Sunny careens over, fresh from play or TV, and asks for "milkies" in his sweet 2-and-half-year-old voice. He gently pats the top of my breast, the part a bra would expose. Sometimes, he’ll tenderly brush my hair out of the way. I nod. Somehow, I wrangle my breast out. I don’t wear nursing clothes anymore, except at night, so there’s a lot of neck-stretching and bra scrunching to make everything accessible. He curls in my lap like a newborn and latches. It's pure bliss. I'm extended breastfeeding because it works for us.
Sometimes Sunny nurses on and off, sitting at my side, while he watches Wild Kratts or Animaniacs. I finally have to tell him to quit it or that the milk is going away, because the pop-on, pop-off annoys me like little else in a nursing relationship. Sunny still night nurses. I put him to sleep on the breast, and when he wakes in the night, he wants to nurse again. I pick him up, lay him on one side or the other, and curl with him under the blankets. I don’t mind, except when he grabs the opposite breast. No amount of “No!” will stop him; it’s a tic he has. I end up sometimes sleeping with my hand over one breast, which isn’t comfortable, or conducive to good sleep.
I breastfed my oldest son, now 6, until he was 3 years and 3 months old. I nursed my 4 year old until … well, I suppose our last nursing session was about a month ago, but he still asks for it, so there’s still a chance I’ll cave. And I'm nursing my 2-and-half-year-old son, Sunny, still.
I do all of this in the name of extended breastfeeding. According to the Mayo Clinic, extended breastfeeding occurs when you nurse your baby beyond 1 year old. The benefits of extended breastfeeding for baby include a boosted immunity, improved health, and balanced nutrition. Benefits of extended breastfeeding for mom include reduced risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as improved health. Although 2-and-half years hardly qualifies as extended nursing to me, I breastfed my oldest son, now 6, until he was 3 years and 3 months old. I nursed my 4 year old until … well, I suppose our last nursing session was about a month ago, but he still asks for it, so there’s still a chance I’ll cave. And I'm nursing my 2-and-half-year-old son, Sunny, still.
Most people wean at or around 1 year old. I've had friends say that it seems insane to nurse until 2, 3, or even 4 years old, but not for me. I’ve found that people think 2 is merely "odd." Three, people around me have said, is "keeping the child a baby for your own purposes." And 4 is for "the mother’s benefit"; I've even heard some say nursing your child at 4 "borders on sexual molestation," and makes me a "freak." For me and my three sons, however, none of this is true. You can’t make a child nurse, and the worldwide age for weaning is somewhere between 4 and 5 years old, according to La Leche League International. Adults generally tend to have positive memories of nursing, and don’t need therapy. But extended nursing, overall, definitely isn’t for the mother’s benefit. I can attest to that. It has numerous other benefits, and they aren’t primarily for mom.
When my son is tantrumming, when he’s frightened, when the world gets to be too much, he can retreat to the breast to calm down, regroup, and prepare to be his usual rambunctious self.
Though no conclusive studies have been done to identify the immunological components of breast milk for children past 2 years of age, there’s no reason to suppose they stop cold turkey once baby reaches a certain age. I wanted to wean, but I kept my oldest son on the breast all winter, weaning in March; we were having a particularly bad flu season, and I wanted to give him every bit of protection I could.
Extended nursing also adds a layer of connection that we wouldn't have otherwise. When my son and I curl up together, I give him the one thing no one else can give him. I'm sharing every possible advantage my body can manage. Children are small for such a short time. I want to savor all the special time I can. And for us, that special time includes breastfeeding. The calm in the night; the afternoon drowse. That's ours for as long as we nurse.
Nursing might not give protection from injury, but it sure helps. When my oldest son was 2-and-half years old, he ran into the corner of a wall and a hallway, causing a cut that, in retrospect, should have been stitched. I immediately pulled out my boob and nursed him — keeping him still — while we assessed the damage. He calmed down and let us bandage it, all while nursing happily. My youngest son recently took a header into a glass-topped coffee table, necessitating two stitches. Again, nursing calmed him down, allowed us to examine the cut, and kept him happy through a long Urgent Care visit. Though he didn’t nurse through the actual stitching — he was too upset — he did nurse right afterwards. This comforted and calmed him after a painful and frightening procedure.
Nursing is such a calm-down for small children that it actually puts them to sleep. Any attachment parent knows this, and exploits it for bedtime. When a child turns 1, you don’t have to abandon your magic sleep tool. I still use it to put my 2-and-half year old to sleep. He goes down, most of the time, in seven or eight minutes. I’m not about to give that up, choosing to instead wrangle him for half an hour or more.
Finally, extended breastfeeding gives baby a safe place. When my son is tantrumming, when he’s frightened, when the world gets to be too much, he can retreat to the breast to calm down, regroup, and prepare to be his usual rambunctious self. Some people would argue that this stunts his growth. I’d argue that with the worldwide weaning age, this is a necessary coping mechanism for small children. And since he won’t nurse forever, he’ll grow up and out of it: gradually, slowly, nursing every day and then every other day, and then every three days, and then once a week.
I love nursing my babies. I’ve always been glad, however, when that time passes. I was ready for both my oldest and middle sons to wean. But the baby and I still chug along happily together, nursing when he needs it, denying it when he doesn’t (because yes, I do sometimes say no). It may not work for every breastfeeding pair. But extended breastfeeding works for us. And that’s what matters.