My favorite scene in Elisa Albert’s powerful 2015 novel After Birth comes when Ari, the narrator, is attending an odious-sounding college faculty holiday party and her toddler son decides he wants to nurse:
Walker climbs into my lap. Boobie, he says. Boobie?
I let him nurse pretty much wherever he wants, and occasionally people ask in this airy voice oh, are you still breastfeeding?
Sure enough, condescending poli-sci guy’s dead-eyed wife: Still breastfeeding huh?
Whoa, says condescending poli-sci guy. If they’re old enough to ask for it …
Admittedly, I myself most certainly uttered some variation of “If they’re old enough to ask for it …” in the years before I had a kid. And yet earlier today, my 18-month-old daughter ran up to me, attempted to climb me like a ladder, and broke into her favorite tuneless song: “First we nurse, then we nurse, that’s the way it goes!” When I picked her up, she stuffed an arm down my blouse, yanked out the requisite appendage, proclaimed, “This boob is a good boob,” and went to town. When, at long last, she does wean, I am fairly sure she will have been “old enough to ask for it” for quite some time.
The “old enough to ask for it” test is, of course, just a facetious way of saying that toddlers breast-feeding is icky. But I wanted to find out if there was any truth to the statement: Is there any discernible link between linguistic development in toddlers and some sort of other development—sexual self-awareness, perhaps—that would make them “too old” to nurse?
I spoke to Brian P. Kurtz, a psychiatrist at the University of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, about what really is happening in a child’s brain as she gets old enough to ask for it. A typically developing toddler, he explained, “is really just beginning to use language to frame situations that have emotional content.” After a kid starts talking—anywhere from 12-24 months—the “language acquisition quickly prioritizes asking for the caregiver, and other sources of comfort, food, and drink. So it should come as no surprise that [...] as the child reaches toddler age, [she] may demonstrate a particular ability to verbalize a wish to breast-feed.”
Seems straightforward enough. But does coherent linguistic development demonstrate a growing self-awareness—even, possibly, an awareness of themselves as sexual beings? In his hilarious but baleful 2012 contribution to the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, author James Braly had this to say about his own children’s extended breast-feeding:
Other men—me, for example—might be driven to engage in […] sexless fidelity. Mine crystallized in Central Park one evening, while watching my wife sit under a tree with my older son, a five-and-a-half-year-old young man with a full set of teeth and chores, stretched out to roughly the size of a foal, suckling. By the time they strolled back to me and my already-nursed toddler son on the picnic blanket, I had lost my appetite — and not just for the smoked salmon. There are some things in life most men cannot share with first-graders, and two of them used to be called breasts. Now, my first grader called them boobalies, and history is written by the victors.
Just as Braly seemed to want his wife’s boobalies back for his own purposes, he also, in his jocular jealousy, ascribed those purposes to his son. While Braly’s older child is certainly an extreme example, there is still, Kurtz assures me, “no evidence that young children experience sexual desire.” Braly also seemed to ascribe some sort of sexual presence to his breast-feeding wife—and, given the general outcry over a 2012 Time cover with a (very tall) 3-year-old standing at his mother’s breast, he’s not alone. I hate to skeeve out the squeamish even more, but some women do experience arousal during breast-feeding—it’s actually normal, and can happen regardless of the infant’s age. Most importantly, it “in no way signal[s] that a mother is turned on by her baby,” as Fusion’s excellent summation of the scientific research puts it.
But even if you debunk the sexual nature of “old enough to ask for it,” its proponents have a few other armaments in the arsenal. Breast-feeding into toddlerhood, it’s often claimed, will make children clingy and stunt their emotional growth. This, however, “does not apply to a toddler-age child,” says Kurtz.
Jessica Kramer, a Los Angeles–based perinatal specialist and somatic experiencing practitioner who spent 15 years as a birth doula and breast-feeding support person, says a verbal toddler does present the opportunity for “creating boundaries” around when and where to nurse, if that’s what the mother wants. “It’s not uncommon for women to feel like they’re good with it at home or when their child is in distress, but not when they’re out and about and the kid just wants it to want it.” One mother I know helped her child wean by introducing a “we only nurse at home” policy around age 2-and-a-half. Another started calling nursing go night-night, and only did it when her 2-year-old was going to bed.
That is not to say any breast-feeding mother should feel the need to capitulate to weaning pressure. “The number one message for new parents in regards to infant feeding is to feed babies on demand,” says Misty Villalobos, a labor and delivery nurse at a certified Baby-Friendly hospital in the Pacific Northwest. “It is ironic that people will say, ‘Once a child is old enough to ask for it, he or she is too old to get it,’ because there is no guessing about what that child needs once he or she can ask for it.” Further, she says, “If you stop responding to their needs as soon as they are old enough to ask for what they desire, it seems to me like you are teaching them not to trust that they will get what they need, whether it’s for comfort or nutrition.”
That definitely makes me feel better about the times I try to get my daughter to wind down from a busy day of attempting to hurl herself in front of moving traffic, and I tell her favorite story. Once upon a time, there was a wonderful little girl and she wanted to nurse. Her mother said, ‘Be patient, honey; we are on a moving escalator.’ Finally, the mother took the little girl home. And she nursed, and nursed, and nursed. My kid breaks into the story at the end: AND NURSED AND NURSED AND NURSED AND NURSED AND NURSED! CHOMP. The end.