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I have been breastfeeding for a little more than sixty-one of the last sixty-four months of my life.

Sixty-one months, you say? Isn’t that more than five years? Yes it is. My daughter is five years, four months, and 3 days old today. I breast fed her for the first thirty-three months of her life, more than half of her life so far. Weaning her was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

I know. I am aware you are probably thinking something like, “This woman is out of her blooming mind!” I was right there with you before I had children. While extended nursing, or full-term nursing as many naturally-minded parents call it, has come to the forefront since the Time magazine article and cover was printed in May of 2012, it is still not widely practiced or accepted in much of the United States. It was not something really on my radar before kids. In fact, I clearly remember watching a video online of a two year old nursing. I was a bit put-off when the child verbally asked to nurse and made comments about the taste of the milk. I recall telling my husband, “I think if they can talk, they are too old to nurse.” He agreed and said that between one and one and half years seemed more than long enough.

I had a great pregnancy with my daughter and a natural, drug-free birth, with few complications. She took to nursing quite naturally and we needed little help from the lactation consultant at the hospital. Nursing proved to be a bit more uncomfortable than I had been told. After a few weeks, I was in serious pain. I was using nipple creams and airing my nipples when I could and trying whatever I could to ease the pain. Only, it became more painful. I would cry in the middle of the night when my daughter woke to eat. The combination of really painful nursing and complications from an injury sustained during the birth, made night-time feeding especially difficult because I hadn’t mastered side-lying nursing and was trying to support an injured back and tailbone in a bed with no real headboard. I tried to get some help, wondering if it was a bad latch, a problem with her mouth, etc. The obstetrician, the pediatrician, and the lactation consultant all said it was fine. Her latch was fine, she was gaining weight, they couldn’t find a problem, but I felt like I was in hell. I didn’t have the benefit of a La Leche League nearby or an English speaking Certified Lactation Consultant who I could really talk to, because of where I was living.

So, why didn’t I stop? I don’t really know, other than the fact that I had decided I wanted to breast-fed her for at least her first year of life. For me, the benefits of breastfeeding outweighed all of my pain and misery. A few months of pain, for a life-time of benefits for both her and me, seemed like a no-brainer. I think also, in my sleep deprived brain, I thought it was one thing that I was able to do really well as a mother and it made me feel like I was doing a good job, giving her nature’s perfect food.

Then, all of a sudden, it got better. I had spent hours on the internet and in books, trying to figure out what was wrong and finally, I found it. I had Raynaud’s phenomenon. This generally occurs when they baby is latching in such a way that it cuts off circulation to the nipple, resulting in sever burning and can often result in severe and persistent pain. I had a very severe case and as soon as I realized this and found information on how to relieve it, things began to get better. Soon after, breastfeeding was smooth sailing. So much so, that I began to do it without even thinking about it. After all that trouble, it seemed only natural to keep a good thing going. I was fortunate enough to have a number of friends who also continued nursing past the first year, so no one in my immediate circles really blinked at our continuing relationship. And, about that whole talking nonsense? My daughter started using words to ask for things at seven months old. Seven months. That is way less than I had intended to nurse her and we had just started getting into a comfortable nursing relationship. The fact that she could ask to nurse, only seemed sweet, not creepy. Nursing worked for us, so we kept doing it. We only really considered stopping when we were trying to conceive our second child, but since we had lots of friends who got pregnant, while nursing, we decided not to worry, unless it felt like it was becoming a problem. We got pregnant with our son when she was about a month shy of being two and a half. At that point, she really only nursed before napping and sleeping at night, so we decided to take a position that is not for everyone and let her decide when to stop nursing. I have not, after all, ever seen a kindergartener still nursing.

Then, about six months into my pregnancy, I changed my mind. My nipples had become extremely sensitive and nursing was making my skin crawl. I literally felt as if I would go out of my mind every time I nursed her. We also had decided that I would go home to have our second child and would be staying with family. I was extremely stressed about travelling, birthing without my spouse, and caring for a newborn and toddler and decided that I would wean my daughter, then thirty-three months. It was excruciating for us both. She did not understand why I was depriving her of this sweet relief she and I had shared for her entire life. No amount of sweet words, cuddles, singing or kisses could appease her grief. She cried and wailed and pummeled her fists against me every time I denied her requests to nurse for nearly two weeks. She went entire portions of days where she wouldn’t speak or look at me, except to cry because she was so distraught over the whole process. I felt terrible. I justified it by telling myself it would be one less area of competition for her and her brother. Looking back, I wish I had just stuck to my guns and said thrown caution to the wind, but at the time, it seemed like so much more than I could handle.

Breastfeeding my son started out so much easier. Despite a short stay in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), he took to nursing well and our nursing relationship was virtually trouble free for several months. My Raynaud’s did appear on one side, but I knew how to handle it and we had very few bumps in that first year of nursing. Around the time he was fifteen months, I developed some sort of combination of thrush (an oral yeast infection that can be transmitted to the nipples) and a bacterial infection. I tried several remedies for about a month before seeking help with my local lactation consultant. She whipped up a cream that consisted of coconut oil, honey, and oil of oregano that did clear up the problem, but I still had symptoms for another eight or ten weeks. It was red, itchy, and fairly painful. It was nothing like the problems I had nursing my daughter, but it was still fairly painful. My mother and sister urged me to just stop nursing, telling me he had gotten most of the benefits of nursing anyway at this point. This time, however, I stood my ground. I knew my son wasn’t ready to quit, so we didn’t. I struggled through, with a lot of wincing and groaning, and not without a few tears, but we made it and have had no other problems. He is twenty-nine months old now and he still nurses upon waking in the morning, at naptime, bedtime and pretty much any time he is anxious or upset. Sure, he is past the age where he “needs to nurse”. He can ask for it and tell you why he “really, really needs to nurse” right now. However, I hope I can be strong enough for him to nurse for as long as he needs me to. Simply put, I still nurse because he needs me to and as long as he needs it, I will.

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