in the evenings and on weekends.

When we were in lockdown last year, my older daughter, then three, wanted to nurse all day long, but this no longer worked for me. I had gotten used to having a break during school hours. So I set limits, explaining that she could nurse for ten minutes a day. I let her choose how many nursing sessions could make up those ten minutes and when she wanted them. She wasn’t ready to wean and still loved nursing through the day and night, but happily obliged, especially once I added in a sticker chart (if she listened nicely to our new nursing boundaries, stopping without a fuss once the timer I set went off, she got a sticker at the end of the day.)

Now they’re 2.5 and 4.5 years old, and back in preschool most of the day. I nurse them for a few minutes on the couch while they watch cartoons before school and a few minutes after school. I still nurse my little one to sleep and they’re both welcome to climb into my bed to cuddle and nurse when they wake up at night, since I’d rather them join me than have to get out of bed to offer comfort in their rooms. I only recently stopped nursing my eldest to sleep, so my husband could take over bedtime with her.

I know that some may consider my kids a little “old” to be nursing and that nursing older kids, much less tandem nursing them, is relatively uncommon. Still, to us it’s just a small part of our day to day. Over the years, I’ve connected with so many tandem- and toddler/preschooler-nursing moms on social media and have found that it isn’t nearly as rare as I’d once thought.

I’ve always been a big proponent of nursing in public, as it makes life easier and the more people see breastfeeding, the less of a big deal it becomes. This hasn’t changed as my children have gotten older. I’m still happy to nurse them at the mall or on a park bench and, to my surprise, I’ve yet to receive a negative comment or sideways glance about nursing my toddler or preschooler. But as they’ve grown, it hasn’t come up as much—when we’re out in the world, there are far more fun and exciting things for them to do, so they’re less interested in cuddling up to nurse.

I also know this isn’t for everyone. I do it because it’s important to me to follow my kids’ leads and offer them nutrients, antibodies and comfort at my breast for as long as they’ll take it. I’ve kept at it this long because nursing my kids a couple of times each day isn’t a big deal to me, so weaning has never felt worth the effort.

It’s no longer because a book I read five years ago said that it’s best and, honestly, it never really was. I’ve come to believe that what’s best for our kids is honouring our own needs and desires, so we can show up and care for them with our fullest selves.

People often ask when I plan on weaning and the answer is both “I don’t,” and “I already am.” Nursing is a relationship and one that I’ve been a part of for nearly five years. It’s ever-evolving as they grow, and I grow with them. There’s a constant give and take.

I don’t see weaning as something that happens in a day, but as something that happens over many years, starting with the introduction of solids and ending with the last perhaps bittersweet nursing session. Whenever it happens, it won’t be based on some arbitrary standard or life event, but because my babies and I are both ready to leave nursing behind and move on to the next stage.

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