When my first child reached their first birthday, I decided to continue nursing. I decided to do it because I had a baby that, at 12 months old, didn’t eat much solid food. I felt that taking away their primary nutrition was just a bad idea. So I kept nursing, despite a lack of support. My husband and I agreed that this was what was best for our child, but there was not a lot of encouragement in our society to continue nursing. At the time, doctors encouraged nursing for the first year but said little about nursing beyond that.
This is why the recent announcement from the American Academy of Pediatrics is so exciting to me, but I suspect it is overwhelming to a lot of mothers. The official stance from the AAP is “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months. We support continued breastfeeding after solid foods are introduced as long as you and your baby desire, for 2 years or beyond.” This change, announced in late June, updates the organization’s stance from 1 year to 2 years to better align with other similar organizations from around the world and a large body of supporting research.
So, if you are thinking you are going to try to nurse beyond a year, there are some things you should know. Nursing a toddler isn’t like nursing a newborn. I nursed all three of my kids past the age of 2, so let me tell you some things about extended breastfeeding.
How much do they need to nurse?
How much a toddler nurses depends on their personal needs and how much solid food they are eating. It also depends on their emotional needs, development, teething, and if they are sick or going through a growth spurt. It isn’t a constant or even a steady curve. Newborns have a bit of consistency or at least predictability with when or how much they need to eat. If breastmilk is their only source of nourishment, you can be pretty confident they need to nurse every few hours, and gradually the time between feedings can get longer as they get older. Once your baby is eating other foods and moving, running, exploring, and experiencing so much more, it is a lot harder for their food needs to fit into a pattern.
Another interesting thing about nursing beyond a year is that you can negotiate a bit with a toddler. If they are eating solid foods, you can explain that you can’t nurse right now, but they can have a snack. Or you can night wean, meaning they no longer get to nurse in the middle of the night. “Mama’s milks have to sleep until the sun comes up. Tell them night night and you can have more milk when the sun is up.”
Every Child Is Different
One of my kids loved solid food and took to it right away. That toddler had no problem reducing how often he nursed. Nursing was a vitamin supplement and comforting. Because he didn’t need much for nutrition, I could cut back on nursing him to a level that was comfortable for me as he gradually ate more food and had other things to do with his day. He would nurse upon waking, before and after naps, and at bedtime. That was an amount of nursing that wasn’t a struggle for me. It made my days easier actually, as nursing helped him fall asleep quickly and easily.
On the other hand, my child who was not a good eater wanted to nurse a lot. Nursing was still her primary nutrition after age one, so we nursed more times a day. Even then, I could set limits such as only nursing once between breakfast and lunch, or making her wait after lunch until nap time. But if she was ill, or cutting teeth, I knew I would need to cuddle and nurse her several times a day to make up for the calories she wasn’t eating in solid food.
I have a dear friend who nursed past one while working outside the home. She found that not long after the baby’s first birthday, she was able to stop pumping at work. Her baby ate solid food for the babysitter, and would then nurse several times in the evening and in the morning when he had access to mom. But he didn’t need a bottle of pumped milk during the day. Her breasts adjusted to the new pattern and she was able to nurse until age two. She found nursing while working was FAR easier with a toddler than an infant. And she was able to enjoy nursing in the afternoon more because it was a time to reconnect with her baby after a long day apart.
Toddlers can be challenging. When I was in that stage of life, I joined an online chat group focused on extended breastfeeding. The support I got there, and from books about nursing beyond one, were invaluable. Having other moms say “That is normal and temporary” was one of the most helpful things I could have.
Toddlers do not automatically respect your boundaries or that your body doesn’t belong to them. They also can’t tell you why they suddenly want to nurse a lot more this week than last week. Those are challenges you have to navigate with patience. For example, at about 18 months your toddler will want to nurse all day every day. It is a growth spurt and it will pass. It doesn’t mean they are going to nurse like that forever. But it is a challenging month, especially if you were working on setting boundaries before that. You can do lots of things to encourage your toddler to eat more food, too. Unlike when a tiny infant is hungry and your only choice is to nurse more, you can offer your toddler a wide range of foods including popsicles (I made my own) to help with sore gums while teething. You can offer distractions or even let them eat off your own plate.
Toddlers wiggle and move around, especially if they are trying not to fall asleep. This can add a level of challenge to nursing them. Their larger size can also make positioning different than for a smaller baby. I designate certain places where we nursed, the bed or in the big chair in the living room, were the most comfortable. It helped to make the boundaries tangible for them and gave me someplace comfortable to be while nursing. When they were little I would nurse them anywhere, but at two years old, having a few specific, comfortable spots, helped ensure they wouldn’t wiggle off my lap.
Nursing is a Special Kind of Mommy Magic
Nursing is a blessing when your toddler is hurt or upset. It is a calming, soothing activity that you can do almost anywhere. It is a magic way to stop your toddler from crying for almost any reason. When my middle child was almost 2, he fell and cut his lip badly. A few minutes of nursing not only calmed him down but applied the pressure needed to stop the bleeding! The ER staff was very impressed at how well we had gotten the bleeding to stop when we took him to get a couple of stitches in that lip.
There will be a lot of hiccups, but generally, nursing a toddler is easier and more enjoyable than nursing a newborn. It isn’t the same. So, if you have only nursed during the first 6 months, just know that extended nursing is different.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.