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breastfeeding

I Breastfed My Son Until He Was 6. Here’s Why

Mother and son playing in a park or back yard in summer

I’m from one of those rare families where breastfeeding hasn’t skipped a generation; whether or not to breastfeed was never in question. This was how babies eat, full stop. But I went into nursing about the same way as I went into home birth, my guiding thought was, “We’ll do this for as long as we can.” As in: We’ll stay home as long as we can (and if that includes the birth, great) and we’ll nurse as long as we can (and if that includes nursing into toddlerhood, also great).

Whether it’s because I’m a Libra or because of some other quirk of nature, I tend towards moderation as a guiding philosophy. I’m a healthy eater, but extreme diets have no appeal. I exercise, but never to the point of pain. I’m religiously observant, but I’m pretty flexible about it. If there’s a middle ground, I’m likely to find it.

So it’s a bit weird to be such an outlier in this part of my life (only 26% of Canadian mothers are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months); I have been breastfeeding for almost all of the past eight years… and I only have two kids.

Our son was born with a cleft lip so initiating breastfeeding with him was a bit challenging. We got support from an amazing IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) who was affiliated with our midwifery practice and we were well on our way by the end of the first week. He nursed steadily for the first year, dropping down to morning and evening feeds when I went back to work at 14 months. I adopted a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” policy when he was 2 years old, knowing that we’d be trying for our second baby fairly soon. The trouble was, he was undeterred by my lack of offering and he never refused.

By the third month of my second pregnancy, our son was still nursing like a champ and my toes were curling from the pain. So I took myself out of the game and weaned. We were done and, while he was sad, he coped well with the change and I was able to enjoy the last six months of my pregnancy with only the usual kinds of discomfort associated with carrying a nine-pound wonder.

Then our daughter arrived and took to nursing right out of the gate. Our son watched her “doing mé-mé” (his name for nursing) and, after a few weeks of curious observation, asked if he could have some. Well, I thought, in for a penny, in for a pound. I thought he’d have trouble latching after so many months away and that this would be a one-time experiment but no, he remembered everything and suddenly I was tandem nursing. How did this happen?

The tandem nursing was short-lived as I found it too intense, but that didn’t stop him. He kept nursing once every few days when he turned 4 and started school. “Now he’s going to stop.” I thought, “surely to God.” No chance. He had no interest in kissing those mé-més goodbye.

But there was an upside, I discovered. I was teaching kindergarten and I had one kid in kindergarten and another kid in daycare and yet, as the Norwalk virus or the latest cold ran through either my school or his (or both!), my kid didn’t get sick. I hardly ever had to take a day off and he missed very little school. When he did get sick, he was out for a day or two, not the week of absence that his classmates endured. While the attribution to extended breastfeeding isn’t as simple as “A causes B,” it does line up with what we know about the lower prevalence of infections in early childhood when older children are breastfed.

So we kept going, right through his first year of kindergarten and into his second. I kept thinking it was the end when he wouldn’t ask for a few days, but inevitably he’d look at me shyly as we sat in bed after a story with his adorable “mé-mé Mommy?” and we’d find our rhythm again.

It was as his 6th birthday approached that I decided I was done. He was getting his first loose tooth and that seemed like a natural transition point: the milk teeth were going and the milk was, too. We had one last bittersweet nursing session on the eve of his 6th birthday, I snuggled him extra close and smelled his amazing little head pressed up against my chest. I was very glad to be finished but a little sad too. It had been a wonderful way to reconnect amidst our very busy lives, it had been a comfort for any tantrum or tumble, and it had kept him incredibly healthy.

And now my daughter is 5 and I’m waiting for her first loose tooth. She has a powerful personality and is very upfront about her reluctance to ever give up her beloved mé-mé. But she knows that the end is near and that soon she too will have a wiggly tooth. It will mean that our nursing journey has ended, and although I certainly hadn’t planned on becoming an ultra-marathon breastfeeder, I’m pretty proud of how well we’ve done. They’re healthy, they’re happy, and I’m going to treat myself to a really nice, completely nursing-unfriendly bra when this is all over!


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