This was my job as a mother to an infant: to nourish and love and protect my baby. Usually I could do all three with one tool… breastfeeding. During MaiTai’s infancy, it seemed breastfeeding was the best answer to almost anything.
Hungry? Nurse. Thirsty? Nurse. Overtired? Nurse. Bored? Nurse. Hurt or sick? Needing closeness? Feeling affectionate? Nurse, nurse, nurse. Of course, other types of attention and problem-solving were plenty helpful (looking at you, Sofie the Giraffe), but nothing quite like offering a breast in those early months.
In “My First Year of Breastfeeding”, you can read about how we managed from the first feed until the first birthday. I also posted a child-led weaning series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) where I explained the whys and hows of nursing beyond infancy, sometimes known as full-term breastfeeding/natural-term breastfeeding (I avoid the label “extended-term” because it’s a sustained practice rather than an addendum).
Here I’ll share what’s changed (or not) in toddlerhood nursing from the earliest days.
1). Other Food/Drinks
No longer is breast milk the sole component of MaiTai’s diet, the main part, or even the most essential part nutritionally-speaking. Breast milk cannot replace his breakfast, lunch or dinner, though it’s still a wholesome mainstay and therefore important. However, as time passes it becomes progressively less so for all its purposes.
I’m not sure precisely how or when breast milk went from this sort of golden key to solve any mounting problem…to supplemented by other modes of comfort and solid foods…to becoming the supplement itself.
I do know that MaiTai began eating solid foods around one year old, and his appetite for nursing didn’t decrease noticeably until after his second birthday. For a full trip around the sun, breast milk was everything to MaiTai’s growing body, and for longer still it was almost-everything.
Technically, weaning from nursing starts when a child is introduced to other foods or liquids and is no longer exclusively breastfed. “Weaning” can be a tricky little term to keep leashed by strict definition however, as some nursing dyads do wade through issues associated with the weaning process even without introducing solid foods or formula (for example, by alternating between mother’s milk and donor milk, returning to work and switching mostly to bottles, facing nursing strikes, and so on). It’s helpful to keep an open mind about what “weaning” really means, leaving the definition up to each mother and her own circumstances.
That said, what weaning does always refer to is a process — not merely the act of reaching some penciled-in date on the calendar. Weaning is not a moment. Maybe it takes days, weeks, usually months in Western culture, and as the biological and global norm, some years.
Once upon a time, MaiTai laid still and bundled in my arms to nurse, gentle and pacified… crying and fussing often as newborns do, but generally peaceful and definitely not going anywhere. He drifted off to sleep after most nursings.
Eventually he learned to stand up while nursing — and to flip upside down, balance on my kneecaps, perform pirouettes, play patty-cake with my nose, engage in Gymnurstic routines so rambunctious he was pink-cheeked and sweaty by the end of many a breastfeeding session.
He also experimented a few times with walking off, nipple still firmly in his mouth, but learned rather quickly that his mama isn’t an “eat on the go” type. Skin elasticity really is underrated…
3). Sleep Nursing
MaiTai no longer needs to nurse to fall asleep. It certainly helps when he wants some extra affection and closeness before dozing off, but it’s not guaranteed to work quite like the magic lullaby it was in his babyhood.
He also doesn’t nurse throughout the night anymore, and since he turned two he doesn’t spend hours each morning nursing in the family bed nest (maybe if he’s overtired or not feeling well). Now he only wakes up once during the night as opposed to every tick of the hour hand, and he doesn’t always wish to nurse when he does.
He still asks to breastfeed first thing almost every morning, but if we skip this step for whatever reason, he’s usually okay with it (so long as breakfast is hot and ready for him in the kitchen).
4). Learning About Manners
Breastfeeding a young toddler is a wonderful (read: easy) way to teach about manners.
It’s never too early to learn about the positive influence of politeness. What better place to do so than the most safe and secure one in the world, through loving, trust-building, one-on-one socialization?
We learned about biting, hair-pulling, pinching, slapping, scratching, kicking, and eye-poking. More specifically, that most people don’t like these things imposed upon them (and those who do should be granted opportunity to give their consent first!).
I can’t say we have a fail-proof system in place that completely prevents these behaviors from happening, but I see that MaiTai mostly understands my concern and does try to tame some of his wilder whims when nursing.
For instance, if he gets yanky with my hair, I remind him that we can’t nurse if he continues the unwelcome tug-of-war game. Sometimes it takes a few seconds of thoughtful consideration on his part, but he does let go. I accept that he’s bound to forget my idea of manners on some occasions, so I call upon the powers of repetition, reinforcement and patience.
If I say I don’t like what he’s doing to me, he often follows up with his version of an earnest apology: whispering “Niiiice mama” while stroking my head and face. Sometimes he actually says, “Sorry mama.” Either way it’s all good.
“Don’t offer, don’t refuse” is another new development of the toddlerhood nursing lifestyle. Whereas I made a point to frequently offer a breast to my wee baby, I rarely offer it to my now-toddler — instead, I wait until he asks. Not everyone employs this approach, but it’s what we found works best especially after nursing aversion started making its regular rounds. Plus he asks a lot on his own.
MaiTai has always nursed “on-demand,” meaning whenever and wherever he asks instead of following a proscribed schedule and map of approved nursing destinations. The term is somewhat misleading though because the arrangement looks quite different with a toddler nursling as opposed to a newborn.
These days, breastfeeding isn’t necessarily (or usually) the first thing on MaiTai’s mind when he’s hungry, thirsty, overtired, bored, hurt, and so on. Until just a few months ago “on-demand” was still a version of frequent and consistent breastfeeding duty. Now however, if we’re separated the whole afternoon he doesn’t seem to notice or mind if I need to prolong the option of breastfeeding due to physical unavailability (although he’s excited to breastfeed whenever we’re reunited).
MaiTai is beginning to understand my need for boundaries, and so I hope he’ll see my drawing them is to exemplify respect rather than to reject. Forms of “no” are part of our nursing vocabulary now, but I try to avoid using the word itself. Instead “no” is implied in various ways, such as my remaining standing because sitting on the couch risks swirling up all sorts of milky ideas; telling him that we can’t nurse until he can pause the karate practice happening with his legs; or saying “Not right now, I’ll be there when I’m done in the bathroom.”
“No” wasn’t appropriate for my infant because we shouldn’t expect babies to satisfy certain conditions before being allowed to eat. When MaiTai was younger it never even crossed my mind to say “No” or test his capability to wait. Over time, our approach morphed from “Baby’s gotta eat, here’s mama’s milk right now!” to “Child wants to nurse, let’s do our best to keep both him and mama happy.”
So I breastfeed my 2.5 year old whenever we both agree to it… but I suppose it has always been that way:
“Before you cringe at the notion of a parasitic barnacle baby further sapping the reserves of its poor, martyred mother just to feel good, understand that this nursing relationship is actually one of symbiosis. It’s a cycle of giving and receiving. An exchange of sanity restoration for both parties. A silent conversation between the nurser and nursee, held in the private clubhouse of a special nursing spot.” – “How Should Breastfeeding Make You Feel?“
Say we’re at a restaurant or the park or some event and he grows bored or antsy; say he then requests to breastfeed. I know this is perfectly fine, healthy, and normal. So I accommodate him as best as I can, but if I’m trying to eat or too aggravated to nurse and he’s simply bored, I offer other modes of stimulation.
I feel bad (selfish even) that I can’t always say “yes,” and must consult a long list of “back-up distractions” to fill in the breastfeeding slot when I can’t handle it anymore — especially as they’re all runners-up to what he considers to be first prize.
Sometimes he’s totally disinterested in any alternate activity (including eating a special snack, playing with the mini-truck I house in my purse for emergency entertainment, showing him photos of his favorite people, etc.) and we end up breastfeeding when it’s not an ideal time (in my view). I just keep forefront in mind that breastfeeding is always good for him.
Before I scour the back-up distractions list, I try to grab onto to the moment, silence it, and weigh potential regret. This is how I decide, one moment at a time, whether I’ll more strongly regret distracting MaiTai with stand-in comforts or whether it’ll fall heavier on the future state of my heart to nurse when I feel situationally-inconvenienced or hormonally violated.
And this system is actually how we’re still happily nursing to this day.
A Bridge for Emotions
Children are much deeper than many grown people realize. We cannot always reason away their reactions by pointing to an observable trigger. They try to tell us a lot, but they’ll never tell us everything.
Occasionally, MaiTai’s breastfeeding requests border on demanding, but I accept his insistence as a normal part of progression toward independence (might I add: cessation of breastfeeding is not an indication of achieved independence. Nursing status is largely unrelated to the level of a child’s dependence; rather, a unique marker of the physical bond between child and mother).
Parents evolve alongside their children to constantly offer new and improved tools for coping with big feelings, but sometimes children don’t need immediate answers as much as they simply need the support of a trustworthy, warm presence.
If MaiTai acts desperate to nurse and cannot explain why, I don’t burden the responsibility of disclosure upon him. But in such a scenario, I do try to help him connect with his feelings by asking why he’s upset and what would help. Then I do my best to satisfy his stated need, which sometimes is to breastfeed.
If it does seem that he’s treating the delay of nursing like the end of his world, I know something has perturbed him so much that he cannot convey the origins of his upset otherwise — perhaps he hasn’t yet found the right words.
Since children of all ages use nursing as a time to process their thoughts and feelings, it makes sense that they naturally turn to the comfort of mother’s breast for a moment of peace, a chance to think.
6). Me! I’m Different!
Before I gave birth to MaiTai, I “supported” the idea of full-term (or as I called it then, extended) breastfeeding. Yet I was still like, “But… it’s a breast… and a child on the breast… and that’s getting bit old now don’t you think?!”
(Oh shut your pie hole, self of the past! You’re embarrassing your less-ridiculous future self!)
I no longer entirely fault myself for this way of thinking, but rather largely the culture of my origins (so only kind of my fault? Nice).
There was a time when I expected to breastfeed only for six months (thanks to the picture promoted by American formula advertising). The half-year marker came and went, and thus I extended my goal to one year. MaiTai’s first birthday came and went, and I began to consider the reality of child-led weaning. At that time, he still treated nursing entirely like a need, and I respected what it did for him because based upon his cues, he was exclusively breastfeeding for the indefinite future.
I had all kinds of questions — about myself, my child, everything! I wondered, how long do children normally breastfeed if allowed to wean themselves? Is it even a good thing to let children wean themselves, or should a mother impose an expiration date upon her breast milk to avoid — eek — dependency?
I found a lot of eye-opening answers, the kind that caused a good chuckle over why I once felt the need to pick apart this act of love, this original foundation for familial connection.
I’d been supportive of the idea of nursing beyond infancy, but really never expected to be one of “those mothers” who actually breastfeed a toddler. Not because I thought their inclinations were strange, but because I so admired those mothers. I wasn’t confident in my capability of mothering along what seemed like a treacherous tightrope dividing warring camps of cultural perspective.
Long story short, I’m now one of “those mothers” and it feels pretty good to me.
7). Mechanical Issues
When MaiTai was an infant, I regularly duked it out with oversupply and at times struggled with mastitis and blocked ducts thanks to overproduction.
Now that my supply has decreased significantly and I can fit into my pre-pregnancy strappy tops again, I no longer worry about going too long without emptying my breasts. I’m no longer anxious to keep them secured in an assortment of lactation-friendly boob hammocks — I mean, bras. (I just know they were expensive and not cute. A mechanical issue, I say).
8). Nursing Aversion
I was “All Touched Out” during the majority of MaiTai’s first year. The feeling seemed to quietly tiptoe away around his second birthday, but until then MaiTai was too young to capably grasp that his “mother base” has emotional and physical limits of her own.
When MaiTai was a baby, I didn’t even know a clinical thing called Nursing Aversion (NA or Breastfeeding Agitation) existed. Often brought on by hormone changes due to pregnancy or menstruation, aversion doesn’t typically affect mothers with young babies (not shutting out that possibility though).
It wasn’t until I began noticing unusual symptoms a few months before his second birthday that I became aware of the issue as separate from the beast that is “All Touched Out.”
9). Breastfeeding in Public
In some ways, breastfeeding a toddler outside the home is easier than it was with an infant — and in many ways, it presents characteristic problems.
A “Big Baby”
An infant is measurably tinier than a toddler and is easier to cradle in mama’s arms or babywear when nursing. Most people don’t notice a young baby breastfeeding in public because he’s quiet, content, and appears to be sleeping on mama’s heart.
A toddler is about the size of well-fed Cocker Spaniel and about just as eager to chase after a bouncing ball without pause (paws?). Cradle-hold is no longer a feasible option for this Cocker toddler, and he may be too interested in bodily freedom to accept babywearing when he can walk (or sit down and ignore you).
The way we nurse at home is usually quite different from the way we nurse in public.
When MaiTai was a baby, I nursed him in public however it needed to happen (leaky breasts, wardrobe malfunctions, and positioning quandries be damned!) because breast milk was his sole source of sustenance and he needed it right when he needed it. I believe he still “needs” to nurse when he indicates, but not for the same reason.
A newborn needs to nurse every two hours or as demanded. Nursing MaiTai as a newborn sometimes lasted an hour or hours at a time. When cluster-feeding, it was virtually impossible to get both my haunches and my baby off the couch in one rhythmic fell swoop with any sort of grace or timeliness, so it was kind of a huge deal just to make it to the kitchen to start a load in the dishwasher, much less to Target to replenish the dish detergent.
It’s no small wonder that it took a month for us to find first opportunity to feed outside the home. I can agree to spend hours on the couch in my living room — not so much the one outside the restroom at the mall. If we were away from the house and he needed a good nursing, I’d scout out a quiet, comfortable spot for us to focus.
An older infant can nurse just about as often, especially as he gains awareness of the confusing, scary, exciting world and frequently needs to “touch base” with his very first home (mother) in between discoveries.
Different still, a toddler has grown accustomed to new faces and places and doesn’t seem to need constant reassurance through nursing; exploring his public environs becomes as appealing as cuddling up to mama (more so if Play Doh and bubbles are involved).
Now, toddler MaiTai usually only nurses for a few minutes at a time when away from the house, so it’s not necessary to hunker down in some especially cozy spot. It’s usually a pop-on, pop-off situation or it maxes out at ten consecutive minutes when he changes his mind and decides upon reciting the alphabet instead of emptying the milk tap.
On Nursing Calmly
I have certain wishes of MaiTai (not necessarily expectations) to stay relatively settled when preparing to nurse in public — for my sake. Raucous activity is fun and dandy, but I can’t say pulling my shirt down to my belly button to signal a desire for milk is preferable in many environments outside the home, especially if I’m engaged in an independent activity or at an event that requires limited doses of chaos.
If I make the rare-ish effort to dress up in real clothes (anything besides a recycle of yesterday’s stretchy pants), I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the demolition of my button-down shirt by grabby toddler hands. I so love those grabby toddler hands, but the adoration is undoubtedly tested when they turn my delicate jewelry arrangement into ground zero.
When his wrigglyness does cross my tolerance line, I don’t chastise, criticize or reprimand him because… he’s 2.5 years old. Logically I know he’s not trying to control or manipulate me by reaching down my shirt for “nanoo,” so I try to take the healthy dose of toddler silliness with a sense of humor.
I simply say “I don’t like that,” and ask that he “please nurse gently/nicely” because I may not want to continue with nanoo if he cannot sit still.
If given a fair chance, he does listen.
On Handling Criticism
I wasn’t harassed or discriminated against when breastfeeding MaiTai as a newborn in public — alas I must mention that we did hide under covers for a while. We were bothered once when I nursed 10-month-old MaiTai in my own car, but that’s it. I wasn’t asked to leave an establishment or called names for breastfeeding in public until recently when MaiTai’s toddlery-ness turned inconspicuous.
I try to sympathize with the fact that many people in Western society are convinced that a 2.5 year old is “too old to nurse/old enough to wean.” From my own perspective 2.5 is remarkably young, though I do only have experience with my own child and the evident normalcy of sustained breastfeeding for him at this age.
In American culture, many people find themselves feeling offended (or even repulsed, in some instances) upon noticing public breastfeeding of a toddler (let’s call it PBT). Our society doesn’t exactly earn top marks in the department of normalizing breastfeeding in a way that would help those who remain confused or uncomfortable.
These folks may be quite new to the possibility of PBT, and might only have recollection of negative media commentary (for example) to fall back upon. They were preempted to feel this way and the realness of their discomfit is valid, like any other feeling. Yet we also know the great challenge in recognizing and pausing on a trigger (in this instance, seeing older children nursing) and fairly evaluating it before claiming as “personal opinion.”
There’s a difference between 1).”I feel uncomfortable when I see PBT,” 2). “PBT makes me uncomfortable,” and 3). “It’s my opinion that PBT is uncomfortable to see.”
The first is a feeling — a perfectly valid one that I try to acknowledge even if I cannot personally commiserate. As for the second, unfortunately PBT can’t make anyone do anything — including making people feel things, because only those people themselves can take credit for the feelings they experience when they see PBT. Finally, the third statement is, again, actually a feeling rather than an opinion.
10). Asking For It
One cannot force an older child to breastfeed in the same way one cannot force a younger child to breastfeed. A mother who says breastfeeding was rife with catastrophe in the beginning might’ve given up her left breast for the ability to get enough breast milk into her uncooperative nursling.
But forcible breastfeeding isn’t possible, at least not in the same manner that forcible bottle-feeding is (milk or formula flows freely from a controlled position). Contrarily, it’s up to a child to stimulate milk flow from a breast with self-paced suckling and actively pressing milk out from the ducts with his palate and tongue.
As for toddlers, we all know there’s no forcing them to do ANYTHING, much less open their mouth when they’re unwilling. (God bless me the day I can get MaiTai’s toothbrush in as far as he’ll take my nipple!).
So what’s different isn’t that MaiTai now asks to breastfeed (he always has), it’s how he does so.
“First, they squirmed for [breastfeeding] in their newborn onesies, with rooting mouths and clenched fists. Then they wailed and even screamed for it when they learned that making lots of noise made people do stuff for them, like present a breast. When they got the hang of gesturing, they grabbed for and pointed directly at the source. Next, they responded with uncontrollable excitement to the word for it (in our house it’s “na-noo” or “nano”). Eventually, they started using the word themselves.
And finally, they incorporated the word in impressive interrogative phrasing: “Can I have na-noo (nursies/milkies/booby/breast milk/nur-nur/mama)?” -– in the same manner that they ask for a banana if they’re hungry, a Band-Aid if they’re hurt, or a hug if they need to be close. Think about this: why is it assumed in our culture that the answer to breastfeeding should be “No” by a certain age, but such an answer is inappropriate if the request is for a banana, a Band-Aid, or a hug?” – Child-Led Weaning Awareness Series Pt. 4
Not only can a verbal toddler ask to nurse, but he can (and will) say “Thank you!” too. It might be the very first thing for which he thanks his mother at his own behest, without prompting or priming by others, from a genuine place in his satisfied soul where their hearts connected through breastfeeding.