Breastfeeding a Toddler: The Pros and Cons
I love nursing my babies! It’s been one of the most fulfilling things for both of my children and for me as we go through the journey together. From the first, difficult days, weeks, or even months where we figured out latch, supply, and timing; to the toddler days when sometimes all they need is a minute or two of liquid energy to keep them going, nursing is an amazing experience.
It’s not all fun and games, though, especially when you continue to breastfeed your nursling past 12 months. I nursed my daughter until she was 25 months old and my son is still going strong at 16 months, so I have just a little bit of experience nursing a child who can walk and talk in full sentences. There are beautiful times, and there are times where you think, “Really? Can I have my body to myself for just one day?”
The sad thing is, it’s still a bit of a taboo thing in our society to nurse toddlers and preschoolers. Despite all the advances lactavists have made, people still look at breasts and think “sex,” thus demonizing moms who continue to nurse when their children “can ask for it.” This is really a bad thing for babies, as it shames mothers into withholding what’s best and not only keeps them from important nutrition and immunity building milk, but from some special bonding that can continue to happen between Mommy and baby for much longer than just the first year.
Where there are pros to nursing past 12 months, there are also cons. Nursing a toddler is nothing like the sweet, sleepy cuddles you get from an infant. Sometimes it’s a wrestling match. Sometimes it’s draining. Sometimes it brings out all bipolar leanings your little one may have. But oh my, is it worth it all! I’m no expert and by all means I’m still lacking wisdom in the subject area, but after 3 1⁄2 combined years of nursing my littles, here is my list of the pros and cons of nursing a baby when they’re not technically a baby anymore:
Pros of Toddler Breastfeeding:
During Sickness My favorite thing about continuing to nurse past 12 months of age is that when your baby is sick, you can give them comfort, antibodies, and hydration just by nursing them. All your child wants during that time is Mommy. They don’t want their sippy cups or their bottles, they don’t want to eat or to be put down, they just want to snuggle. Nursing doesn’t necessarily mean nourishment to them, it means comfort; but while they seek that comfort, they’re also getting essential calories and hydration. As the mom of the sickling, I can also tell you that nursing means a break for me. My son likes to me to pace and rock him ALL. DAY. LONG. when he’s sick. When it’s time to nurse him, I get to sit down and take a break from that exhausting routine. I’ve also noticed that the duration of his viruses is much shorter than those of my husband, my 5 year old daughter, and myself.
Breast milk is full of leukocytes and antibodies that help my little guy fight off sickness.
While I’m in constant contact with him, my body creates the antibodies that he specifically needs to fight his battles.
Comfort Nursing is comforting. It’s the first, outside tie a baby has to its mother, should the mother choose to nurse her newborn. Breast fed babies go from the umbilical cord to the breast for nourishment. It’s here where they look up and learn your face for the first time, and reacquaint themselves with your voice without the filter of amniotic fluid. It’s here where they learn to trust you as they discover hunger, discomfort, and need for the first time.
When they’re older, those first memories seem to continue to fuse your baby to your breasts. When my son gets a bump on his head or becomes frightened about something, nursing calms him down right away, shortening his time of distress.
They can ask for it I know this is typically looked upon as a “con” in our culture, but it’s nice when your child learns to ask for something for the first time. It’s like breaking the code of a secret language. Up until this point, your little one has cried and you’ve had to play the guessing game: Is it the diaper? Does he need a pacifier? Is she hungry? Is he too hot? Now, they can actually say it, which is a breakthrough and a relief for all parties involved.
Bonding Both my kids are very attached to me and I feel that nursing really helps to strengthen that bond we have. I work part time and when I come home from work, I immediately take the time to sit down and breastfeed my little nursling. When we only had Bunny, I breastfed her first thing when we got home. Now that she’s weaned and Bear is nursing, he and I do the same thing. Both of us look forward to that time after a long morning apart.
Nourishment Breast milk still supplies a lot of calories for a toddler or preschooler. After 12 months it shouldn’t necessarily be their only source of nourishment, but I feel that it fills in the gaps where their ever increasing diet fails—especially when you have a toddler who has yet to learn to eat veggies/fruits/(you fill in the blank). Also, when my nurslings are sick and won’t eat, this is when the milk especially fills in their nutrition gaps until they are ready to eat solid food again.
Co sleeping Nursing and co sleeping go hand in hand. We are not a full fledged co sleeping family.
I’d love to regularly co sleep but I just don’t sleep well with a baby in the bed with me.
However I do take my babies into bed to nurse them and sometimes we fall asleep together. When they’re having a particularly difficult week with teething or a virus, they stay there all night so I can monitor their temperature and so they can feel completely relaxed as they try to rest and overcome this new stage. For families who co sleep all the time, there is no need to fully awaken and leave the bed to grab your child when they want to nurse. Just latch them on and go back to sleep (or rest, since I don’t think breastfeeding moms sleep in the traditional sense of the word).
It facilitates naptime Nursing helps a baby fall asleep. I don’t know if there is a chemical reason behind it, if it’s just because it’s comforting and relaxing, or if it’s due to the routine of it, but both my daughter and now my son are more apt to nap well when they nurse first. Before bedtime and naptime, I always nurse my babies. Sometimes they fall asleep while nursing, sometimes not, but it’s to the point that when my son is tired, he points toward my bedroom because he wants me to take him in the bed and snuggle/nurse him to sleep.
Middle of the night snuggles There is a positive side to nursing toddlers in the middle of the night—a child that normally wrestles you through your nursing sessions is now calm and serene, which means you get the most beautiful snuggles.
Weight Loss Weight loss and nursing do not necessarily go hand in hand for all women. Some find that nursing makes it more difficult to lose weight. Most, find the opposite to be true and with very little effort the pounds gained during pregnancy melt off in the nine months or so that follow. Nursing makes me voraciously hungry. I nurse my son every night before bed and after nursing him, I feel like I could eat a second meal. I’ve also noticed that when he seems to be going through a growth spurt, I start looking skinnier. People say, “Wow, Becca, you look great!” and I can’t take any credit because I don’t really exercise and I like to top off my healthy diet off with a good dose of cookies or ice cream. I’m not saying you should eat junk when you’re nursing, just that I do, and I don’t really gain weight.
(I think the fact that I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum during Bear’s pregnancy means I’m more apt to eat whatever I’d like now without a thought to the consequences. After nine months of craving foods I was just going to throw up, it’s nice to just eat whatever I want and keep it down. I don’t know that women with normal pregnancies experience that, since many pregnant women spend those 9 months overindulging)
Cons of Toddler Breast Feeding:
Only Mommy One of the biggest “cons” of nursing, if you can call it that, is that there are times when your little one can only be soothed by Mommy. I’d love to be the one to snuggle my five year old daughter to bed some nights, but since my husband can’t really nurse our son to sleep, I don’t usually get to be the one to put Bunny to bed. When Baby Bear wants to nurse, I need to drop everything and do it. At this point, nursing isn’t the same necessity it was when he was exclusively breastfed, but if my nursing toddler wants the comfort, nourishment, etc that nursing provides, he will not be soothed until he gets it. That means, “Honey, can you hold him for a moment, I’ll be right there,” doesn’t cut it because he will scream and fight my husband the entire time he’s not getting my milk. He doesn’t feel he can fully wake up without his morning nursing session. If I just nurse him and get to my task later, he’s a much, happier little guy.
Modesty is out the window I’m a pretty modest person. When modesty and breastfeeding collide, breastfeeding comes first. In fact, that’s the reason I never use a cover when breastfeeding: neither my children nor I can stand them. When covered, you can’t see your baby’s face, I’m afraid of smothering, and how the heck can you get a good latch when you can’t see your baby’s mouth?!?! I tried covers with both my kids and finally threw the thing aside in frustration. However, this doesn’t mean I want the world to see my breasts. It’s my personal preference that they stay covered. That was easy when my children were small and still when they nursed. I pulled my shirt down until it was right up against their mouth and many people probably didn’t notice that I was even nursing. As toddlers, my nursing children are wiggly and fidgety, meaning, they like to pull my shirt up. And down. And up. When they’re not being nursed, they like to reach for my breasts, pulling my neckline down. Keeping my torso covered with a very cognitively aware toddler is more of a challenge than it was with an infant.
Strong, wiggly babies Toddlers are strong! They’re wiggly! Sometimes, nursing feels less like a bonding, snuggly experience and more like a wrestling match. This not only means I can’t relax, it means I’m constantly fighting niplash—that awful sensation of your nipple being pulled and stretched to it’s limit and then released. I can’t tell you how often I fight to keep my nipples at a normal length while nursing a toddler. My daughter did it and I thought she was just weird, but now my son does it too. In fact, sometimes he refuses to nurse at all if he can’t pull my nipple out until it’s at least an inch long. He fights and kicks to pull his head back as far as possible, and I grab and hold to keep him close. We have constant battles over that. When he’s not trying to stretch my nipples, he’s wiggly anyway. He stands, and flips, and twists, and sticks little toes up my nose— it’s pretty crazy. A friend of mine who was nursing a 6 month old witnessed it one time and the look on her face was sheer horror. “I don’t know how you do that!” she said while holding her calm, little infant in her arms. “Me neither,” I wanted to reply.
Middle of the night I don’t know if toddlers who don’t nurse wake up in the middle of the night, but my nursing toddlers do. My daughter didn’t sleep through the night regularly until she was 18 months old. My son started sleeping his full 1012 hours when he was 4 months old, but he still has stages where he wakes up 13 times during a night. That said, night feedings for toddlers are commonplace in my limited experience. Though it can be exhausting, it’s also sweet to have your little one snuggled up against you no matter the time of day.
Distractions Toddlers are much more prone to being distracted while nursing. My son is playing happily and then he sees Mommy and he suddenly decides it’s time to nurse. He nurses for 30 seconds and then abruptly pulls away (ouch) because he really wants his tractor.
He jumps down to get it (sometimes he doesn’t unlatch until he’s on his way down— double ouch), and then returns to Mommy only to be horrified that my shirt is down. He screams at me because how dare I put the milk away, so it’s back up with the shirt for another 30 second nursing session until he feels he must go join his sister in playing with the blocks...but wait...he still wants to nurse...no play...no nurse... Mom, maybe you should just keep the boob out. (Sometimes I feel like an allday buffet.) Some days, if I’m lying down and nursing him, he’s so energetic during a our session that he jumps down to the floor while still latched on and starts doing a little nursing dance. Hands on the couch and breast in his mouth, he bounces his little butt up and down in his happy, milk dance before noticing he left his blanket in the other room and whipping his little head away before toddling over to grab it. Then, it’s back to me where he keeps on drinking and dancing.
Teeth Toddlers have teeth. Lots of them. Granted, biting isn’t common at this stage because they learn not to bite when their teeth are new, but it doesn’t mean you don’t get a dental graze every now and then. This usually happens during the milk dance, or the abrupt de- latching in order to run after the tractor. The worst is when they’re falling asleep and those teeth start coming together and they don’t realize it. Ouch!
Getting pregnant Many people can get pregnant while nursing so this isn’t an issue. My husband and I couldn’t seem to get pregnant while nursing so I reluctantly weaned my now 5 year old little girl just past her 2nd birthday. It was the only reason I would have considered forcing my daughter to wean. In an ideal world, I would have loved to let her choose the time and place.
Of course the fact that some people do get pregnant while nursing can also be a con. That’s a lot of your self to give away to other people. And a lot of calories you have to consume. I have such a tough time keeping calories down when I’m pregnant that I can’t even imagine trying to take in twice as much. Of course, that’s probably why my body won’t let me do both at the same time.
As you can see, I obviously have many reasons to continue nursing my little one, and many possible reasons to stop. Most of my breastfeeding friends have weaned for one of the many cons I listed above. Every woman has her limits. Mine was not getting pregnant. When I was nursing my 18 month old daughter, I wanted to get pregnant very badly. When it didn’t happen, I slowly brought her down to fewer sessions a day, hoping that if we were down to only one or two times, I could get pregnant. When she was 25 months old, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. My body was telling me I just couldn’t handle being pregnant and nursing at the same time. I cried a lot before going to her and telling her we were going to nurse for the last time because she was a big girl now. She looked at me and smiled and nodded, and then we nursed while my husband took photos. She completely understood what was happening and didn’t even fight it. The first time she got sick after weaning, I was at a loss. I didn’t know how to take care of her without breastfeeding and I really wished that we hadn’t weaned. Of course, we learned to cope and she got better without Mama’s milk, but it really made me reconsider having weaned her as early as I did. I’m hoping to let my son selfwean. I don’t know if that will happen though, and I won’t beat myself up if we decide to try for another baby and it doesn’t. For now, I’m content with just two children and I’m more prone to giving God the reigns in that territory this time around. If God wants us to have another, He’ll let it happen. If not, that’s okay too. Either way, for right now, I’m willing to put up with nursing a strong, wiggly toddler with a mouth full of teeth for a good while yet in order to reap the many blessings of extended nursing. It truly is worth every difficulty for me.