What breastfeeding a toddler is really like

Breastfeeding gymnastics

Breastfeeding my first child was a walk in the park, but with my second child, the early days of breastfeeding were really difficult. We dealt with CMPA, reflux and ‘failure to thrive’ as well as latch issues, mastitis, leaky boobs and sore nipples. The problems seemed to come relentlessly one after the other and though I was constantly being told that it gets easier it was difficult to believe! I set myself a goal of getting to 6 months and then I would stop.

But it did get easier, significantly so. 6 months came and went and I realised that carrying on breastfeeding would be a million times easier than switching to formula (and a LOT healthier, for both of us) so I said I would aim for a year. I, like many people who have never breastfed a toddler before, thought it would feel wierd to breastfeed a child who was walking and talking. A year came and went and I realised that there’s nothing wierd about it at all and decided to let him self-wean when he’s ready. He’s now 2.5 and still breastfeeding at least once or twice a day. Here are some of the highs and lows of breastfeeding past infancy.

Breastfeeding gymnastics

Once babies start getting mobile, they don’t like to sit still for too long. They no longer need you to support their body and follow the rules of CHIN to get them latched on. They start helping themselves and feeding in all sorts of crazy positions! It’s like they’re trying to test the limit of their abilities. They’ll be upside down, standing up, sticking their arms and legs in the air and moving about all over the place! As you can imagine this can get a little annoying, but it’s also hilarious and pretty cute!

If the gymnastics is getting too much for you, or your little one is displaying other irritating behaviors, such as twiddling the other nipple, it might be helpful to introduce breastfeeding manners, which you can learn about here.

Goodbye cluster feeds!

With a newborn, you might sometimes find yourself glued to the sofa for hours on end. This is a great time to bond with your baby and it is fantastic for your supply. Let’s not sugar coat it though, it can be a bit tedious. Toddlers on the other hand are generally much more efficient at breastfeeding than a tiny baby, so feeds are often shorter. They are also eating other foods and drinking other fluids, so they’re not relying on you quite so much for nutrition and begin to drop feeds. Sure, they go through the odd phase of feeding ‘like a newborn’, but those phases become fewer and further between as babies get older. When breastfeeds reduce in number is individual to each baby. Some toddlers want to feed a lot, and others not so much. Weaning is a long process which begins with the introduction of other foods at around 6 months and ends when a baby no longer breastfeeds. If a child is allowed to self wean, this will usually happen sometime between 2 and 7 years old, the average being 2-4 years. Some drop to just a feed a day without any encouragement pretty quickly, and others drop feeds at a slower rate. Sometimes they will be nagging at you to breastfeed when you just don’t want to, but that’s OK. The awesome thing about feeding a toddler is that it’s completely up to you whether you continue to feed them on demand or set limits on it. Both are perfectly healthy options.

‘Everyone is entitled to an opinion!’

Everyone is entitled to share their opinion with you, even if their opinion is based on misinformation. Unfortunately, it seems to be the ones who are misinformed who like to tell you about their opinion the most! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very few negative comments made about me breastfeeding my toddler. Mostly people are positive about it or curious. There are the odd few though who just HAVE to tell you that they think your child is too old or just constantly ask you when you’re going to stop. Educate them by all means, but please do not feel like you need to justify yourself. I like to tell them that I plan to stop sometime after he’s graduated uni. That tends to shut them up!

Elephants feed their young for around 3-4 years. Orangutans breastfeed their young for up to 8 or 9 years. Humans breastfeed for around 2-7 years

Physical health

During the second year of life, breastmilk provides around a third of a baby’s energy requirements, as well as:

  • 43% of protein requirements
  • 36% of calcium requirements
  • 75% of vitamin A requirements
  • 76% of folate requirements
  • 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
  • 60% of vitamin C requirements

Dewey 2001

The fat and protein content of breastmilk increases after the first 12 months (Dewy 2001), and so does the level of as Lactoferrin, lysozyme, and immunoglobulin (Perin 2016) . These components fight infection and increase in concentration to help to protect toddlers against pathogens whilst they get exploring their world (Lawrence&Lawrence 2011). Children who are breastfed between the ages of 1 and 3 years old get ill less often than children who stop breastfeeding early (before 24 months) and, when they do get ill, they recover quicker (Molbak 1994). I must say it’s quite nice having a toddler who isn’t constantly snotty-nosed and recovers quickly from illnesses and vaccinations!

For mothers, the longer you breastfeed for the lower your chances of developing breast cancer (Lancet 2002), Ovarian cancer (Jordan et al 2012) and osteoporosis (Grimes 2003).

What about their teeth?

If breastmilk made babies’ teeth rot, we would have evolved out of breastfeeding. Those first teeth they get are called ‘milk teeth’ for a reason! When a baby breastfeeds, the nipple goes all the way to the back of their mouth, behind their teeth. Unlike when they drink from a bottle, milk does not sit on their teeth if they breastfeed over night. Evidence shows that breastfeeding supports healthy jaw and tooth development and actually offers protection against cavities! As with all children, as long as you are caring for their teeth properly and their diet is not loaded with sugar, then their teeth will be just fine.

I’ll say this loudly so those at the back can hear: BABIES DO NOT LATCH WITH THEIR TEETH! Breastfeeding a baby with teeth is no different to breastfeeding a baby without teeth. They don’t use their teeth to breastfeed! If they bite, they’re not going to get any milk out, so if they want to feed then they’re not going to bite. Some babies do go through a biting stage, and some may struggle to latch when they’re teething. I’m not going to lie, it’s bloody painful if they bite you, but no more so than when they’re newborn and struggling to latch or when they bite you without teeth, and you can teach them not to do it quite easily.

The psychological side

Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to relax and connect with your toddler. You curl up with them at bedtime for a cuddle and a feed, watch their eyes flutter closed and wonder how on earth they got so big so quickly whilst you’re both flooded with oxytocin. They come to you when they’re tired or scared or hurt, and you give them instant comfort, security, and pain releif. Having that connection helps them to discover their independence and develop emotional stability, and it gives them protection against mental health issues in later life (Oddy et al 2010). Breastfeeding past infancy is associated with higher cognitive abilities, communication scores, and emotional intelligence in later life (APA 2017).

How long should I breastfeed for?

That is entirely up to you! The WHO recommend that breastfeeding should continue for ‘up to 2 years and beyond’ and end when either mother or child wants to stop. It never loses its nutritional value and it has long term benefits to emotional and social development. Babies need breastmilk or formula as their main source of nutrition for the first 12 months of life, and need breastmilk or another mammalian milk substitute until at least two years. After that, the benefits of breastfeeding continue for as long as you want them to! Most children will self-wean sometime between the ages of 2.5 and 4 years, but some may keep going a little longer, and some might stop a little sooner. If you decide to stop breastfeeding before your child naturally self-weans, there are some fantastic tips on how to do that, here.

Unlike a newborn, a toddler doesn’t need you to stop what you’re doing in order to breastfeed!
Noah taking advantage of my yoga practice.

The information on this page should not be used in place of medical advice. Information found online should always be discussed with your own IBCLC, Dr or Midwife to ensure it is appropriate for you and your baby’s situation. Contact your Dr, Midwife or Health Visitor with any concerns about your own or your baby’s health and welfare.

Disclaimer:  The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text on all pages of this website belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s employer, organization, committee or any other group or individual, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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