What was your child’s first word for breastfeeding? One of my favorite parts about nursing older babies is when they start talking about breastfeeding. Many babies begin talking around the same time they transition from “utilitarian nursing” (that distracted style of nursing almost exclusively for sustenance because they are just too busy exploring to settle in and love on their mamas for a nursing session) to “Rick Astley nursing” (never gonna give you up!). I love when my babies come up with a name for nursing; it’s a tangible way that they express their love for me (or at least for my boobs).
Around the time he started eating solids, I began signing with Vinny. Most of my signs revolved around food and he took to signing well. “More,” “all done” and “milk” were his best signs. I figured when he began speaking, he’d use the word “milk” when asking to nurse, but he had a much better term. “NUM-A-NUM!” he’d shout with enthusiasm. It was cute, but as he got older and began using actual words, he would say with affection, “Mama milk,” which may have been even cuter. Still today he refers to my milk as “Mama milk,” and when I gave him some in a cup a few months back without telling him what it was, he exclaimed “Mama milk!” with that same affection that I hadn’t heard in a long time. He didn’t take more than a sip, but it was beautiful to catch a glimpse of the baby he used to be.
Brigid is still nursing and asks to nurse even more often than Walter. Probably because of the hectic circumstances of my life during her infancy, I don’t really remember when she began talking or what her first word for breastfeeding was. I do remember that she never signed; she just started talking (and she hasn’t stopped yet!). To my recollection, she has only ever referred to my milk as milk (“muck!”) and has only ever asked (or demanded, as the case may be) to nurse (“nuss!”). Now that she is three, she asks in full sentences—sometimes with manners!—to nurse. Recently I asked Brigid what she thinks about while she’s nursing. “Strawberries,” she momentarily unlatched to respond.
Walter’s language surrounding nursing and all food and drink has been much more humorous than his sister’s. Like Brigid, he has refused to sign; I recall him signing “all done” maybe once. When he wants food, he shouts “YUMMY!” in a loud, angry tone until food is placed on his plate. When he is thirsty, he requests a “CUP!” And, until a day or two ago, asking to nurse involved pulling at my shirt and saying, “Cup! Cup!” So my baby thinks I am a cup. Neither affectionate nor utilitarian when it comes to his milk, Walter’s first word for nursing is just silly. I think, however, that his confusion is clearing up; he began saying “nuss” and “muck” just a couple days ago. Always my least enthusiastic nursling, Walter is now transitioning away from nursing merely to eat and is developing affection for the closeness and comfort that nursing brings. He now crawls up to me and sort of half head-butts me and half snuggles me and I think, “We’ve arrived!” He’ll probably nurse just as long as his siblings. Sign me up for at least another two straight years of breastfeeding.
As much as I have tried to shape my family’s breastfeeding lexicon, the kids have obviously left their own marks on how we think and speak about this ever-present activity. Anticipating that a toddler’s request is often given with a roar, I worried about them shouting in public for “nee-nee” or something similar; for me, that would be embarrassing. Even Vinny’s “num-a-num” felt slightly awkward at times, despite the fact that it came from a real word (“yummy”), but I found it so endearing that I didn’t try to change his chosen vocabulary. Brigid’s matter-of-fact “nuss” has been perfectly practical. Walter’s “cup” has humored me so much that I never bothered to correct him; I knew he’d eventually figure it out on his own. On my end, I’ve mostly only asked my children, “Do you want milk?” or “Would you like to nurse?” hoping to set a mature and almost nonchalant attitude toward the whole affair. In my quest to make breastfeeding as culturally normative as possible, these are my small efforts to shape the next generation’s perspective.
So, how do you want your child to view breastfeeding? What kind of language will you intentionally employ as your child begins talking about breastfeeding? And what will the language your baby comes up with to describe her nursing experience mean to you?