Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Aravinda Pillalamarri, Mumbai, India & Harford County USA
Photo: Ravi Kuchimanchi
It is over a year since my daughter last breastfed. She had a natural weaning over a period of about three months, as the gaps between nursings became longer and more frequent … and then I realized there was no longer a gap. She had stopped. One June day when I first noticed a gap of more than a week, I couldn’t resist asking my daughter about it, though I was not sure if I was supposed to bring it up. She simply said, “I don’t need it any more.” (She did nurse a few more times in July and August.) Later she added, “and I don’t get very much.” My husband gasped, “What? But you are supposed to have ampa.” (“Ampa,” my daughter’s own word, is short for amma-palu, which in Telugu translates as mama-milk.) They both giggled.
At the time I hardly talked to anyone about it, though I had previously answered people calmly who were shocked to see me breastfeed in public past the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of two years. Most of my family and friends might not have known she was “still” nursing, or even thought about it.
Later, one day, entirely by luck, I found myself in the library on the day of the monthly La Leche League meeting held there. I shared my experience. Recently I again attended a meeting after more than a year’s gap and a couple of moms remembered my story. They had understood (of course).
I always knew that I would breastfeed. My mother was a La Leche League member when my little sister was born and I went to my first LLL meeting (as an adult) while I was pregnant. Though we had difficulties in the beginning, we got established after a few days and nursing went smoothly after that. There were ups and downs.
At nine months my daughter loved idlis (steamed rice-and-bean cakes) so much that I worried she was not nursing enough. At 15 months there was a time when she did not nurse for more than 24 hours and I worried because I thought that was too early to wean. At 22 months she was nursing like a baby, waking up every two hours at night.
Soon after the nursing spurt she had a growth spurt. Through all these ups and downs, I never lost confidence in nursing. I could not always attend LLL meetings; still, I had terrific support from the LLL online forum, even though I knew few nursing moms in Mumbai.
When my daughter was three years old, I observed that she was nursing three to six times a day—to sleep, to wake up, once in the middle and often a couple of times during the day. I remember noting that nursing did not seem to be tapering off in any way. Would this actually come to an end?
When she was three, I was most grateful that she was still nursing. That winter she got sick three times in three different places, Delhi, Bombay, and Rasuru (Orissa), each time with a high fever and once with measles. Each time she nursed right through her illness. While she was sick and needed to direct all her energy toward healing, she was not uncomfortable. Through breastfeeding, mostly in her sleep, she was getting plenty of fluids, rest and nutrients. She certainly couldn’t keep any food down.
Nursing helped our daughter to develop healthy eating habits. She ate on her own, right from her introduction to ragi (millet) at six months, and soft fruits like banana and sapota, soft vegetables such as peas, sweet potatoes, plantain, beets, and onward to grains, beans and beyond. She ate whole grains from the beginning—whole millet, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, mung and urad dal (beans) were also unpeeled. We served her food and she simply ate as much as she wanted with her own hand. We usually ate together. Sometimes she would eat by herself as I took care of other work or relaxed with a book.
Eating was always a happy and relaxed experience, never a chore, either for her or for us. Through mother’s milk she became familiar with the diverse tastes of all that I ate. I think that served as a preview to whet her appetite for the real thing. Since she was breastfeeding I knew she was getting her nutrition so it did not matter how much solid food she ate.
With this freedom she embraced, at her own pace, the array of whole, natural foods we prepared. Weaning from the breast signified not only a transition from one source of food to another, but also a transition in the way my daughter understood herself and dealt with the world. The ability to gauge one’s own hunger and satiety, cultivated at the breast, will serve one well at the plate.
Over the years I have come to recognize that breastfeeding offers so much more than nutrition. It offers immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment. It nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and it is a warm, cozy place to let down one’s guard and drift into sleep. The world offers alternatives for all of these functions, and the child who learns to avail herself of these at her own pace will utilize them joyfully.
Over the years I have come to recognize that breastfeeding offers so much more than nutrition. It offers immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment. It nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and it is a warm, cozy place to let down one’s guard and drift into sleep.
Because breastfeeding often required me to take my daughter to work, it allowed her to be in interesting environments observing adults who were busy in various activities. Also, it gave the adults a chance to share time and space with a child and to accept a nursing toddler as something normal.
Around age four, I again noticed that she was nursing nearly every night and sometimes during the day as well. I wondered how long she would nurse. Once she skipped a day but the next day she was back at the breast.
Two weeks after her fifth birthday I observed that she’d skipped several days. Perhaps I should have been celebrating a natural weaning. There would be plenty of days ahead to enjoy all that. I was immersed in a rush of feelings and savoured them. Breastfeeding passes by all too quickly.