Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Nursing Past Three
by Jennifer Margulis

When we sat down to lunch this afternoon, my girlfriend Humaiya, also the mother of three children, marveled at my son Etani, who was putting rice on his fork with his hands and then wobbling it up to his mouth. “Look at him eat!” she cried. “He’s not still nursing, is he?!”

“I’m planning to rent a house near where he goes to college,” I joked to another friend who asked me in an exasperated voice when I was going to wean my son. “That way he can keep nursing.”

Etani turned three in October and he nurses before his mid-day nap and at bedtime. I sometimes nurse him at other times too, when he feels sad or is really overtired or overwhelmed. He settles right down, his whole body relaxes, and he sighs with deep contentment. He doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell me in words but if he did I think he’d say that nursing makes him feel safe and protected and loved.

“That is so gross,” an editor said to me on the phone when I mentioned that a family I was writing an article about had a nursing toddler. “If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to nurse!”

That sentiment is so often repeated that it has almost become a cliché. But why are we disgusted by the idea of a toddler nursing? When I went to visit my friend Sue’s family in Mississippi when we were in college her great aunt started talking about the black people in her town. “I let one touch me once,” Sue’s great aunt said with the same mixture of revulsion, fascination, and horror in her voice that my editor used to talk about nursing. Sue’s great aunt was disgusted by the idea of a black person touching her because it went against the social norms of her generation. Though it may not be an entirely fair comparison, I think my editor (a childless woman in her 40s) was disgusted by the idea of a two or three year old nursing because it goes against the social norms of her generation, not because there is anything empirically wrong with it.

In fact, myriad scientific studies suggest that the longer human babies nurse the healthier they become. We all know about the medical benefits of nursing, which include reduced allergies, higher IQ, protection against diseases (including ear infections, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems), better speech development, possible delayed menstruation in the mother, continued weight loss in the mother, and protection against ovarian and other forms of cancer. Today the majority of American mothers decide to try breastfeeding. In 2000, about 68% of mothers initiated breastfeeding. But most of these same women return from the hospital laden with formula samples and coupons, and, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women continue breastfeeding for at least 12 months, the vast majority of American women stop nursing before their infant is six months old.

When my mom decided to breastfeed her first child, the nurse in the hospital disapproved, suggesting she give her newborn formula and bottles of water. “Calves drink cow milk, lambs drink sheep milk,” my mother (who is a biologist) told the nurse, “my infant is going to drink human milk.” It seems hard to believe that my mother would have had to defend her choice to the medical establishment since the pendulum has swung the other way and today women often feel social pressure to breastfeed. But although nursing small babies has become accepted, even expected, women who nurse their babies past infancy often feel they will be stigmatized and they tend to keep it secret.

Two of my adult friends remember being nursed. My friend Helen, who weaned when she was four, remembers the deep sense of security, warmth, and closeness to her mother that nursing gave her. My friend Richard, who grew up in Rwanda, a country with an extremely high child mortality rate, nursed until he was five and was one of the healthiest children in his village. They are both well-adjusted, happy, healthy adults who have children of their own and sweet memories of childhood.

When dinner is almost over, my son climbs onto my lap and leans back into me, tilting his head upward so our eyes meet, his are hazel with specks of green in them. “Mommy, can I have some nummies?” he asks, patting my cheek with his tiny hand. “Pajamas first,” I tell him. He giggles happily, wiggles off my lap, and runs to get ready for bed.
Jennifer Margulis, author of Why Babies Do That and editor of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love, will be spending next year in West Africa with her husband and three children on a Fulbright Fellowship. Read more about her at ToddlerTrueStories.com