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Breast Intentions

My son Hank is 2, and I just stopped nursing him. That's right: I breastfed him for not 6... not 16... but 26 months. It wasn't part of any master plan, some grand Theory of Breastfeeding. I wasn't even that gung-ho on nursing in the first place.

I'd nursed my first two children, but only because it was easy for me. I was ready to whip out the bottle if I experienced any of the nipple-related horrors I'd heard about. Luckily, both kids latched on like champs from the start. And then nursing seemed a heck of a lot more convenient than mixing formula and cleaning and toting bottles.

When Hank was born, he was immediately whisked away due to labored breathing. During our 24-hour separation, he was given a few bottles, and because some infants have trouble making the switch to breastfeeding, I was prepared to raise my first bottle-fed baby. Hank, however, took to nursing right away.

I had weaned my older children at around 8 months (this was before the recommendation to aim for one year). With each, there was a day when I looked over and thought, Oh my gosh, you're huge. What are you still doing at the breast?  -- and decided enough was enough.

Hank at 8 months was no delicate flower. He wolfed down solids at such a rate, I was sure that any day he'd be demanding a 16-ounce tenderloin steak for dinner. But I surprised myself: I didn't want to stop nursing. All I could think of was how sweetly Hank clung to me, how blissful he looked. I was 42, and he was sure to be my last. In the back of my mind, I figured that when Hank turned 1, I'd stop. Hank had a different idea. His first birthday came and went, and he was still nursing morning, noon, and evening. If I tried to give him a cup, he'd scream and throw it to the floor. If he woke at 2 a.m., he made sure to take a nip or two at the all-night buffet (made easy since he was still sleeping with me). By now, breastfeeding was much more than a meal to Hank. He nursed when he was upset or overwhelmed, or when he fell down and got hurt. I was his pacifier, blankie, and beloved stuffed animal rolled into one. How could I deny him? Quitting at one year be damned!

And so we kept at it, despite all the curious people who couldn't help but ask, "Still nursing?" Then, at 16 months, Hank upped the ante by coining a word for nursing, mee-mee, and repeating it mantralike if not immediately gratified. Even worse, he began jamming his hand down my shirt. There I'd be, in line at the market, at the park, talking to dads at a PTA meeting  -- and in went the hand. I'd pull it out, but Hank would thrust it back, sometimes even taking desperate hold of my nipple.

He was becoming a breastfeeding bully. But nursing was such a part of our routine that the thought of giving it up was overwhelming. That is, until Hank was around 20 months. We were in the park, and I watched a mother flip up her shirt and bring a sturdy toddler to her breast. It looked so incongruous: two long, strong legs dangling from her midsection instead of the delicate limbs of an infant. Yuck, I thought. She really should wean that kid. Then I did a reality check. Hank was at least as large, if not larger, than that child!

I went home intent on decreasing the number of Hank's feedings. And I did. If I worked my hardest to distract him  -- with Cheerios, a toy, a walk  -- I could skip his midday session without eliciting any screams. By now, he was also willingly taking a cup or juice box. I contemplated going cold turkey. But Hank isn't ready, I told myself. And I still treasured those quiet moments when it felt like just the two of us alone in the world.

Alison Bell's latest book is Zibby Payne & the Drama Trauma (Lobster Press).