Before you had kids, were there things you swore you would never do once you became a mother? You’re not alone! In our series “I Never Thought I’d Become THAT Mom,” we’re sharing our “can’t believe” moments as we reflect on motherhood.
My 4-year-old son launches into my bedroom in the morning, all energy and sunshine and cheer. He curls up next to me in bed. “Mommy, I want milk,” he says. And I pull up my shirt, and he latches on to my breast.
Let that settle for a minute. I am nursing a 4-year-old.
If you’re surprised by that, you’re not the only one.
I never expected to be still nursing my son at this age. I know we are far, far in the minority; and I know that many people would criticize me for continuing as long as we have. But it works for my son and me. And though I’m surprised to be in this place, I’m not unhappy to be here.
Will and I had a rough start with nursing. Two words: cracked nipples. And two more: nipple shield. The thin piece of silicone that provided me pain relief also kept him from getting as much milk as he could; and with less stimulation to my breasts, my supply went down. In his second week, at a time when he was supposed to be gaining weight, he actually lost weight. His pediatrician wasn’t worried, but I was frantic.
I was determined to make nursing work; my breasts had been a hindrance my whole life, but by God they were going to fulfill their natural function.
And I did make it work, by sheer force of will, and with a lot of help from a lactation consultant. I got a correctly sized nipple shield, which got more milk to Will and stopped his weight loss. I took fenugreek and drank special teas to get my supply back up, and eventually I got him to nurse without the shield at all. He took in more and more milk, and he grew into a chunky, happy baby.
After such a challenging beginning, I wasn’t in a rush to wean. I figured he would do it on his own. So we kept on, past the first birthday. And the second. And the third. And now, the fourth.
Our nursing sessions scaled back over time, of course. As he started eating more solid food, I dropped the post-nap sessions in favor of a hearty snack. As he went from two naps to one, and then from one to none, the pre-nap nursing disappeared. And for a period of a few weeks he didn’t ask to nurse at bedtime, so I stopped mentioning it.
But still the morning session remains. It’s a sweet, gentle way to wake up. Sometimes it lasts half an hour; sometimes he pops off my breast quickly. Sometimes he doesn’t ask to nurse at all, but just snuggles with me. And then we’re on to breakfast and a video and the rest of our day.
Because nursing is so strongly associated with mornings, I know it won’t be long before this era ends. Our mornings are getting busier with the start of preschool, and pretty soon there just won’t be time. Our weaning will be gradual and gentle — at least, that’s my hope.
I’m thankful that my husband hasn’t interfered with Will’s and my nursing relationship. He knew that we would end it in a way that worked for both of us. And our families either don’t know that we’ve still been nursing (hi, guys!) or they haven’t cared.
It’s rare for me to quote Scripture, but when I think about whether to continue nursing my son, at an age when most other mothers have stopped, this verse from the Gospel of Matthew comes to mind: “Which of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?”
Will still needs to nurse — for emotional reasons, if not nutritional ones anymore. And I do not feel comfortable pushing him away just yet. The thread running through my parenting decisions has been trusting my child. Trusting that he knows what he needs, and giving it to him when I can. And if he needs something for a little longer than I’d like — well, it’s my responsibility to adapt, not his.
I know this is where I open myself up to criticism. “You have to be the parent,” people say. But parenting, to me, isn’t about brute-forcing my child into rhythms that don’t work for him. It’s about helping him on his journey toward growing up, walking with him rather than running ahead.
I’m not saying I’m a martyr. Part of the reason I’ve continued is that it’s easy. If nursing were painful, or if I had to follow a special diet or forego needed medication to continue, I’d have stopped long ago. And to be clear, I don’t expect every mother-baby pairing to nurse as long as Will and I have. Far from it; our rough beginning taught me how challenging nursing can be, and I have tremendous respect for mothers who say, “You know what? I can be a better mother if I stop.”
Truth be told, I don’t expect to feel sad when our final nursing session has passed. I may feel relieved, proud, nostalgic. But not sad. Because it’ll mean that my child is growing up, as he should.
I never expected to be nursing my son at this age. It’s not the path I would have chosen. But it’s what he needed. And I’m glad that I’ve been able to give it to him.