The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least one year, the World Health Organization bumps it up to two, but these are just numbers if you have no real life examples of women adhering to or even exceeding those guidelines.
I’ve known a lot of childbearing women in my life, including my own mother, and none of them nursed their children as long as I nursed my son. This is not to criticize what they did, but rather to shed light on a question I am sure many mothers ask: how long is long enough?
For me the answer was 20 months. That number can seem both surprisingly long and horribly inadequate, depending on which side of the extended breastfeeding debate you are on. When I was still nursing my son at one year, the weaning questions started pouring in, while at the same time I was on crunchy parenting boards reading about child-lead weaning and feeling guilty if my son was not nursing past the age of two.
In the end, weaning was a colloborative process. That may seem strange given that most literature presents ending the breastfeeding relationship as either the mother’s choice or the child’s without much in between. The first case implies taking away the breast too soon, while the latter implies giving in to the child’s every whim.
The journey to 20 months began when my son had has first taste of solid food, but really every day since he was born has been preparing him, and me, for this moment. I was lucky, or cursed, depending on what day it was, to have a son who nursed well and nursed often. Breastfeeding came so naturally to me, and I had no trouble reaching my original goal of six months. By that point my son was eating more and more solid foods, so making it to the one year mark was even easier. And then I was faced with a tough decision.
I knew I wasn’t yet ready to wean, but I also knew I didn’t want to be nursing a three-year-old, so I decided to aim for two years and see how it went. In the meantime, I worked hard at helping my son seek comfort in other ways, while slowly increasing his solid food intake. As the months passed, my son became less reliant on the breast for comfort and nourishment. And, with the support of my mother, I took advantage of a recent visit to my parents to finish weaning.
To my surprise, my son didn’t put up much of a fuss when I refused the breast. He was upset at first, but I was able to comfort him through hugs and kisses, reassuring him that although our nursing relationship might be over, I will still be there to offer a nurturing touch. And every day since has been easier. Now when my son grabs at my shirt, he is just asking for a drink of water or milk from a cup. (I’m working on a better system.)
Could my son have nursed longer? I’m sure if I offered, he would accept, but he is happy, so there’s no need. Twenty months worked for us. For another mom, the magic number might be three months, while another’s might be three years. So who is to say what is right? I just know what worked for me.