I'm just going to preface this with my truly honest opinion:
I love breastfeeding. It fascinates me and fulfils me. I didn't know I would feel this way about it until I started - I guess that oxytocin gets addictive! Just like it's really important to some mothers to find a good school or to feed an organic diet (neither of those are me by the way), breastfeeding is important to me. It's the choice I made and would make every time. But please believe me - I don't care how you choose to feed your baby. If you didn't want to breastfeed, or couldn't. I believe everybody should have access to good information and feeding support but ultimately we are all trying to do the best for our babes in a society that does not support breastfeeding. However you feed your little one, I know you love them just as much as I love Judah and that's wonderful. You have my full admiration and support.
Now Judah has turned two, our feeding relationship has changed slightly. I am now breastfeeding a child that can walk, talk, a fully-fledged toddler and all that that entails. I recently engaged upon a misguided nightweaning project that ended with us both in tears. I've always tried to be child-led in my relationship with my son, because he knows what he needs better than I do a lot of the time. I've been getting it wrong for the past few weeks and I still feel guilty.
A combination of factors led to this - I've been really tired lately and strung out and mistakenly believed and was assured nightweaning would get us all more sleep. Judah doesn't feed during the day, only for his nap and for bed. He goes to sleep and settles so well for my husband without milk on the few nights I am not there to put him to sleep. It seemed logical that he would now be able to abstain from milk in the night entirely and get by with just a few cuddles. We bedshare so it wasn't like I was leaving him on his own to cry - he would have my full presence.
The first night he went back to sleep in the night with not much fuss. I was pleasantly surprised. For the rest of the week it was tears and screaming every hour. He was previously a fairly good sleeper, waking maybe twice and settling back down with a feed. My boy had changed personality in the day as well - less confident, more clingy, pretending to be sleepy so I would put him for a 'nap' and he could sneak in an extra feed. Crying and whining for milk as I left for work. He was telling me he wasn't ready and I was not listening, so sure I was right.
I didn't take his feelings into account. It still surprises me to admit this. He's such a confident little boy, with never a backward glance for his mother. I thought he would be fine. I knew he would feel wronged and outraged, just like he does when he's denied chocolate and crisps. I am so used to not 'giving in' to his random demands on a daily basis this idea somehow transmitted itself to breastfeeding too. How wrong I was. My poor little soul cried out for milk in the night and I was only hushing and soothing him. In the daytime he clung to me like a little limpet asking for 'mummy's milk', something he's not done for months.
As busy and as strung out as I have been, I have also been more absent than I have ever been before in his life. I have not been the best mother than I could be lately. I have taken advantage of his confidence and trust at a time when I need to be building it up. What if the night feedings were what helped him feel secure and connected to his mother again? After a hellish week I'm glad to say I packed it in and we spent last night curled up together in a mutually restful sleep. He's not ready and neither am I.
When people hear that I'm still feeding Judah sometimes they react strangely. They remember feeding their demanding newborn and assume he's the same. Breastfeeding actually gets so much easier as your baby gets older the months just add up! They think that I need a break, or that I'm babying him. That I need my body back. That I'm a weak mother. That once he can ask for it he's too old. That's not how breastfeeding works. The strangest thing about feeding a toddler is people who were your staunchest breastfeeding allies start backtracking and that hurts.
What I find incredible is that the same people who compliment me on my son's confidence, assertiveness and happy nature condemn my parenting choices in the same breath. Has it occurred to them that these choices might actually contribute to the child that they delight in? I believe they absolutely do.
Why do I still breastfeed?
Feeding Judah to sleep is my 'me' time. As soon as he starts to drift off I can sneak out my phone and start to catch up on a few articles and message some friends while he suckles himself to sleep. It's useful too. When he got his finger caught in my bike crank and we finally managed to get it out, he was in pain and I put him to the breast immediately. It was instinctive - that comfort and analgesic for his woes. It's good for tantrums. Nothing calms an out of control toddler quite like milk.
Feeding Judah at night ensures I get rest. I am lazy and would prefer to stay in bed (especially at 6am). Although it's not as easy to drift back off with a toddler as with a newborn - newborns don't tend to kick you in the face, ask for their favourite story or demand a specific breast. However, sleeping together curled up means I don't have to get up and tend to a child and I suspect even though I'm tired, I may not be as tired as other mothers of nightwaking toddlers are due to this magic fix.
Judah was a fat baby! He packed on the pounds. He's a skinny toddler. He's dropped 25 centiles. I am not a worrying mother, I never have been. What does concern me is the thought of taking away this extra nourishment. We have an active lifestyle and I am not willing to compromise my son's health at this point in time for no valid reason.
It's worth bearing in mind that the world average age for weaning is 4, coincidentally the time that children start to lose their milk teeth. The more I learn about our bodies and nature the less I believe in coincidence. We are a perfect design. Breastfeeding is good for me as well. It keeps me eating cake and significantly reduces the risk of breast cancer. It's a part of how I mother. Some nights I want to lose my temper and stop altogether, but then I see that sweet innocent face asking for his favourite thing in the world and my thoughts immediately seem petty and trivial.
The people who are perhaps critical of our choice to keep going are the same people who would think nothing of him drinking cow's milk. They are the people who guzzle on their pints of steaming hot milk from Starbucks. I used to make those drinks and the smell of sour milk would linger on my clothing. Milk has always turned my stomach slightly and my work with little babies has given me plenty of evidence that our systems don't easily tolerate dairy (even breastfed babies who can't tolerate it in mum's diet). Breastmilk is the perfect food for human young.
Judah struggled to feed at first. He was very jaundiced and sleepy and I didn't know enough to get him to latch without drifting off. I thought he was feeding - he wasn't. I had to hand express colostrum and feed it to him in a cup as he had lost a lot of weight. The amazement I felt as we cracked it and began our beautiful feeding relationship is still here. We came so close to losing it. We've fed in castles, on beaches, in strange places. On the sofa watching cartoons, at a relative's house for an impromptu nap. Through injuries and boredom.
Breastfeeding forces us to slow down, to stop and savour the moment. No feed is the same. I still marvel at the difference between that tiny head that was dwarfed by my breast when he was a newborn and the fully grown toddler lying next to me. He traces my tattoos with his hands and stops to tell me what he sees. He inspects my face and counts out how many eyes and mouths that I have. It's our way of reconnecting after a tough day, after maybe too long apart.
He is growing up so quickly and I know one day soon I will be looking up into his eyes instead of holding him in my arms. He is so articulate and funny, already losing so much of what made him a baby. When we decide to finish feeding I know I will be heartbroken. These memories I will cherish all my life - when he loved me with the innocence of a child, when he needed me for the sweetest reason of all. He has so much time to be grown up and only so little time to be a child. These two years have already gone so fast, I never dreamed I would be feeding a big toddler but it has come around so quickly. I know the rest of his life will too.
If he doesn't remember feeding, I want him to remember how it made him feel. Safe, loved, fulfilled and accepted. Unconditionally loved, by a mother who makes mistakes but tries her best.