Breastfeeding a Toddler

When Thomas was born, even before Thomas was was born, I was determined to breast feed for six months. I was prepared to be open minded and go with flow with almost everything else about parenthood, but breast feeding was the one thing I was prepared to do almost anything to try to succeed at.

I won’t lie. It was tough going to begin with. I think the first thing that needs to be scratched from breast feeding education is that it’s what nature intended, and that it’s easy. And even the snippet that almost everyone can breast feed. (Something less than 1% of women physically cannot do it. Another small number of women can’t do it due to true medical or practical reasons). Those things may be true, but when you’re a new breast feeding mother, they aren’t helpful. Because if you are struggling, finding it painful, draining and down right difficult, the last thing you need is the added reminder that this is supposed to be straightforward and natural. That’s a recipe for feeling like a failure. Motherhood is littered with guilt and feelings of inadequacy without adding in unnecessary pressures.

For us, it took a while for breast feeding to click. I struggled with cracked nipples and over supply and I battled through ductal thrush. But once it did, it was indeed easy. Not having to worry about the faff of bottles. Having milk instantly available anywhere, at any time. Milk at the right temperature and without any worries about sterility.

And once it clicked, I knew that I’d have no problem meeting my six month goal. But I didn’t really think beyond that.

No one ever really talks much about the how-to of stopping breast feeding, beyond warning that you shouldn’t do it suddenly if you want to avoid engorgement and possible mastitis. There is information out there, but you have to actively search for it. And what hadn’t occurred to me without looking for that information, or having experienced it first hand, was that stopping isn’t as simple as saying “all done”.

Six months isn’t some magical watershed where your child will suddenly stop needing or wanting milk. Thomas had no idea that he was six months old and certainly had no desire to stop. And even if you do stop, you’ve still got to introduce something its place, which at this stage is most likely bottles and formula. To me it hardly seemed worth introducing all the hassle I’d loved avoiding in the first six months when carrying on was so simple. So carry on we did.

I still didn’t really give any thought to where it might end. I wasn’t averse to feeding beyond a year, but I wasn’t desperate to do it either. I certainly wasn’t determined to allow self-weaning, although I wasn’t against the idea. The only thing I will admit is that I’ve never really wanted my child to have a conscious memory of breast feeding, so I suppose that means I definitely wouldn’t want to go past three.

As it turns out, we’re still going at approaching 16 months. After his first birthday, I began a policy of “don’t offer, don’t refuse” which meant that I wasn’t going to purposely offer him a feed, but if he made it clear he wanted one, I wouldn’t deny him. Around this time I started to get some comments about breast feeding. They were a mixed bunch. Some people congratulating me – which felt odd because feeding is just something we do. But I suppose it is an achievement. Some people started asking when we would stop. A few went further and comments of “bitty” began to crop up. Whilst I still didn’t feel in a rush to stop, I did begin to feel more self conscious about public feeding, and if I’m honest I did actively seek to prevent it happening. But again, if he really needed or wanted it, I wasn’t going to deny him.

At the beginning of this year, still with no strong feelings either way about giving up or carrying on, we took steps to stop offering the morning feed. And Thomas has asked for, and had, just one single morning feed in the two months since. At one point, it looked a lot like he was going to give up his one remaining regular feed, which he has between dinner and bath time. He’s now become much more forceful in his communication about wanting that feed again though, so for now we’re still very much carrying on.

Breast feeding a toddler is very different to breast feeding a newborn. Obviously. He eats three good meals and two snacks each day. He doesn’t want or need to breast feed every couple of hours. Night feeds are the exception not the rule. He’s generally quick and efficient, rather than drawing each feed out to forty minutes or more. Physically he’s much bigger. And wrigglier. And more inquisitive and distractable.

The former points make breast feeding a toddler much easier and more pleasurable. The latter make it much harder and much less enjoyable. He’s capable of really hurting with his thrashing and pulling. And he can get distracted after a few minutes, go away to do something else, and then come back to it a few minutes later. He treats me like a milk bar when he pulls my top up, but then stands by the sofa to feed from me.

But suddenly, for the first time in several months, I really don’t want to stop.

Because breast feeding is still my go-to parenting solution and weapon of choice. If Thomas is really upset, it’s the one thing that will instantly calm, comfort and quieter him. Although feeding to sleep is a long stopped habit, when he is over tired, it still works better than anything else we’ve tried. And when he is I’ll, it’s nothing short of magical.

That last point has never been more apparent that in the last 10 days where we have battling the gastrointestinal bug from hell. I never knew so much diarrhoea and vomit could come from something so small – and that’s saying something, because Thomas has always been a sicky child! And I’m still figuring out how to truly banish the smell of sick from a carpet (any hints gladly received!). During the long week where he hasn’t really eaten at all, breast milk has provided him with nutrition and rehydration without upsetting his stomach further. When he’s cried in confusion, or just because he feels lousy, breast milk has been his comfort source of choice.

It’s at a time like this that I’m most grateful that I still have breast feeding to fall back on. For now, no matter how many disparaging comments I get, we’ll be carrying on. Because the boy clearly isn’t ready to stop, and I’m not willing to give up the most useful tool in my parenting box.


3 Replies to “Breastfeeding a Toddler”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, and I wanted to say well done, I really admire people that are managing extended breastfeeding. I’m afraid I didn’t really get on with it for either of my children, and I continued until 6 months out of a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. Sometimes I wish that I had perservered for longer, especially, as you say, once they are eating real food it becomes less about needing the feed and more about comfort. I’ve never found either of my children particularly cuddly as toddlers and breastfeeding would have perhaps given us a little more closeness (and perhaps prolonged the daytime nap – something that we’re struggling with now with my youngest!)

  2. Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t think it sounds as though your have anything to feel bad about. I’m very much of the belief that “every breast feed counts” so reaching 6 months is a huge achievement, especially as you found it difficult. Carrying on turned out to be the easier option for me, but it could easily have been the opposite. I don’t know whether feeding influences how cuddly they are. Thomas is quite affectionate, although going through a phase of either clinging to me like a limpet, or running away as fast as his little legs will carry him! And he’s always been a horrendous sleeper too – which so many people have been quick to put down to feeding. Whatever you do as a mother, there will be someone ready to tell you that you should be doing something else. I wish motherhood didn’t come with a side of guilt!

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