Honestly, I didn't plan on practicing extended breastfeeding. However, once my son and I got the hang of nursing, I realized there was no reason to cut it short. My friends and family seemed a little bemused at first, and kept politely checking in with me to see if it was still something we were doing; like some weird experiment I was conducting rather than, you know, naturally feeding my child. Instead of acting like it was "odd," I wish they would have picked from the list of best things anyone could do for a mom who's extended breastfeeding, and make me feel more supported in my choice to continue breastfeeding my son.
I was lucky that my personal circumstances allowed me to have limited barriers when it came to nursing my son for as long as he wanted (and as long as I was comfortable facilitating). I worked from home so I didn't have to contend with pumping at work and, after we both got the hang of it and ironed out a few bumps, breastfeeding was painless and enjoyable for us both.
In other words, I didn't see any reason to stop until my son self-weaned when he was a little over 2 years old. The fact that I nursed him for as long as I did came as a surprise to me as much as to anyone else. Unfortunately, I did experience some negative reactions to feeding my son past the infant stage. Like anything else in parenthood (or life) you have to take the good with the bad. Thankfully, I did have some good to focus on, including the moments people did the following things for me during my extended breastfeeding relationship with my son:
The most important thing you can do for a nursing mom, of any age child, is to support her choice completely. That means not trying to change her mind or affect her decisions, and definitely not throwing any shame or judgement her way.
Don't Ask Her If She's "Still" Breastfeeding
Even seemingly innocent questions about how long a woman is going to breastfeed can be invasive, shaming, and just freakin' rude. So, honestly, there's no reason to "kindly" suggest alternatives when her child is nursing, like juice or water. A child won't nurse if they don't want to and how long she decides to breastfeed is really none of your business.
Get Her A Snack
Nursing a toddler is a very different experience from nursing a newborn. Toddlers wiggle around, get distracted, have a chat with you, go off and play and then come back for more. However, despite all the additional distractions, extended breastfeeding doesn't seem to take as much of a physical toll on your body as it does in the beginning.
Even so, most nursing moms would really appreciate a drink and a snack while they feed their child. Just, you know, maybe make that a snack for two, because chances are high her toddler will want some additional food, too.
Stick Up For Her
If you share a friendship circle, you may hear negative comments about the mom who 'still' breastfeeds or the child who is "too old" to be nursing. Stop that noise right in its tracks and stick up for her. Show your shared friends that you won't allow her to be judged.
The way people talk about strangers, especially celebrities, often reinforces a shaming culture. Essentially, would-be critics feel emboldened to attack someone they don't actually know, and that confidence will bleed into their real life, too. If you challenge anti-nursing chatter, you'll indirectly be helping your friend.
Don't Make Her A Spokeswoman
Just because a woman breastfeeds for an extended period of time doesn't mean she necessarily wants to be considered a "nursing expert" or wants to constantly weigh in on every social media exchange or argument.
I was always proud of how long I breastfed my child, but I didn't want to be the poster child for nursing, either.
Make Sure She's Comfortable
A cushion, a more comfortable chair, turning the heat up, putting her feet up; whatever you can to make your friend a little more comfortable is going to win you all the friendship awards. No, seriously. All of them.
Don't Typecast Her
When people learn mom is breastfeeding her child past the first year, they start to make all sorts of assumptions about her personality and lifestyle. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a crunchy hippie mom, but I wasn't one.
You see, extended breastfeeding doesn't come with a contract to only buy organic foods, wear sandals, or sell your stroller. All sorts of moms breastfeed their child beyond the minimum recommended time frame, so don't presume you know how she feels on any other topic until, well, you actually discuss it with her.
Listen To Her
Breastfeeding beyond your child's first birthday is a choice, but it is not always an easy road. Sometimes she'll have frustrations, sometimes she'll want her child to wean, and sometimes she'll change her mind. What really helps is to have a caring, responsive friend to listen to her feelings and sometimes let her vent.
Treat Her Like A Normal Person
Please don't try and make her go to another room, refuse to make eye contact with her while she's nursing, or do anything that makes her feel like a social pariah. All of these actions make a breastfeeding mama feel embarrassed, shamed, and humiliated. Just take a seat and chat to her, like you would anyone else, because what she's doing is normal. Despite the crazy media depiction of moms who breastfeed for an extended period of time, no mom is actually going to be nursing her adult child. In other words, this special time will come to an end all too soon.
Nursing is just one season of motherhood, and a supportive friend can make all the difference in how long this season lasts and how sweet the memories are.