I Never Thought I'd Breastfeed A 4-Year-Old, But Here I Am

Photo: Pexels Photo.
From the very moment my daughter was born, she was a boob girl. She latched on as soon as I brought her to my chest, and she stayed there for 45 minutes while a team of doctors stitched my third-degree tear back together. Anyone who has breastfed will tell you that the learning curve is steep, and things were no different for us — but cracked and blistered nipples, engorgement, and blocked ducts aside, that girl and I were a team. My body eventually healed; my milk supply evened out, and we found our way on what I had assumed would be a roughly 12-month journey.
Advertisement
If a child is mobile, on solids, and can verbalize the desire to nurse, I thought, then it’s gone on too long — it’s bordering on mildly disturbing. I hadn't considered there would be an emotional component to breastfeeding, one I wouldn’t understand until I was in the thick of it myself.
At 10 weeks, with my return to work barreling toward us, my husband and I thought we'd try giving our baby a bottle. I’d pumped around the clock and stocked our fridge and freezer with milk, but my daughter wanted nothing to do with it. She wailed; I wept. She never did take a bottle.
I was lucky enough to have an employer who adored children, so, with my boob barnacle in tow, I got back to work. It was magic and mayhem, until eventually she got too ornery for me to be productive at work. So, around 7 months, I cut back to half-days at the office so as not to miss any important feedings. Before I’d even blinked, our first year together had passed.
I couldn't believe I'd ever resolved to end this so soon; it felt like we were just getting started. Look how little and sweet she is! I thought. We needed each other. Pure chaos could swallow us whole — but the minute she latched on to me, we found solace. So we kept going.
In our second year, I lost my second child in utero, and subsequently learned that due to a diagnosis of secondary infertility, my firstborn had just become my only-born. Motherhood wasn’t looking the way I thought (and planned for, and researched that) it would. So where I’d once drawn those lines in the sand over when I’d put an end to breastfeeding, I decided instead to relinquish the idea that I was in control of anything at all, and to follow my heart and my daughter’s needs.
Advertisement
I stopped looking at our breastfeeding relationship as something I could track on a calendar, and started treating it as something fluid — did my daughter want to nurse? Was I present and available to breastfeed her? If the answer was yes, then we sat down for 20 minutes or for five, and re-centered ourselves. It was the nourishment she needed (or comfort she craved) and the break I wanted from whatever it was that was pulling me in a thousand directions otherwise. It worked for us.

Truthfully, I have no idea how much longer we’ll be at this.

And then I wasn't breastfeeding a baby anymore — but here we were instead, mother and toothy toddler — and nothing had really changed. What I once had seen as disturbing was suddenly exactly everything I’d needed: My daughter’s ability to ask for me, it turned out, was the antidote to those unintelligible cries that dotted the dark of night and the seemingly unending hours of the day through her infancy. “Milk, mama,” she’d say as she tugged at my my shirt collar. The guesswork ended. I knew what to do.
Every idea I’d had about what motherhood would look like vanished once the fog of grief and confusion, the destructive nature of sleep deprivation, and the hurricane of postpartum hormones settled around me. I have allowed the fragile nature of our existence to become the underlying current beneath every decision I’ve made in the wake of it all. And so, here we are, four years in. Together we have found rest, cultivated closeness, and bolstered a bond beyond anything my former self could have ever drummed up.
Advertisement
Soon she’ll be 5. She’s heading off to school in the fall, and she’s nowhere near the clingy little milk monster she used to be. Nursing her now lasts a handful of minutes at most, because anything longer than that would take away from her somersaulting down our hallway while she wails away on her little plastic kazoo. My weathered breasts hold only enough milk to cover our wavering present. (It isn’t much.) Our stints together are becoming fewer and farther between.
Some weeks she nurses daily, or more, and some weeks not at all. There are no rituals around it any longer. Where she’d once need to nurse after getting hurt, for example, now she declines it outright if I offer in such a situation, preferring to figure it out on her own.
There’s an ebb and a flow to it — such is the nature of breastfeeding a growing child — and truthfully, I have no idea how much longer we’ll be at this. Before I became a mother, it was easy to paint great swaths of judgment, but I hadn’t yet birthed my very heart and began teaching it how to exist outside the confines of my ribcage.
What I have learned is this: Parenting is hard work, and breastfeeding eases the trouble of it every now and again. Whether we’re at this for six more months or for just another week, I’m happy with how we’ve found our way.
No, I never planned this; and yes, an earlier version of myself would’ve cringed wholeheartedly at the sight of this mobile, vocal, and self-sufficient girl at my breast — but what a lesson this has been in my understanding of human connection, of what it means to love and care for another, and of what exactly I look like as a mother. It isn’t what I thought at all. It’s what I am.
August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month. For more stories on breastfeeding, pumping, or choosing not to do either, visit our Mothership page.
Advertisement