Before my son Bobo was born, I was very pro-breastfeeding. I was, in fact, a breastfed baby, myself. My mother nursed me until I was a year old, and so I grew up believing this was normal and expected. Later, I learned that many experts support breastfeeding through the second year, because the nutritional and health benefits gained in infancy do not "expire." Knowing that, I felt comfortable projecting my own breastfeeding tenure out at least one year, and possibly two. If anyone had suggested to me that I would still be breastfeeding my son on his fourth birthday, I would not have believed it. To me, four years old meant independence, going potty on your own, going to school, learning to read--not nursing at mother's breast. It took really listening to my son's need, not society's expectations, to realize that these things were not mutually exclusive.

I was never one of those women who had trouble with breastfeeding. In fact, I "suffered" from oversupply. I know it's obnoxious to complain about such a thing, but having your shirt drenched from gushing milk when your baby is already six months old is more than a little annoying. I feel very fortunate, however, to have had such an easy start.

Bobo was an avid nurser from the beginning. Possibly it had something to do with the ridiculous abundance of milk. Or it could have been simply that he was a colicky baby, and nursing was a particular comfort to him. He showed little interest in solid foods until he was about nine months old. My earlier efforts to interest him in pureed vegetables fell flat. Then one day he declared his readiness by stealing a graham cracker from an older baby at day care. Still, the majority of his nutrition came from mother's milk. It seems he didn't want to eat solid food until he had a set of teeth to chew it with.

My doctor explained to me that young toddlers experience a decrease in interest in breastfeeding around one year, and that if I did not take that opportunity to wean, I would be in it for the long haul--meaning two years. (To her credit, she never batted an eye when he was still nursing long past that point.) Since two years was already included in my calculations, I was not worried. Furthermore, I never detected any decrease in interest. He nursed many times a day, all day long, and sometimes at night. I did find, during this second year, that it was necessary to teach "manners" for nursing. This really begins when the baby cuts his first tooth, and must be taught not to teethe on Mommy's nipple. Next lessons include sitting down to nurse, rather than doing "drive by" nursings while playing with other things. Also, not nursing upside down.

I slowly gained the ability to delay nursing sessions that were inconvenient for me, or to terminate those that were trying my patience. I did not find nursing a toddler to be a drain on my time or energy, and it was an excellent tool for calming toddler emotional meltdowns. Since Bobo was still taking in a large number of calories from milk, I also enjoyed weight loss benefits long after most women had weaned, and I bottomed out at less than my prepregnancy weight.

By the end of the second year, I began to think about weaning. But to be honest, there were other issues that were more important to me than this. Potty training loomed large on the horizon, and by then I was desperate to get a full night's sleep. A couple of other things happened, too. One is that I had been exposed to other nursing toddlers and preschoolers, and it didn't seem like a big deal at all. Another is that my "big" two-year-old still looked like a baby to me, and while many two-year-olds are happy to be weaned, he conveyed to me both verbally and nonverbally that his needs in that area were still ongoing. It just felt right to keep nursing him, while gently imposing more limits as appropriate to his age.

What a lot of people don't realize is that nursing a two- or three- year old is a piece of cake. By then, it is easy to say "not now," and it can be very sweet to reconnect with your rapidly growing, ever-more-independent youngster through a nursing session. I did become more aware, though, of the potential disapproval of friends, family, and acquaintances, so as he approached three, I took my breastfeeding underground. My doctor knew about it, and some friends and family who had been understanding. I will say I lied to his dentist, since she seemed like the judgmental type.

As the fourth year wore on, I did finally notice a distinct decrease in interest in nursing, which I tried to gently encourage. I had long since stopped offering the breast, and I began to limit him to morning and night time nursing sessions. I also experienced a wistfulness about weaning. Sure, I was ready to finally wean and have my body back, so to speak. But I was also, finally, keenly aware of how quickly babies grow. When you have your first child, nothing can teach you this but the passage of time. But once you've seen it happen, you are never quite as eager for a child to fly past those milestones. I knew our time as a nursing couple was coming to an end, and I both looked forward to it, and was also a little sad.

One night, shortly after his fourth birthday, he asked to nurse, and I talked to him about being a big boy, and about all the things he could eat now that he was a big boy. He volunteered pizza as an example, and I agreed. That night, he went to sleep without nursing, and he never did nurse again. It was just exactly perfect. No tantrums, no crying, no stress. Just the right time for his little personality.

Now that my son is eight years old, I have a great deal of perspective on this issue. Bobo is completely normal. He has no difficulties with school, socialization, dependency, learning, or in any other area. In fact, he is quite advanced academically, and very sweet and kind. He makes friends easily, and has what I think is the right amount of independence from his parents, as well as the right degree of attachment. I never thought I would nurse my son for four years, but I followed my heart and it was okay. There is no right or wrong time to wean. Some mothers must wean their babies at six weeks when they go back to work. Others wean during that mythical window my doctor told me about. Some babies wean themselves abruptly. Some hold on for a very long time. This is a decision we need to make for ourselves as mothers, and there is no right or wrong way. As they say, no child ever went to college in diapers. As well, no child ever breastfed forever. And yet too many of us are far too judgmental on this subject. The degree of validity of our own choice is directly proportional to the degree of acceptance we show towards others.

Ultimately, I have to say that breastfeeding for four years does not make me a hero. It is only one thing I have done for my son, and not even the most important thing. I think if more mothers felt free to follow their hearts, more of them would make the same choice I did, because I see a lot of ambivalence and unhappiness in the weaning stories I hear. But what I really think is that the issue of when to wean or not does not deserve the degree of obsession or scrutiny we place on it. It is a background operation, tied to developmental switches that flip on and off on a schedule that is individual for each child and mother. If you trust in it, it will work as it is intended to.

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