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Thursday
Dec222011

Breastfeeding Your Toddler: Nutrition and Nurture

Some mothers have a specific weaning age in mind when they start nursing their child. Sometimes they change their mind along the way and sometimes they don't. Other mothers purposely pursue child-led weaning right from the start. Some simply decide to take it one day at a time. Regardless of the approach that you choose, you may one day find yourself nursing a toddler.  After all, the World Health Organization recommends that breastfeeding continue until at least the age of two and anthropologists have pegged the natural age of weaning in humans as being between two and half years and seven years.

Busy Busy Bees


Nursing a toddler isn't just like nursing a baby. They are busy little people, with lots of places to go, things to explore, toys to play with. They have big emotions and strong opinions. You may start to feel like your breasts are no longer a full service restaurant where your baby takes a long lingering multi-course meal. Instead, you may have a demanding rushed customer looking for a quick snack at the drive through or a round of shots at the bar.


What should you know if you are entering toddlerhood with your nursling?


There are no hard and fast rules about nursing a toddler. Some toddlers are well on their way to weaning, while others are still frequent nursers. So the experience of each mother-toddler pair will be very different.

  • Balancing nursing with other sources of nutrition: As your toddler grows, they will, of course, start taking in some new foods. However, for most nursing toddlers, breastfeeding is still an important part of their nutrition. A lot of guidelines for feeding toddlers (how much milk, how many portions, etc.) seem to assume that the toddler isn't nursing anymore and don't take the nutrients and calories from nursing into account. So if it seems like your toddler isn't eating very much compared to what the guidelines suggest or what other children the same age are eating, you probably don't have to worry as long as they are still growing.



  • Get some great photos: I have some great pictures of me nursing my babies and a few of me nursing them as toddlers. But I don't have as many as I would like and my last nursing picture with each of them is probably about a year before they finally weaned. You'll cherish the time that you spend nursing your toddler and having some great nursing pictures at that age will help you to remember it and share it with them as they grow. My friend and photographer Sara McConnell does some amazing breastfeeding photography and has some great shots, including some older nurslings and tandem shots. There are also some great shots over at Three Girl Pileup of her older nurslings. Be sure to take some pictures, whether professional or amateur, so that you can remember those times.



  • The road to weaning is a windy and sometimes bumpy road: A lot of moms are surprised by toddlers who suddenly start nursing more. They thought they were down to two or three nursing sessions per day and suddenly their toddler wants to nurse all the time, around the clock. That is completely normal. Milestones, sickness, teething, and simple (or complex!) toddler emotions can all have an impact on how much your toddler wants to nurse. Understanding that weaning doesn't happen on a straight line and that it is normal for there to be ups and downs can make it easier to ride that wave, rather than worry or get frustrated.



  • Setting limits is okay: I see breastfeeding a toddler as a two way relationship that requires some give and take. When my toddler would ask to nurse, often I would say yes. However, if it wasn't convenient (I was in the middle of cooking dinner, talking on the phone, planting flowers), I would say no. I also put "rules" in place about nursing at different stages. For example, I had a "no nursing between dinner and bedtime rule" for a while with my son because I needed the enticement of nursing to lure him into bed. But I also made sure that I offered to nurse my toddler at least as often as I said no. So if I had just finished doing something and was about to sit down, then I would ask her if she wanted to nurse. Or, when we woke up in the morning, before I got out of bed, I would ask if she wanted to nurse first. I didn't want to use the "don't offer, don't refuse" approach to weaning, because I think it puts the entire onus of initiating nursing on the toddler. Rather than nursing being about a toddler demand, I liked seeing it as a relationship.



  • Nursing is a great parenting tool: Toddler meltdowns and emotions are sometimes hard to handle. But for breastfeeding toddlers, settling down on mommy's lap and nursing can be a way to help them calm down and get out of that moment. It gives them a chance to process their emotions while being comforted. Nursing is also a way to get very busy toddlers to settle down for a few minutes every once in a while. If you felt like you were always sitting down nursing when you had a newborn, when you have a toddler you'll feel like you never get to sit down, so sitting to nurse is sometimes a great relief.



  • They will wean: A lot of people seem concerned that if you don't actively wean your toddler, that they will never give up breastfeeding. That simply isn't true. Despite British "bitty" skits that show a grown man still breastfeeding as he brings his fiance home to meet his mother, I haven't heard of any true stories of people breastfeeding into adulthood. Go with the flow, do what feels right for you, but know that regardless of whether you choose child-led weaning or gentle mother-led weaning, your child will eventually wean.


Those are the biggest things that come to mind with regards to nursing toddlers, but of course whole books could be (and have!) been written on the topic. Mostly, my suggestion would be to go with the flow, do what feels right, and talk to other moms with nursing toddlers to get support and share experiences. Enjoy the time because it will be over before you know it.

Suggested Resources



  • Nursing After The First Year (Kellymom): Lots of resources on nursing past a year, including "why?", common concerns, and how to parent your breastfeeding toddler.

  • Nutrition for Breastfeeding Toddlers (Kellymom): A great resource to help you figure out how much and what your breastfeeding toddler should be eating. Find out whether that cow's milk your pediatrician is pushing is really necessary, learn about toddler growth, and get more suggestions for feeding your nursing toddler.

  • A different kind of baby-led weaning (PhD in Parenting Blog): I tell the story of how my toddlers transitioned from nursing to sleep to other methods of bedtime comfort.

  • Gently Weaning a Preschooler (Kelly Naturally on the Natural Parents Network): A bit past the toddler stage, but may be relevant for many moms of toddlers too, especially if you see your nursing relationship continuing for a while.

  • Pros and Cons of Breastfeeding a Toddler (Breastfeeding Moms Unite): One mom's perspective on the ups and downs of toddler nursing.

  • A time to wean? Your opinion, others opinions and how to deal (PhD in Parenting Blog): How to deal with criticism, how to decide when to wean, and how to gently wean your toddler (if you choose to do so).

  • Se7en Tandem Nursing Questions Asked and Answered (Se7en Blog): A tandem nursing mom answers some quick questions about tandem nursing and points to some other great resources on the topic. Super helpful for moms who are nursing a toddler and have a newborn on the way.

  • Nursing a Toddler in a Ring Sling (PhD in Parenting Blog): If you are on the go with your toddler and can't sit down to nurse or if you want to nurse your toddler to sleep in a sling, this post will show you how to easily transition from a hip carry to a nursing.


Suggested Books



  • My Child Won't Eat - How To Prevent & Solve the Problem (Carlos González): A La Leche League book for parents who are concerned that their breastfeeding child isn't eating a lot of solid foods.

  • Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (Norma J. Bumgarner): An excellent book about the natural course of breastfeeding and what to expect with nursing children of different ages.

  • The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, and Teresa Pitman): This is a comprehensive resource on breastfeeding and includes a chapter on nursing a toddler that covers what to expect, as well as some great tips.


Toddler Carnival Sponsor


Post contains affiliate links.
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Reader Comments (30)

Thanks for writing such a great piece. I am currently nursing a 25 month old. The plan was to make it one year, then till he was two, and now it's a we'll see approach. I figure the two of us will work it out in good time. : )

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLissa

Timely read, as Quinn just passed 1 year (my baseline goal for breastfeeding)_ and I'm wondering where we'll go from here. Older brother weaned at 14 months on my lead. Quinn is way more into nursing though, and asks for it often. As of yet I don't mind continuing, so will take it day by day & month by month and see what happens.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

My 14-month-old has all but given up the nursing since he turned a year old. There's just the tenuous morning cuddle-and-nurse left... and I'm pretty sure he's not getting much of anything nutritional out of that.

Now we are just a single missed feeding away from The End.

*sigh* I'm glad we made it to a year, but I was so sure based on how attached-at-the-boob he was in the first 5 months that we were going to be a nursing pair for a lot longer!

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Most

Breastfeeding is the greatest mothering tool ever - especially when you have a toddler. I don't know how I would have been able to manage without it. I definitely regret not getting photos of nursing my toddlers - my husband wasn't into photography. So I think that getting photos is a really great suggestion.

Keeping an open mind is important, too. I didn't have set plan when I nursed my children of how long it would be - my goal was simply to nurse them as long as they needed to. Which turned out to be waaaaaaay longer than I ever thought I would nurse (I nursed one child for six years and the second completely naturally weaned just before her seventh birthday). My daughters are on the one end of the continuum for nursing (probably because we have a lot of allergies in our family and we are creative/intense people); most children don't nurse that long (not trying to scare anybody!) But, I am glad that I kept an open mind and heart about the situation because breastfeeding my daughters really helped me to meet their needs and helped us form a really strong bond. I have really great memories about that time in our lives.

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan M.

I am right there with Lissa with my 25 month old. But adding a new baby to the mix certainly makes things a little more interesting. I have not thought about using nursing as a tool to tame tantrums. Interesting. Maybe it is worth a shot. I'm also looking forward to checking out the links. And thanks for the reminder to take photos!

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaula

What a great post. I nursed my daughter for 3.5 years, throughout pregnancy and all. I had planned to tandem nurse when her brother came along, but the logistics didn't work well for us--he was on there all the time as newborns are and she got tired of asking and weaned shortly afterwards. It was an abrupt weaning, but she transitioned okay.

I nursed her brother for just over three years. I was hoping he'd go to four as he's my last baby, but he had other plans--he just kept dropping sessions until he was down to once a day and then he stopped asking for that one too. Weaning was bittersweet. Some of my favorite nursing memories are from when they were two and three years old.

It worked like a dream for us through the tantrum-filled twos. My husband was skeptical of extended breastfeeding, and right around the eighteen month mark he started asking, "How long are you going to keep doing that?" Then he saw how it could be used to calm her down, get her through stressful situations, get her to sleep (worked like a charm) and the lightbulb went off. After that, his mantra for either of our fussy kids was "Give her/him some boob."

And yes, get some great photos. I have a ton of photos of them nursing as babies, but only a few of them as toddlers and it's so darn cute to see a contented, cherubic two year old sleeping on your breast.

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

Great post! My 18 month old is still nursing strong and my only interest in weaning stems from the lack of sleep I'm getting. We bed share in the later part of the night but lately she doesn't just settle back to sleep. instead she yoga-nurses or clamps on all night long and screams if l dare roll away! I know she is likely teething and she doesn't seem overly tired the next day, but this is affecting my and my husband's energy... Any words of wisdom?!??

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

I was amazed when my 2 1/2 yr old told me that she was done nursing. I was pregnant with her soon-to-be brother and she told me that she wasn't a baby. I found out later it was peer pressure--older kids told her only babies "did that."

*sigh*

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdiana holquist

Great post! I'm going to share it with my mom. She's got twins that just turned 2 in November and suddenly they've been wanting to nurse a lot more than they did before. She's having a really hard time weaning them too (which she needs to do because they won't let her sleep!)

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

Eve:

I am going to write another post specifically about sleep, so I'll try to address some sleep issues there.

During the first part of the night, where is your toddler sleeping? Have you tried any herbal teething remedies? Do you and your husband both work during the day?

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for the comment Maya. I also have a post on Breastfeeding Twins that a friend of mine wrote for my blog: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2011/01/27/breastfeeding-twins-laras-story. Your mom might be interested in that too!

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I nurse her to sleep in a rocking chair in her room then lay her in her crib. She wakes anywhere from 2-6 hours later and sometimes my husband can get her back to sleep but he is away usually 2 nights away per week, and if it's me attending to her, it's booby she wants! My husband works full time during the week and I work part-time... When I am home, I often nurse to nap too! We have occasionally used herbal teething tablets with our two older sons but didnt notice much effect. Will have to try again! The same company makes children's sleeping tablets, for age 2 and older...but havent tried them!

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

thanks for the post.
we are now well over a year (my 'goal') and still going strong - through a recent bout of mastitis and a very painful few months of eczema. but I love it - It was my happy thought when I was in the dentist's chair yesterday, and my little darling loves it too. he's so happy when nursing that i see no reason to give up anytime soon, although friends, health professionals and others seem surprised I am still nursing. We're both happy so why quit?

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersarah

[...] the original post:  Breastfeeding Your Toddler: Nutrition and Nurture — PhD in Parenting Tags: books, breastfeeding, carnival-of-toddlers, child, kids, night, nursing, parenting, [...]

[...] Breastfeeding your toddler: Nutrition and Nuture from PhD in Parenting. [...]

December 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSe7en’s Fabulous Friday

I remember I had planned to go to 6 months with my first. For some reason, 6 months seems like this magical nursing number - possibly because that's when babies are "supposed" to start solid. When I hit 6 months, the thought of weaning never even crossed my mind.

I think that you really hit on a great point with nursing being a good parenting tool. I staved off many a meltdown and was able to calm very quickly. My kids never really hit the terrible twos and both have entirely different personalities. I think being able to stop and nurse had a big effect on them.

December 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn - @jennbo

Great post Annie! I nursed B for 27m3d (yes I kept track) before he weaned himself. About a month after that he woke up and asked for milk and then pointed at me and then our bedroom (where I would nurse him in the morning). It brought me to tears to have to say no to him.

I love the breastfeeding photos! We have some from when he was a baby and only 1 or 2 of him as a toddler. I wish we had taken more.

December 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Annie,
You wrote that nursing is a great parenting tool. and weaning MAY be a long windy bumpy ride. You are so right in both cases.

This was my long bumpy road.
My daughter last nursed at 3.5 yo , about the time I think. She is now 4 years 3 months. Am I safe to say she has weaned? I hope you also write more about how it being a relationship because that is how we "weaned". I started at about 3 yo: We talked ALOT about why MOMMY don't feel like nursing anymore and then for a few nights she just fell asleep on her own. and then nursed for a few nights and then for the next several months no nursing. She completely understands that neither of us is at fault for not nursing anymore.

But as as I had lost the parenting tool, I needed to find others. It took some tears and time when I didn't know how to comfort a crying child. It also took a while for me to stop mentally getting ready with an excuse when she snuggled close to me. Now she still sniffs between my breasts and declare then good smelling! but I am ok with that. We had to move bedtime later too, because it was difficult to coax a non-nursing child to lie still long enough to fall asleep.

Write more about post-nursing Annie, because it is empowering to know that we can nurse for as long as we want and our children would grow up strong, normal, healthy, confident and happy.

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertrexxd

This describes my family almost exactly. My 14 month old sleeps in her crib for a few hours and then comes into bed with us. She does not like it when I roll over and will only be soothed with nursing in the night. She is one loud, angry girl if I try to sooth her in a different way, and to avoid waking her older sister, I give in quickly. This, however, means that I spend a large portion of the night in somewhat uncomfortable positions. Sometimes I'm desperate to roll onto my back or my other side.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

And, she only has two teeth at this point, so I assume she's teething.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

I think this is a great post for mothers who want to continue breastfeeding. My concern is that many women do *not* want to continue breastfeeding into/through toddlerhood, and that the information/books you've linked to contain a great many inaccurate claims about the benefits of toddler nursing and supposed harms of early weaning.

I think it's great for women to be able to continue nursing if they want to do so. But, in the developed world, there just isn't any good evidence that it carries the kind of benefits that mean that mothers should universally aim for it as a goal. I know this will be considered a controversial position on here, but I have looked into it carefully and have found a truly shocking amount of misinformation being given out on this subject on the Kellymom and similar sites. I've written about this at http://parentingmythsandfacts.com/2011/04/18/breastfeeding-for-longer-than-a-year-myths-facts-and-what-the-research-really-shows/.

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr Sarah

My first nursed til age 2, exactly. It had been the timeline I'd been advised to use from my mother (I didn't know a siingle sole at the time who had nursed past this age so I didn't see it as really being an option). My second child was about to have a new baby enter our family just shy of his 2nd birthday and by this time I knew of a few moms nursing past 2 and I no longer had the new mom syndrome worrying about getting it wrong if I just went with what was good for us. So, I nursed him well past 2. We took advantage of New Years (2 months shy of his 3rd birthday being a celebration and having his last nursing session New Years Eve. That first week was rough when he'd see his brother nurse, who was almost a year old and nursed plenty. Now.... the third baby is turning 3 in a couple of months and I've set that as our ideal time to be done with the weaning process. We move this week so I'm setting up a rule that we will no longer nurse at night after moving into the new house... mom and dad's bedroom will be on a different floor so it becomes way more inconvenient. I've always started with night weaning because I've read so much about that being the hardest to let go. Wish me luck ---- I am nervous to have all this extra distracting and consoling to do when that final nursing has passed!

December 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoann Woolley

Just had to say, before I read the article, that the little girl in these photos is adorable. This is one of my favorite Gap lines :) Okay now I am going to read and discuss breastfeeding :)

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Gardner

So...we're at almost 20 months, and I've had a crack on the base of my nipple for almost three months. It JUST WON'T HEAL. And nursing is extremely painful for the first few minutes and sometimes for the duration of the session. And yet, my son loves to nurse, and I'm quite confident that he gets a psychological and (Dr. Sarah's link notwithstanding) physical benefit to extended nursing, plus we still nurse to sleep, in the mornings, and when I get home from work. But I'm starting to resent nursing because of the pain and say no to him more often than I'd like, too.

Has anyone reading this run into a situation where nursing was physically painful and worked through it? I admit that I wouldn't be all that sad if my son self-weaned, but frankly, that's just not where he is right now, and I'm not willing to push the point (nursing means so much to him, and it's an incredibly useful tool. It was most certainly the difference during our recent holiday trek across the country, which included two fifteen-hour driving sessions). I'd be grateful for thoughts on how to deal with this in a way where everybody "wins."

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Melissa:

That sounds awful. I had horrible cracked nipples when my son was about 2.5 months old. It was SO painful. I assume you've seen the Kellymom info on healing cracked nipples? http://www.kellymom.com/bf/concerns/mom/nipplehealing.html

Would you be able to just nurse him on the non-injured side for a while and pump (if possible without too much pain) or hand express from the other side while it heals?

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for the link! We're doing a lot of this, but admittedly, I'm not consistent about it due to a busy schedule (and recently, due to the holidays). Would be a nice use of the frozen breastmilk I have in the freezer, given that he flat-out refuses any breastmilk not straight from the breast anymore. I only have one lactating breast for the past six months, so switching sides isn't an option, unfortunately. And he's such a...TODDLER about the whole thing. I can tell he tries to be gentle (I warn him every time: "Please be gentle. Mama is very sore, so no teeth, please"), but if I pull away in pain, he panics and chomps down or grabs on with his hands, which starts a vicious cycle that ends in him unlatched and bawling and me in agony and feeling guilty for pulling him off. I get bitten a LOT, almost always when I'm trying to pull him off, and I think it's due to his anxiety about my reactions of late. His latch is correct, and he won't nurse in any position other than cradled in my lap or lying down (because, you know, toddlers have their things that must be done in a certain way or not at all. And that's one of his). So I get the same kind of "tug" every time, and I think it reopens the wound, three times/day. I feel like my options are to deal with a constant crack or wean, and I don't like either option.

I'm finding that, actually, preventing the crack from drying out seems to reduce pain. You know how it feels when you have a scab on, say, your knee, and you get in the bathtub? After a few minutes, the pain from contact with the water goes away. So if I keep the wound moist, there's less pain. Right now, that's how I'm handling it. But I'm seriously thinking about a lactation specialist visit, as the clinic in my neighborhood appears to be an IBCLC. At least, that's the word from my local LLL contact. I just don't want to go in and hear, "You have to wean." Because I won't--not just because of this.

Thanks for the suggestions and sympathy. I'm so grateful that we got 17 months of almost worry-free nursing! I can't imagine your experience, even though it's made you a great source of support for nursing mothers.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I don't know if this blog is open to debate. If not, please feel free to delete my comment.

I just have to admit that I find it really surprising that a boob is used as a parenting tool. Why manipulate your toddler instead of learning real communication techniques? My daughter is now two and we actually talk, I explain things to her. There is no need in to put anything in her mouth to calm her down when she is crying. Instead of shutting her mouth, I teach her to use it to express her feelings and communicate her needs.

January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarina

Marina:

This blog is open to respectful debate that doesn't attack other people.

I don't see nursing as manipulation. I think that comfort, touch and reassurance are important aspects of a parent-child relationship (and any loving relationship for that matter). Babies that are breastfed see nursing as both a source of food and comfort, so at those times when they need to be comforted and reassured, it is a useful tool.

Other parents give their kids pacifiers, loveys, blankets and other objects to comfort them. I would rather give them my love and touch. While they are still nursing, that often comes in the form of breastfeeding, but as they wean (a gradual, gentle process), other forms of comfort, reassurance and touch take their place.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for your balanced view on nursing a toddler! I nursed both of my girls until about 26 months, and in many ways, the 2nd year of nursing was the best! No worries about pumping any more and being the "only" source of nourishment, but all of the good stuff! It gave us moments of peace in a busy toddler day. It was good for both of us. Thanks for the post!

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHunter

I almost feel like breastfeeding a toddler is three-way relationship rather than a two-way relationship for me, because my husband is affected too and is starting to complain about the breastfeeding. He used to complain to me that we should be weaning, and I reassured him that my son would probably wean by two. Now he is two, and is showing no signs of weaning. So my husband has started complaining more often.

He's also started teasing my son about breastfeeding — saying it's just for babies and "why are you pretending to be a baby? You need to grow up and stop having mum-milk." He often announces just before bedtime (when my son usually has a breastfeed) that he won't get a feed tonight, so that my son becomes distraught just before bed. Then we have an argument because he thinks we should wean and I just want to go to sleep. If I wanted to wean, that's not how I would do it! So I don't know if I should start to wean more proactively in order to avoid my husband forcing it on us at bedtime, even though I don't really want to.

It makes me feel uncomfortable because I don't like to see my son being mocked. He's really self-conscious about being a boy and not a baby so it does upset him. But I guess my husband is upset about losing my attention and it's not really the norm to breastfeed past 1, let alone 2, where I live, so he's afraid it's weird. To me there is no downside to breastfeeding now and lots of upsides.

June 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

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