Images and text by Brandy Van Vossen
Before I had children of my own I knew that I wanted to breastfeed. I knew that this was the most important decision that I would make for them in their early years. I knew that breast was best. But my inexperience kept me from seeing anything beyond this.
I didn’t grow up seeing breastfeeding. As much as I babysat and even having a younger brother born when I was 16, I just didn’t see breastfeeding. Everyone I knew gave their babies formula. I was formula fed from day one. It wasn’t until I was 25 and took a job as a nanny for a woman with newborn twins that I first saw a mother feed her baby (babies) at her breast. I was in awe. It was such a loving and beautiful sight; baby cradled perfectly in his mother’s arms, suckling his little heart out. I watched as mom lost herself in adoring gazes and baby peered back with wide eyes, his mouth full of breast and completely satisfied. They were the only two people in the world when they were nursing; unless she was tandem nursing both twins, then the whole scene would unfold around the three of them. It was magical.
When my older sister had her first baby a few months later I got to see this enchanted moment again with a new cast. I wanted that for my babies and for myself. But that was as much as I knew about it then.
I distinctly remember having a conversation with friends about my [not so enlightened] thoughts on breastfeeding when I was pregnant with my first child. I talked about how I just wanted to make it to a year and then cut him off because “breastfeeding beyond a year was just weird.” And I was not going to be one of those extended breastfeeding yahoos who finds it cute when a silly little toddler comes waddling up and asks, with real words, for some “milkies” or some other cutsie word for breastfeeding. That totally gave me the willies. I’m sure I had this very conversation more than once and I shudder to think of who may have heard me say these things, or worse yet, who my ignorance may have influenced.
Then I gave birth to my first baby. Oh, I was in mommy heaven! He was perfect, plump, beautiful; just this gorgeous little person that I would throw myself in front of a bus for [if that was something I could do to prove my love for him]. This was my chance to have those magical moments of breastfeeding bonding all for myself.
Not without our own struggles we got to that place. We lived in the magical mommy and baby bubble of breastfeeding bliss, and something happened in there that I can’t quite explain. Somewhere between the sloppy milk drooling smiles and the burps of total contentment my baby turned into a walking and talking toddler with his very own cutsie word for my milk. He called it “bop.” Somewhere in that bubble my perception changed from what I expected to what I lived. In that bubble I became enlightened by my own experience and suddenly I understood that which I could not see or understand before.
Breastfeeding a toddler is no stranger than breastfeeding a newborn baby. Nothing changes at a year or when a child learns to walk and talk, either in mom’s milk or in a child’s need for it, that should cause a mother to wean her child or to feel like a yahoo for continuing to breastfeed. The only thing that changes is society’s perception of the breastfeeding relationship. Somewhere around a year inexperienced people think that breastfeeding is no longer an important and nutritious way to feed and nurture a child.
As experienced breast feeders we have a golden opportunity to help enlighten the public, our friends and family, and even professionals. As breast feeding is coming back into the mainstream we have a chance to show that we are compassionate and that we understand that not everyone sees things the way we do. How can they? They’ve never seen breastfeeding from our unique vantage point. But what we can do is breastfeed openly and without shame. We can breastfeed our babies, our toddlers, and our preschoolers (and beyond) so that younger generations get a chance to see what healthy, normal breastfeeding looks like. The more they see it, the more normal it will become. And eventually mothers won’t feel pressured to wean their babies at arbitrary times during infancy. Mothers will learn to trust their relationships with their children and allow them to wean naturally when the time is truly right.
My son C self-weaned at 3.5 years old during our three day journey from Chicago to Tampa. He had been nursing only once a day (at bedtime) for the six months prior, but during the exhausting days on the road he simply “forgot how to bop.” We were both very sad but we knew it was time. My daughter P self-weaned all of a sudden 6 months later. She was 20 months old. All it took for her was to figure out that she didn’t need to nurse to fall asleep anymore. I was devastated but trusted that she knew what was best and that it was time for our relationship to evolve.
Brandy Van Vossen studied Environmental Biology at Saint Xavier University on the South side of Chicago. She is currently a stay at home mom to her two beautiful, formerly breastfed children (4.5 and 2.5) near Clearwater, Florida.