Anna is a mother from Scotland who is passionate about providing accurate information about breastfeeding and parenting.
When most people think of breastfeeding, they imagine a small infant. I did too, before I had a baby. When I started breastfeeding, I didn't give much thought to what would happen as my child grew older. He started crawling, then walking, then talking. People around me seemed to think he would or should stop breastfeeding, but he didn't show any signs of wanting to stop. I ended up breastfeeding until he was 3.
This article is about breastfeeding a toddler. Below, I discuss the benefits and how to deal with common frustrations and annoying things people say. I also include some tips for stopping when you and your toddler are ready.
Is It Recommended to Breastfeed a Toddler?
Yes is the short answer.
Countless reputable international studies have shown the many benefits of continued breastfeeding. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until age 2 and beyond if both the mother and child want to continue. Katharine Dettwyler, an anthropology professor at Texas A&M, has done extensive research on breastfeeding practices around the world that shows it is normal for a human child to wean between the ages of 2.5 and and 7.
Although breastfeeding a toddler is often referred to as "extended breastfeeding" or "continued breastfeeding," it's completely normal for human baby mammals. In modern Western societies, many mothers don't breastfeed for long. It is sometimes viewed as odd or taboo to breastfeed beyond infancy. The reasons for this stigmatization are cultural, not biological, as there is a long list of benefits of continued breastfeeding.
How Long Should I Breastfeed For?
It's a personal decision—there's no right or wrong answer. It's about doing what is right for you and your child.
Some mothers have specific goals about how long they want to breastfeed for. It might be six weeks, a year, or two years. Other mothers will decide to breastfeed until their child self-weans, whenever that may be.
I recommend keeping an open mind about the exact length of time. Breastfeeding is a two-way relationship between you and your child, so it's not only your choice.
Some children will stop breastfeeding without much prompting—sometimes even before the mother feels ready. Other children are more into breastfeeding, and it can take a lot of effort to persuade them to stop. As a mother, you might want to stop, but when faced with an inconsolable child who wants to nurse, it can be hard. Keeping an open mind about breastfeeding can make the whole process easier for both of you.
The Benefits of Breastfeeding a Toddler
Breastfeeding has many health benefits—both for the child and the mother. As your baby gets older, the nutritious value of your breastmilk remains. The longer a child is breastfed, the less likely they are to get ill—and if they do, the more quickly they will recover. Studies also show that the fat content of milk increases after a year and that its immune properties improve.
Health Benefits for Mothers
There is strong evidence of benefits for mothers who breastfeed.
- One study found that mothers who breastfeed for more than 33 months have greater maternal bone strength.
- Extended breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine/endrometrial cancer.
- It has also been shown to reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
Health Benefits for Children
- If your toddler is not feeling well, breastfeeding can help them get better quicker.
- It can also be especially valuable as a way of providing nutrition if your child has gone off solid food.
Mental Health Benefits
Toddler had a hard day? Upset and not calming down? Toddler tantrums are common. Your breast is a magic tool to settle them.
As your child grows older and you return to work, for example, breastfeeding can be an excellent way to reconnect and bond when you come home.
Breastfeeding a toddler is definitely not always relaxing, but sometimes it can be. I used to love coming home from work and breastfeeding my toddler. It meant I had a reason to sit down and reconnect.
The Challenges of Breastfeeding a Toddler
Breastfeeding is often not easy. You will likely face some challenges. Here are some issues that are more common when breastfeeding an older child.
If Your Toddler Stops Breastfeeding Before You Feel Ready
If a toddler (or baby of any age) stops feeding before a mother feel ready, then it can be emotional and distressing. If you want to continue and your toddler seems to have stopped, do remember it can sometimes be a temporary nursing strike. If you want to continue, you can keep offering the breast and seeing if your toddler is interested again.
If You Need to Stop Breastfeeding Due to Illness or Medication
Sometimes mothers will need to stop breastfeeding due to illness or while taking a medication. Note that sometimes doctors are not experts on how specific medications affect breastfeeding, so do double-check your facts and find out what your alternatives are before stopping breastfeeding for this reason. The Breastfeeding Network has good information about how breastmilk is affected by specific medications and illnesses.
If You Must Leave Your Toddler
Some mums worry about what they will do when they need to go to work or away for the night. The likelihood is that you don't need to do anything. You don't need to pump or express milk unless you want to. A toddler is not reliant on your milk to survive, and they will adapt. If they are upset when you are gone, it's probably because they miss their mummy, not your breastmilk.
If You Want to Have Another Baby
Breastfeeding can delay the return of fertility, so if you want another baby, then you may feel pressure to stop. However, most women can conceive while breastfeeding. It may be enough to breastfeed less often rather than stop completely.
If You Want to Stop Breastfeeding But Your Toddler Won't Let You
You might have decided to stop, but it can be very hard to do so. If you are faced with a screaming, hysterical toddler who will only be satisfied by your breast, you may feel you have little choice. I believe it's best to stop slowly. See below for some tips on how to wean gently.
Feeling Overwhelmed and "Touched-Out"
If you have a little person who's always touching you, even when you love that person more than anyone in the world, it's normal to feel overwhelmed.
Twiddling and Acrobatics
Toddlers like to explore. It's common for them to play with your nipples. They might try all sorts of acrobatic breastfeeding positions. You may (or may not) find this intensely annoying.
Breastfeeding aversion (or agitation) is a term for when breastfeeding gives you negative emotions like anger or rage or makes you extremely irritated. Some women find when their child latches on, it literally makes their skin crawl. It can happen with babies at any age but is more common for mothers nursing older children.
I experienced it a few times, and it was very distressing. Some women notice it is linked with their period returning and changing hormones. It can also be a result of being rundown or stressed.
- Establish Boundaries. It's ok to have boundaries with breastfeeding. If your toddler twiddles, you don't need to tolerate it. Remove them from the breast and, over time, they may learn to stop twiddling. With an older child, you can also limit breastfeeding to a time or place.
- Teach Breastfeeding Etiquette. You can also try and teach your child breastfeeding manners.
This can be a change if you have been feeding your baby on-demand, but once your child is older, you can start to say 'no,' 'later,' or 'wait a bit' without feeling guilty (or, as in my case, feeling guilty as my son cried but also knowing I shouldn't feel guilty). I ended up limiting breastfeeding to inside the house after the age of about 1.5. This was initially mostly because it was winter and cold outside. My son was also much more easily distracted outside by everything that was going on. Other mothers also choose to night wean.
Annoying Things People Say About Breastfeeding a Toddler
Sadly, when breastfeeding a toddler, you may deal with negativity and unsolicited advice. In Western cultures, many people do not understand breastfeeding and think of breasts as primarily something sexual rather than a feature of the female body that is designed for feeding babies. And even those who understand that breasts are for feeding a baby are a bit iffy when it comes to feeding a toddler.
Remember that you do not have to justify why you are breastfeeding to anyone, ever. Sometimes it's best just to say it's working well for us, thank you, and leave it at that. But here are some answers to the common comments.
"Are you still breastfeeding? When are you going to stop? He'll be breastfeeding when he is a teenager!"
Your toddler will not be breastfeeding when they are a teenager. As mentioned, most children will stop between the age of 2 and a half and 7 on their own. Teenagers don't breastfeed. There's a reason that children's first teeth are known as milk teeth.
"Breastmilk doesn't have any nutritional value beyond one year."
Of course, it does. See the links in the benefits of breastfeeding a toddler section. However, breastfeeding is not only about nutrition.
"He's too attached to you—it's damaging!"
There is no evidence that breastfeeding limits your child's independence. Some research suggests, on the contrary, that breastfeeding can increase your children's confidence and self-esteem. (source Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Fact Sheet • KellyMom.com)
"Breastfeeding at that age is more for the mother than the child."
I actually don't understand where this idea comes from. You can't force an older child to breastfeed against their will. Mothers who breastfeed older children do so because the child wants to, sometimes through gritted teeth. I've never met a mother breastfeeding an older child who is not sometimes frustrated by it.
How to Stop Breastfeeding a Toddler
When most women start breastfeeding, they don't give much thought to how to stop. I certainly didn't, but stopping can be a challenge for some mothers.
Even if you don't want to stop completely, these ideas might help you slow down.
A common suggestion for stopping breastfeeding is 'don't offer; don't refuse.' This will work for some mothers. As some babies get older and eat more solids, they will often gradually wean off the breast. Other toddlers, like mine, are persistent. They might eat more solid food and breastfeed even more.
With little babies, you feed on demand. Sometimes it can be hard to get out of that mindset, especially if you had a difficult start to breastfeeding. But with a toddler, you can say, 'not now,' 'wait,' 'later,' or 'how about this water instead if you are thirsty.'
This is often your best tool. Does toddler want a breadstick or banana instead? Do they want to play with this new toy? I found when out of the house my toddler was a lot less interested in breastmilk, the world was exciting.
Limit Time and Place
It might help to limit breastfeeding to a certain time and/or place. For example, I stopped breastfeeding my toddler out of the house at age 1.5. It was winter and cold and I didn't want to wear clothes with breastfeeding access anymore. I just told him to wait.
Talk to Them
Even if your little one isn't talking yet, they may understand more than you know, so do explain things to them. For example, rather than just saying no to my son I would say no not now because it's cold, we can breastfeed later when we get inside to the warm.
Read Books About Weaning
One way to help explain stopping breastfeeding to an older child is to read them a story about it. Loving Comfort: A Toddler Weaning Story was one of our favourites.
This blog from a lactation consultant has excellent advice on stopping breastfeeding an older child.
La Leche League are an international non profit organisation whose mission is to support mothers to breastfeed. They are an excellent source of advice. It may be worth seeing if there is a local LLL group to you, as it can be a way of meeting other mothers who breastfeed.
The Kelly Mom website is another comprehensive excellent source of breastfeeding information.