Breastfeeding Beyond 2 Years

by Katie Detwiler

When my lactation consultant first asked how long I was hoping to breastfeed I said I didn’t know. One year at least? Two? I’d just see how it went. I had waited nearly a decade to have a baby and once Emma was here all I wanted to do was snuggle and stare at her! I knew I was willing to breastfeed as long as it seemed right for us, but I had no idea what was in store. 

Flash forward and at 2 weeks shy of her 4th birthday, our breastfeeding journey ended. Yep, you read that right… 4 years. 208 weeks. 1460 days. And, my best estimate, 5800+ hours. 

So how did we end up going for that long?

First, a disclaimer: I am the opposite of a Type A personality. Not sure if that makes me Type B? or some other letter but either way, I am usually spontaneous, I have very low anxiety, and I am content not following a strict schedule. I also decided to stop working when we had Emma, so I was not facing the added stress of going back to work and nursing. All of that played a role in my breastfeeding journey. I also had incredible support from my husband, extended family, and lactation consultant (who happens to be my sister-in-law and one of my best friends!). I also think it would be beneficial to share the frequency of nursing, as it made a difference in how long we continued. For the first 12-18 months Emma nursed pretty much on demand. From birth to 6 months that was easily 8-10 times a day, and after that at least 6-8 times, including middle of the night feeds, though they became fewer and far between. We chose to do baby-led weaning and introduced solids at 6 months when she showed signs of readiness. From 18 months to about 2.5 years, we nursed roughly 3-5 times a day, mostly adopting a ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ approach. Then, at 2.5 years we switched to only comfort nursing, and finally in the last couple months to brief stretches before bed and first thing in the morning. A little beyond age 3.5 she started having sleepovers at my mom’s house, which helped her realize she could go more than 24 hours without her beloved “milky”. We talked regularly about mama’s milk going away, which also helped prepare her. Finally, 2 weeks before her 4th birthday, Jonathan and I went away for about 5 days and Emma stayed with my mom. We used this as our way of ending our time breastfeeding, and while it wasn’t without some tears, we said good-bye to milky and hello to being a big 4-year-old. Those 4 years were not all sunshine and rainbows. There were tears and struggles, bad days and nights, and many sacrifices made, but these three reasons kept us going:

1.  It was the easiest and most convenient option. This is not meant to be flippant or make light of the difficulties many women experiencing nursing. And it wasn’t “easy” in the sense that it took no work, effort, or determination to continue. But for our family’s situation, breastfeeding was the easiest option. Because of the support from my lactation consultant, I was very comfortable early on nursing Emma based on her feeding cues and not focusing on a schedule. This gave me freedom to nurse on the go and I became more relaxed nursing wherever and whenever. In no way is breastfeeding always easy, but it can 100% make life easier.

2.  It was the ultimate comfort. In the breastfeeding class I took, comfort nursing was introduced and recommended. Comfort nursing essentially means letting your baby suckle at the breast even when they’re not eating. Some people may refer to it as using your breasts like a pacifier, and in a way that’s true. But to me that oversimplifies what it is. Sure, pacifiers may soothe and comfort babies, but I found that there was a limit to the amount of comfort they would bring Emma. The pacifier was great for car rides and when I was away from her, but when Emma really needed soothing, nothing was better than mama’s breast. As she got older and the need for the nutrients of breastmilk lessened, the reason for breastfeeding became comfort. She would nurse if she got hurt, if she was sad, when she was tired, and when she was feeling allll those feels toddlers start experiencing. Since nursing a toddler wasn’t the same time commitment as nursing a newborn, it went from all consuming to much more manageable and allowed me to *mostly* enjoy those brief moments of stillness and time together. Plus, in regards to mental health, nothing calmed my mama heart like seeing how breastfeeding comforted my daughter. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to me.

3. We didn’t have more children. This may seem like a somewhat silly, or obvious reason, but had we been able to have more children, I would not have nursed Emma as long. Yes, tandem nursing a newborn and toddler is a thing, but for our family I would have chosen to wean and solely nurse the baby. For many women this is what happens and their breastfeeding journey ends and a new one begins. Having an only child, my mindset often was, and is, ‘this is it, this is the only time I will experience _______’. Breastfeeding was one of those experiences I knew would never come again, so I tried my best to lean into it.

It's not lost on me that such a poignant and consuming time of my life will be only a blip on the radar for Emma’s. She won’t remember the middle of the night feeds, nursing in the car, nursing upside down as a toddler (luckily I have pictures!), or needing “milky” to calm down. Even these last couple years will fade over time for her. But what I hope will never leave is the bond that was formed through our breastfeeding journey. Though at one time I would have said otherwise, now that we’ve stopped, I can say I would do it all again. That’s how motherhood works, isn’t it? When you’re in the chaos of a certain season it can sometimes be hard to imagine life on the other side.

If you are just beginning your breastfeeding journey and are unsure of how long you want to continue, let me encourage you by saying YOU are exactly what your baby needs. Trust your instincts, give yourself grace, be flexible, and don’t be afraid to go against the norm. Stay calm and breastfeed on!

Nursing while river tubing at 4 months old.

Nursing around the campfire at 6 months.

Nursing on a boat at 18 months.

Nursing to sleep at 22 months.

Mamas in the north Charlotte and Lake Norman area, we encourage you to setup a home visit so we can help you reach your personal breastfeeding goals and/or a plan for weaning if you are feeling ready to close the chapter on this bittersweet season. If you are out of our travel area, you can setup a virtual consult with us or google "lactation consultant near me" to find local help