Family Matters

Extended Breast-Feeding: Is It More Common than We Think?

Why I (quietly) nursed my three kids well past their first birthdays, and why this doesn't automatically mean I believe in attachment parenting

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It’s hard to ignore TIME’s May 21 cover. There’s Jamie Lynne Grumet, looking every bit the supermodel in superskinny jeans, ballet flats and a strappy tank top with the neckline tugged down to make way for … her nearly 4-year-old son. He’s breast-feeding.

Over the past few months, breast-feeding has grabbed headlines as moms have staged nationwide nurse-ins to draw attention to their right to breast-feed in public. Mothers with babes in arms have collectively bared their breasts in Target stores; they’ve had their infants latch on at Facebook’s headquarters and at the state capitol in Georgia.

But the campaign for greater acceptance of nursing in public — and all those detractors who recoil when they see a mother feeding a baby just as her body is programmed to do — pales next to the startling image of Grumet feeding a boy who clearly doesn’t need breast milk to thrive. Or does he?

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In a society that still gets squeamish when a baby is nursed in public, the idea of continuing to nurse that baby until he’s a toddler or even a preschooler is a real show stopper. But much of the world doesn’t share the U.S.’s uneasiness. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breast-feeding up to a child’s second birthday “or beyond.” Most U.S. mothers don’t even meet the recommendation made by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Surgeon General that they skip infant formula and breast-feed exclusively for six months. According to the CDC’s 2011 Breastfeeding Report Card, 75% of U.S. mothers start out nursing their babies, but only 44% have stuck with it by the time their child is 6 months old — and just 15% are breast-feeding exclusively by that point. By baby’s first birthday, less than a quarter of mothers are breast-feeding at all.

From that small remainder emerges an even smaller group of extreme breast-feeders like Grumet. Which women are crazy enough to continue to nurse a child who can walk and talk?

Um, me.

(QUIZ: What’s Your Parenting Style?)

I spent more than six years total nursing my three kids. I have no idea how this happened. Unlike Grumet, I do not adhere to the philosophy of attachment parenting — the subject of this week’s cover story by Kate Pickert (available to subscribers here). The tenets espoused by its guru, Dr. Bill Sears, always felt too proscriptive: you must co-sleep and wear your baby in a sling from morn till night and breast-feed for years and never, ever let your baby cry. My kids slept in cribs, and easily transitioned to big-kid beds in their own rooms, although they still sometimes creep into my bed in the middle of the night. I enjoy cuddling them too much to move them back.

At one point, I owned half a dozen strollers (attachment parenting frowns upon these because they keep Mom from physically connecting with her baby), but I also strap my almost 5-year-old into an Ergo baby carrier — and love feeling her big-girl weight on my back. I “Ferberized” my oldest child, allowing him to cry for longer and longer blocks of time in a quest to sleep-train him before my maternity leave ended, and it worked. He still smiled at me when I plucked him from his crib the following morning, and nine years later, he’s a champion sleeper who doesn’t appear to have suffered any psychological ramifications, as far as I can tell. I wish I could say the same for myself; the experience of letting him “cry it out” was so traumatic that I let sleep-training slide with my younger kids. (The 5-year-old still wakes up at night.)

All this is to say that parenting is about embracing contradictions. So while I never could live up to many of attachment parenting’s pillars, extended breast-feeding appealed to me. That’s the term typically applied to nursing after a baby’s first birthday. I didn’t plan to do this. It just unfolded, with weeks slipping into months, and months melting into years. I loved nursing my children, the closeness that it engendered, the mandatory time out in a day filled with to-do lists. That said, nursing my children as they got older became largely a private affair — not because I was embarrassed but because they no longer needed to nurse at a restaurant or on a picnic bench. They preferred to eat food. So I rarely had to contend with strangers’ stares because the older my kids got, the less they nursed. That’s the normal progression of things — it’s how weaning is ideally supposed to work.

(MORE: Why Breast-Feeding Isn’t the Bugaboo)

So why the undeniable gawk factor when the occasional mother breast-feeds a preschooler at the park? Bettina Forbes, co-founder of breast-feeding advocacy group Best for Babes, thinks it’s because we’re so uneasy with the concept of breast-feeding in general. “You’re talking about a culture uncomfortable with breast-feeding a 6-week-old,” says Forbes. “We’ve sexualized the breast so much that people have forgotten breasts are for breast-feeding.”

In 2008 the American Academy of Family Physicians did its part to try to destigmatize nursing toddlers and older children, applauding the WHO guidelines even as it acknowledged that extended breast-feeding “is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement.” The group added:

It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer. There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful to mother or child.

And it’s good for kids too, packed with nutrients and more fat and calories for older nursers. That’s the amazing thing about breast milk; it evolves to meet the needs of the child it’s nourishing. Still, my father, a physician, couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t wean my children. “When are you going to stop breast-feeding already?” he’d ask each time he’d see me. “It’s not like I’m giving them soda,” I’d respond. “I’ll stop when I’m ready.”

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In truth, I was never ready. I weaned my first two midway into subsequent pregnancies, bowing to pressure from my husband and doctors that it was probably a good idea to put my developing baby’s needs first. Plenty of women, of course, continue to safely nurse through pregnancy. But I wasn’t crazy about the thought of nursing two at a time. Several years later, I weaned my youngest because I had an unavoidable out-of-town trip. She was pushing 3 at the time, and I was able to have a conversation with her about what was about to happen. We had a kind of farewell party: she celebrated by munching on a cupcake made to resemble a breast with a gumdrop nipple, and that was it. We were done.

But the memories live on. When my daughter wants comfort, she asks if I can “hold her like a baby” — and she scoots into her old breast-feeding position to cuddle. Grumet’s mother breast-fed her until she was 6 (!), and in a Q&A posted on Healthland, she describes her memory of what suckling felt like:

It’s really warm. It’s like embracing your mother, like a hug. You feel comforted, nurtured and really, really loved. I had so much self-confidence as a child, and I know it’s from that. I never felt like she would ever leave me. I felt that security.

Years from now, I hope that’s what my kids remember too.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Attachment Parenting