I Dread the Day I Have to Stop Breastfeeding My 3-Year-Old

breastfeeding toddler
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It is time for my 3-year-old to go to bed. He has donned his Paw Patrol pajamas, collected his stuffies, and had his last good-night kiss from Daddy. Now Sunny jumps on the bed. "Mama milk, mama milk," he chants.

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"Go to our spot," I tell him.

He capers over to the far side of the queen-sized family bed. My husband and I sleep mostly on the sidecarred twin and the crack between two mattresses. But now, I cuddle up on the far side with Sunny, burrow under the covers with the stuffed animals and pillows and a soft, warm toddler. His limbs are still baby-round, his skin still baby-soft.

"Mama milk, mama milk," he chirps. I should admonish him to say please, but I don't bother. I drop the neckline of my top. He latches on, mouth open, arms wrapped around my breast, legs curled up and into my tummy. And he begins to suck blissfully. He will lie like this until he falls asleep.

I will cuddle him close to me, both arms around him, and savor the moment. I know I don't have too many more left. I have nursed him to sleep every day of his life. Sunny was born screaming indignantly; he kept up that piercing newborn shriek until I offered him my nipple. He latched like a tiny piranha, and my breasts have been his comfort ever since. But the time is coming when that will all end. I know it. I dread it.

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I extended nursed both of his older brothers: His 7-year-old brother stayed at the breast until 3 years and three months, when I got pregnant with Sunny. I had been nursing both my firstborn and middle child, but I refused to tandem nurse while I was pregnant, so the oldest was finished. My middle son nursed until he was 4 and a half. His latch began to get wonky, and it was uncomfortable for me -- squicky, even. Then, after years of tandem nursing, I had only Sunny at the breast. My last biological baby, for a variety of reasons.

I got harassment for nursing my older sons for so long. When my oldest was almost 3, he busted his head open at my aunt's house. I calmed him the best I knew how: by nursing. And though no one said anything, I felt the judgment in the room, heavy as impending rain. When my middle son was 3, he was easily overwhelmed, and I often found myself nursing him in public, especially at gymnastics, with all its running and screaming children. Other mothers glared. I wasn't showing any breast. But the idea of an older child nursing was, somehow, deeply wrong to these women.

I gave up posting on the local La Leche League page long ago. My answers were colored by my experience of nursing three children to "advanced" ages, and it just scared other moms. I could feel the judgment seeping through the Internet, especially from those mothers whose stated goal was one year of breastfeeding. What must they think of me, the hippie, the earth mother, the freak? Best not to interact, even if it did open a few minds.

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But I'm glad I nursed my sons for so long. They're happy and healthy. They all had multiple allergies as children, and I think that extended breastfeeding helped begin to heal that. Because they remember nursing, they don't see boobs as some magical, mystical part of the female body; my breasts are more akin to an arm or a leg: something utilitarian. It will, I believe, help them to avoid objectifying women's bodies in the future. And they all know, intimately, the physical and emotional benefits of breast milk.

"Just nurse him," my 7-year-old might say in a bored voice when my 3-year-old's throwing a tantrum. He knows what calms Sunny down.

So we have it, this fragile bond, for a little while longer. I'll keep up nursing Sunny until his latch begins to go -- most people agree that it happens between 4 and 5 years old. He doesn't have a smaller sibling coming up behind, so there's no reason to rush him off the breast and into his own bed. We recently set a boundary for him: He will not ask to nurse in the middle of the night. If he wakes up, he has to cuddle with Daddy, not Mama. He needs to begin to let go. And so do I. It's easy when it comes at the expense of your sleep.

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It won't be easy when I lay him down for the last time, when I open my shirt, when he curls around me and sucks, sucks, sucks. It will break my heart. I've loved nursing my babies, at whatever age they've been. I will find it hard to let it go. But not now, not when he still values it so much, when it means so much to me. We still have time. Not much. But we still have time.

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