Mikko is now 2.5 years old (31 months), and he was 18 months old when I was musing aloud about whether it was appropriate to continue breastfeeding him while we were out and about.
In case you were wondering, I still am nursing him in public, but I keep thinking about the issue.
I wish it weren't an issue. I wish everyone believed, as I do, in the unquestioned benefits of full-term breastfeeding and accepted child-led weaning (although I have nothing against mutual or mother-led weaning per se, and that's not my argument here). I wish the society in which I lived wasn't so scared of boobies (e.g., nip slip! the horror!), particularly when said breasts are fulfilling their intended purpose.
But it's not that way. Lactivists are fighting for the right to breastfeed a tiny newborn in public, even with a blanket. Am I hurting the fight by nursing a gangling toddler in full view, sans cover-up?
Mikko still nurses a lot. Every time I read a blog post of someone who's nursing a toddler, it's the same story: "We're down to two feedings a day, morning and night," or "only before naptime," etc., and so nursing in public is not even relevant to the discussion. Whereas Mikko still nurses like a wee thing. He picks at solid food (see, it sounds ludicrous even to call it "solid food" in reference to a 2.5-year-old who weighs 36 pounds; I don't call what I eat "solid food," I just call it "food") but will take nummies whenever they're around. I heard once that the technique of "don't offer, don't refuse" is a weaning strategy, but for us, it just seems to be life. I don't need to offer, because he's always doing the asking.
I started counting up the number of times we nursed one day a few months ago, and it was over 15 before I lost track. That's a lot of nursing! So, just as with a newborn, I have these options:
- Wean or cut down on nursings.
- Stay home.
- Nurse my toddler in public.
I would never tell any mother to wean a young infant or keep her baby hungry just so she could go shopping or out to eat. I would never tell her she should just stay home until the baby could take a bottle or had weaned. I would never tell her she had to supplement her baby's breastfeeding with expressed milk or formula, or solids in the case of a slightly older baby.
So why do I feel like what I'm doing is toeing the line of what is acceptable?
If Mikko could choose, he would choose #3, unhesitatingly. He frequently asks to nurse in situations where I'm not comfortable. I wish I were comfortable everywhere, but I'm so aware now that what I'm doing is aberrant for this culture.
For instance, the other day we went to a birthday party for another little boy, and I was sitting on a straight chair next to the child's grandmother, with an uncle standing in front of me. Mikko wanted to nurse. I imagined the gasp of horror from the grandmother, the wide eyes of the uncle as he got a view down my opened shirt. I picked Mikko up and went into the birthday boy's bedroom. Mikko got distracted by the toys there, so that ended the desire.
Mikko doesn't need to nurse all day, in some sense. He could get nutrients from other foods. He could sate his thirst by drinking other beverages. He manages fine without me when I'm not available, as when Sam takes him out for hours at a time to the zoo or on errands. Mikko will ask for nummies when I'm not around, but he doesn't dissolve into tears or faint from hunger without them. I could see some saying that his breastfeeding is more of a habit, a comfort sucking now. It's not that I don't agree, just that I think it's a tricky thing to separate a child's needs from a child's wants. I'm not the one who can prioritize what's important to him. In breastfeeding throughout these past two and a half years, I've always trusted him to know when he needs to nurse and how much. It put me in good stead when he was a newborn, and I don't want to stop now.
But I find myself hesitating when he asks for nummies in public. I weigh the situation. Are we among friends? Are we among friends who would approve? If there are strangers around, is anyone near enough to see what's happening?
I try to breastfeed discreetly, just because I am so aware that what I'm doing is unusual and I don't want to draw negative attention my way — particularly not if that attention lands on my defenseless son's head. But I can't breastfeed as discreetly as I used to, because Mikko won't stand for fabric near his face anymore. If I try to lift up my shirt to feed, he protests. "No. Big nummies," is his demand. He wants the full deal, out of the top of my shirt. I have large breasts, so I cover up the extra skin with my free hand — but not too near his mouth, or he'll push my hand away and a scrabbling battle will ensue. He'll then pop off the nipple to berate me for daring to intrude on his space, and I figure that sort of scene is more likely to attract attention than quiet nursing with a little bit of boobage showing.
Along the same lines, could I refuse his request for nursing in public? Sometimes. Maybe. As with the situation with the toys, sometimes something can distract him. But sometimes not. And then screaming ensues. And I wonder if the screaming, followed by nursing, might not attract more attention than just quietly giving in for a few sips.
Here's my biggest fear about nursing a toddler in public, apart from any negative comments we might receive but have so far been lucky to avoid. (For what it's worth, we haven't garnered any positive ones, either, at least from strangers, but I'm all right with people just ignoring us.) My biggest fear is that I'm setting the breastfeeding-rights movement back. I worry that far from normalizing breastfeeding, my breastfeeding a toddler sends a signal that breastfeeding is only for extremists. It is so bizarre by the current cultural standards that I fear anyone seeing us who's on the fence won't think, for example, "Well, I should at least breastfeed my newborn, then," but something more along the lines of, "Ugh, breastfeeding is so weird and primal and crunchy, and that's never going to be me."
So that's where we stand. I breastfeed my full-fledged toddler in public. Frequently. But with a side dish of waffling.
I don't even want to come to a conclusion here about where I think I should go with this, because I want (I think) to hear your opinions and experiences about nursing a toddler in public. I mean, I love hearing from you all, but I was a little leery to post this. I'm afraid all the comments will function as a sort of poll, and I'll have to abide by the group decision or suffer the emotional consequences. I don't want to be heaped with guilt and shame if we continue to breastfeed in public if, for instance, the informal poll tells me we should stop and I should day-wean him.
But, you know, a blog post's a blog post, and this has been swirling in my head for some time. I am interested in hearing what you have to say. Have at it.