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The Radical Joy of Breastfeeding My 3-Year-Old

6 minute read

I’m not supposed to say that I breastfeed my 3-year-old because I like it. I’m supposed to say he needs it, he won’t quit. That I’m surrendering my body and time on the altar of attentive, attached motherhood. He enjoys it too, of course. He usually asks. I rarely offer. We do it a couple of times a day. More on weekends or when he’s hurt, sick, or just wants to. It also feels good. To me. It eases my anxiety. It is sentimental, sensory, and sensual. It fills me with love.

My son is large—in the 99th percentile for weight and height—so when he sits in my lap, his legs extend off the furniture, though he tries to curl them to become the smaller baby he once was. He squeals, then smushes my breast to his face with both hands, sometimes sucking and looking at me, sometimes drinking while driving a Matchbox car along my collarbone.

Years earlier, back in college, I sat beside a mother on an airplane who asked if I minded as she nursed her toddler. I said no, of course not. She schooled me on benefits for babies and the politics of nursing in public. I nodded, tried not to look. I remember feeling a blend of sympathy and discomfort as I tried on a mother identity in my mind—imagined whether I would ever breastfeed in that way, in public, a kid old enough to run, to feed himself, to speak multiclause sentences. It was my first exposure to a person nursing in front of me. I would barely experience that again until my own baby was at my breast.

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Breastfeeding is necessary and magical, yet American society stymies it from go. Babies need near constant access to their mothers’ bodies and uninterrupted time to figure out feeding, all but impossible in a country that sends a quarter of moms back to work two weeks after birth, denies postpartum support and paid leave, and assaults women’s autonomy. Any modicum of breastfeeding tolerance is for infants doing it, “breast is best” and all. It’s taboo to practice extended breastfeed (i.e., to breastfeed full-on kids). Calling it “extended” makes it an oddity—past what is expected, normal, or reasonable. Beyond its purpose to supply a product that can be extracted in private, fed to your kid by anyone. A pediatrician and an obstetrician separately told me that breastfeeding beyond six months is “just for the mom.” It’s almost certainly not. But so what if it is? It’s curious that when the act tips from benefiting babies to benefiting mothers, the censure flares.

The bulk of research devoted to understanding breastfeeding is on the nutritive benefits during the first six months to the first year of an infant’s life.While bodies like the WHO recommend breastfeeding babies for up to two years or beyond, we know practically nothing about breastfeeding beyond year one because we don’t study it. Still, we do know that breastfeeding’s rewards for mom–at least for the period that’s been the focus of research–are manifold and significant. It has been linked to a reduction in breast and ovarian cancer, and thanks to the oxytocin hit you get when you do it, you may experience a reduction in postpartum depression, stress, and anxiety. It can feel good in your head, in your body. It can create a closeness with your kid. Yet, by the time breastfeeding moves beyond necessity, beyond engorgement, spraying milk everywhere and soaking clothes, you’re urged to quit. Because doing it “for the mom” is wrong.

No one should feel shame about their feeding choices—everyone should make decisions that suit their body and family. I really appreciate that my kid comes to nurse for comfort, to regroup, as a pick-me-up or expression of love, rather than for a meal. Most women won’t experience this. The majority of people giving birth want to breastfeed, but only a quarter of moms exclusively breastfeed for their infant’s first six months as the CDC recommends.

We’re told infant feeding is individual choice. But the hurdles are institutional. “Women not meeting breastfeeding goals is presented as individual failure. That is such a lie. It’s such a fiction,” says Katie Hinde, a lactation researcher and professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University. We should receive far more support—from caregivers, health providers, work, family, the government, society. We all deserve the possibility of breastfeeding our kids for as long as we want, if we want to at all, but it’s a choice far too few people get to make.

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Even for those who manage to overcome the societal stigma and dearth of support to breastfeed babies in the early months, extended breastfeeding remains largely elusive, because stopping is what’s expected, or demanded. What feels like a natural conclusion to breastfeeding is actually a confluence of forces masquerading as care. As concern for mom, even—her body, space, money, and time. Breastfeeding your kid takes away your productivity and time with other people, so the pump and the bottle are presented as paths to freedom. Instead, they are the beginning of the end.

I think about this now, as I look forward to returning home at the end of the day to nurse my kid who is almost 4. It’s when my shoulders lower, I exhale deeply, snuggle him close, look in his eyes, and get a shot of oxytocin. To nurse is to be flooded with love. Sometimes I wonder why we must find verbal substitutes for what our bodies know and can communicate.

We are a universe away from the existential chaos of infant feeding—stressing that he isn’t getting enough ounces, trying to soothe cracked nipples, and being milked by my partner to unclog my ducts. Breastfeeding now feels gratifying, pleasurable, and anxiety reducing. The longer I do it and enjoy it, the more radical it feels. I’m saying I can do with my body what I want.

This article has been adapted from Birth Control: The Insidious Power of Men Over Motherhood, by Allison Yarrow. Copyright © 2023. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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