All your extended breastfeeding questions answered

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 Photo: Getty Images

It happened this one time when a pet died unexpectedly.

It was the first death my two small children had seen. My then-seven-year-old daughter found little Yuko. Rigor mortis had set in, which to me always looks like you have interrupted the journey, broken a spell somehow, and are seeing something you weren't meant to know.

For her, it was a very complete comprehension of the shock of sudden death and she was in anguish. But for my son, who was three at the time, our grief was like theatre. Death was cryptically associated somehow with toy guns and recklessness, and it was the reason his mother was skittish about shooting games.

Now all he wanted to do was get to the bottom of this death business. So he awkwardly interrupted my daughter and I crying to ask over and over again who killed out pet. And when I tried to explain that death just happens sometimes, he would blink and nod patiently and then ask again, "but who killed Yuko?" This repetitious loop of insensitivity was destroying my daughter, for he couldn't conceal his excitement around the event.

But by that night, when we three returned home and I showed them where the little animal was now buried, the three-year-old finally understood the finality of death and he was suddenly on the same page as us. We were all in my bed together (see the title of this article), and I was breastfeeding him because that's what he liked to do when he went to sleep, and also, I thought breastfeeding might be a better comfort than story books on a night like this. And that's when he abruptly came off the breast, sobbing too much to feed, and it seemed ... wanting to talk to my breasts about Yuko's death.

So if your rule is 'kids should stop breastfeeding when they are old enough to ask for it', how do you feel about kids who are old enough to emote their grief to it? I don't even know how I feel about that.

Sometime in their first year babies go through a developmental stage where they understand that the hand you wave in front of them or the nipple you pop into their mouth is actually part of you. Considering babies arrive in the world knowing almost nothing, it's an impressive concept to grasp. But apparently, that developmental stage can be incomplete.

Three-year-olds exist in this trippy stage of life where they know puppets aren't real, and that's why they've stopped screaming when one approaches them, but they are still capable of getting completely lost in 'pretend' while seeing that the puppet is quite obviously attached to your arm.

When my son began talking to my breasts ("breastfeedings" he called them, in case you were wondering), he was being so sincere and sad I did not know what to do. Should my breasts be answering him? It seems rude to remain indifferent to someone sharing the most tragic moment of their life with you. I mean, my breasts aren't cold-hearted. And if my breasts answered him then should they have my voice, which may take you out of the moment? Or should they have a unique voice of their own - in which case, what does a breast's voice sound like?

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So this was breastfeeding beyond babyhood. It was both strange and normal.

Before I had children I thought breastfeeding for more than 12 months was seriously pushing it. But then I surprised myself and breastfed my first child for just under two years.

With my second child I made even less effort to wean and he fed until he was almost four years old. (We could definitely have done an impression of that notorious TIME magazine cover. He was partial to a bit of standing-up breastfeeding, too.)

The thing I hadn't realised, back when I was repulsed by breastfeeding a child 'old enough to ask for it', is that babies 'ask for it' right from birth, and they never stop asking for it - their methods just grow increasingly sophisticated. And that sophistication, like all other milestones a baby achieves, makes a parent beam with pleasure. If you found yourself compelled to respond to their earlier requests, you may feel just as compelled by their later requests.

Here is how a baby 'asks for it': they cry shrilly, they nuzzle you, they suck on your finger, and turn their face towards you if you brush their cheek. Then one day, balanced in your lap, they throw themselves backwards to be laying down near your chest. You think, holy hell, your little neck is going to break.

Sometimes, they clamp on to the fleshiness of your arm and suck a hickey. When someone passes the baby into your arms they tilt their head sideways with their mouth gaping in anticipation. If you teach your baby to sign, like I did - of course I did, see the title of this article - then they might even sign by five months old. They can burst into impatient tears at the sight of you undoing your bra. Sometimes they will reach their arm down your dress or lift up your t-shirt. They usually do all of this before they finally 'ask for it' with a spoken word, and even then their word may be nothing more offensive than the adoption of a particular pitch when they plead "Mama" at you.

At what point are they 'old enough to ask for it', and at what point is it too much? Depends on you, their mother, but don't be surprised if you start to find the notion of 'old enough to ask for it' rather absurd.

Apart from how could I feed a child 'old enough to ask for it', what are the other questions you've always wanted to ask someone like me, a once extreme breastfeeder?

Perhaps this one: am I an earth mama?

No. I'm an economist. I do not fit the stereotype and I would be surprised if all that many mothers do. I vaccinate my children. I used disposable nappies on my babies. I rode a motorbike. I like sex and violence in my TV shows. I wear pencil skirts and high heels. I love earth mama types - they're some of the most generous mothers I know - but I am not one of them.

Did I feel like extended breastfeeding took over my body?

This is probably the most common anxiety I hear expressed about lengthy breastfeeding. I can see breastfeeding feels consuming for some, but for me, so much of mothering 'takes over my body' that it would be difficult to identify exactly which aspects I attributed to breastfeeding. I hope women aren't stuck resentfully breastfeeding because of the pressure, but the truth is, plenty about mothering is done with a little bit of resentment on the side. Motherhood is a very challenging identity for many of us. There's a huge fear of losing yourself, your boundaries, your sex appeal, and your focus as you mother. In a sexist culture, breastfeeding pushes all those buttons.

Did I feel forced into it by society's expectations of what the perfect mother should be?

Breastfeeding filled me with love, and that's what drove me. It's a really nice thing to feel with one's child. And for someone like me, who did not always enjoy the attention my breasts received, I found it to be a rather healing experience for my psyche.

And also, while breastfeeding can be terribly annoying when you urgently want to get on with the night, for the most part, it was a lazy mother's best friend.

Did I feel smug about breastfeeding for so long?

To be honest, I felt kind of embarrassed. It's a terrible thing for a feminist mother to admit, but the stigma attached to breastfeeding kindergarteners (and beyond) is strong and I have been reluctant until now to 'out' myself in my writing. And that says quite a lot; that a ranty type like myself can feel so intimidated by the prejudices against long-term breastfeeding.

Did I find breastfeeding a kindergartener to be sexual?

Mothers don't find the concept of their child breastfeeding to be a sexual experience; really, they don't. You might just as well try to convince us that wiping toddler's bottoms is sexual.

And finally, did my child find breastfeeding sexual?

No. He didn't find sippy cups sexual either. 

He might have animated breasts, turning to them like a friend in his bereavement, but he wasn't objectifying them.

Andie Fox blogs at Blue Milk

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