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Amy Bowman: Breastfeeding Past One?

mother nursing toddler and holding preschooler
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As my baby gets older, I find myself becoming more self-conscious of our nursing relationship. A quietly feeding infant, snuggled against my breast with eyes closed, used to draw admiring smiles from passersby and relatives when I breastfed in public. Now the glances seem to say, "How long does she plan to nurse that kid, anyway?" as Katie snacks noisily across my lap. Such glances aren't really surprising in a society where synthesizing substitutes for mother's milk is a very big business.

But despite what society is doing around me, I live in a fairly sheltered world. My weekly playgroup is made up of "attachment-oriented" moms who think nothing of nursing for two years or more. My online buddies are all attached moms who practice extended nursing and child-led weaning. The books I read describe the benefits of breastfeeding for a year or longer. But I am occasionally shocked back into the real world, the mainstream world, by my best friends, my pediatrician, or my acquaintances, none of whom seem to understand why or how I would nurse a baby who is fast becoming a little person.

Just last night, I arrived at a dinner party with my nearly 8-month-old baby on my hip and was greeted with, "You're *still* nursing? Are you sure you have enough milk? Don't you give her cereal?" I turned to my baby, who was squirming to be put down. As soon as she hit the ground, Katie "sprinted" on all fours to the edge of the patio and pulled herself to standing on a lounge chair. "She seems to be doing OK," I said.

Then there's my best friend. She was always a big supporter of my nursing relationship with Katie and remains supportive, aside from comments like, "Maybe she's hungry," when I report that Katie's fussy. "You should give her some cereal. Don't you have any cereal?" And my neighbor: "She wants some variety. Ask your doctor if you shouldn't start giving her different types of food now." I usually nod, smile, and tell a story about Katie's latest experiment with banana or squash. That seems to hold them for a while.

The problem is, no matter how firmly I believe that I am caring for my baby in the best way possible, I am not usually one to go against the norm. My husband and I are so conscious of our family's disapproval of cosleeping that we took the extra and ridiculous step of setting up a portable crib next to our bed when we visited our parents recently, knowing full well that Katie would sleep between us as usual. So I know that extended nursing - which, to my family, is beyond a year - is going to present challenges.

It's not that I have always been committed to extended breastfeeding. When I was just six weeks pregnant, I remember having lunch with a friend and her toddler. After a while, the toddler started to fuss and squirm. "He wants to nurse," my friend said. I was shocked. Nurse? He's walking! He knows a few words! The idea was foreign to me. As my pregnancy progressed, I read more and more about child-led weaning, but I'll admit I was still leery about nursing a walking, talking child. Even when Katie was around six months old, I did a double-take when a woman at playgroup lifted her shirt to accommodate her two-year-old. The little girl toddled up, nursed a little, and went on her way. Not something you see on TV or in the aisles at WalMart.

Given my personal experience, then, I can understand being leery of something so foreign in mainstream society. But really, there is nothing foreign about something as natural as extended nursing. Today, in our bottle-fed Western world, we praise moms who "stick with it" for four or six months, while in the past - and in many present-day cultures - breastfeeding for at least a year was and is a means of survival. With no iron-fortified baby cereal or multivitamin drops at the ready, mothers don't have the option of declaring, "I want my body back!" or to give into the pressure from uninformed friends who suggest, "Don't you think it's time to wean that kid already?" These moms don't say, "I've done my best; I gave her four (or six or eight) months of my milk." To them, and to me, doing my best is giving my child no less than what she needs - as long as she needs it.

Now, what about those sidelong glances from strangers and jibes from well-meaning friends or relatives? How will I nurse my toddler when I am still pretending not to cosleep with my 8-month-old? As Katie gets older, and as my confidence as a mom increases, the "advice" from Grandma or the "words of wisdom" from the woman sitting next to me on an airplane start to fade against the powerful instincts that drive my relationship with my daughter. My skin becomes ever thicker as I build up the knowledge and confidence to not only do what I know is right for Katie, but to speak up about it. Hopefully other moms will hear me. Who knows? I might even leave that port-a-crib in the closet next time I visit my parents.

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