Family Life

What It’s Like to Breastfeed a Toddler

August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week when we celebrate breastfeeding mothers and children everywhere. As I was thinking about what to write in celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, I realized that I have a major breastfeeding milestone coming up. Kay will be celebrating her second birthday next week, and that day will also mark two years of successful breastfeeding for us. From the seemingly never ending newborn feedings to toddler gymnastics, it really has been an amazing journey!

Breastfeeding at a year is normal and biologically appropriate

Breastfeeding at a year is normal and biologically appropriate

Full-term breastfeeding is not the norm yet in North America, but as we continue to learn more about the benefits of breast milk and full-term breastfeeding, I hope that our breastfeeding culture and public perception will catch up with other parts of the world and normalize breastfeeding again. Health Canada and the World Health Organization recommend breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler’s research suggests that the natural duration of breastfeeding is somewhere between 2.5 to 7 years. Cross-cultural studies suggest that children typically self-wean between somewhere between 3 and 5 years, and studies of non-industrialized societies around the world prior to the widespread marketing of formula give an average age of weaning of about 2.8 years. Clearly, weaning at 6 months or even one year is premature.

Despite all that we know about the benefits of full-term breastfeeding, many people don’t know anyone who nursed past a year. Except they probably do. Surveys of breastfeeding moms show that there are a lot more of us out there than you probably realize, but most women don’t advertise they’re still nursing their toddlers. Since toddlers don’t need to nurse all the time, they usually only nurse at home and aren’t as visible as nursing infants. Either way, many people have no idea what it’s like to nurse a toddler. Having done it twice (older sis self-weaned at 34 months), I thought I’d share a little bit about what it’s been like for us.

Just like everything else about parenting, our nursing relationship has changed and evolved as Kay has grown. At the very beginning, she nursed on demand. And for us, that meant ALL THE TIME. There were days it seemed like I would never get off the couch. But she soon learned to become more “efficient” at feeding, and I learned to read her cues. We breastfed exclusively for six months at which point I gradually introduced solid foods into her diet.

To state the obvious, nursing a toddler is different from nursing an infant. Kay eats. A lot. She loves chicken, steak, sweet potatoes, rice, broccoli, carrots, peas, grape tomatoes, California rolls, and any kind of fruit. Breast milk isn’t her main source of food any more, but it does still supplement her diet. She often asks to nurse after meals (like it’s dessert!). Instead of basic sustenance, breast milk now provides her with an immune boost every time she nurses. And when she does get a cold, nursing helps her feel better and picks up the nutritional slack when she’s too sick to have much of an appetite.

Toddlers are distractible. They want to see every single thing that’s going on, even if they’re latched on at that particular moment. Ouch! Unlike when she was younger, nursing rarely happens when we’re out and about now. There’s too much to see, too much to do. She’s active all the time, and nursing is no exception. Currently, Kay thinks it’s the funniest thing to stick her feet up my shirt or in my face while she’s nursing. Those little toes are so kissable though! Other times she gently pats my face and chest as if to say, “I love you.”

Nursing a toddler

Breastfeeding at two years is also normal and biologically appropriate

We rarely nurse for 20, 15, or even 10 minutes like we used to. Except when she’s nursing to sleep, our breastfeeding sessions are more like five minutes. Kay uses nursing like a check in when she’s had a busy day or for comfort when she gets hurt. Her two year molars are coming in right now, and she’s definitely nursing more often lately to cope. On the whole, I much prefer that over constant fussing or crying from the pain of teething.

After all this time, we’re pretty much experts at this breastfeeding “dance”. We’ve nursed lying down, standing up, half asleep, in the car, at the mall, on the playground, in the bathtub, wherever or whenever she needed it. We still nurse to nap and sleep, and that’s the one thing I’d like to work on right now. It would be so nice to let someone else put her to sleep for a change so hubs and I could stay out late or even have a night away!

Breastfeeding is a valuable tool in my mothering toolbox, like kisses and hugs, reading stories, massage, babywearing, playing, tickles, and all the other things that mothers do. I did the math, and between my two girls, I’ve been nursing for the last four and a half years. Part of me feels like it’s been long enough, and the rest of me knows I’ll miss it when we’re done. At this point, I’m in no hurry to rush it. I have two happy, healthy, confident little girls so clearly I’m doing something right!

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  • thank you for sharing your story. i hope one day that breastfeeding past age 1 wont seem like such a big deal. I get lots of flack for BFing a toddler past 1.

  • Yes, thank you for sharing your story. I may try to breastfeed after 1. This all depends on work. I will be getting a breast pump and i’m sure this will help while at work, but as you mentioned, as they get older they breast feed less.

    • Yes, it gets easier as they get older. My first was 18 months when I returned to work and I didn’t need to pump, just nursed when I got home. Good luck!

  • I nursed my daughter until she was 13.5 months but then she was no longer interested in it. She actually refused…tried different things under doctor’s direction but then decided it was for the best. I have a fertility condition and bc of this my doctor didn’t think it would be a good idea to be nursing while trying to conceive. Either way, she was done. But…we enjoyed every second of it together and I wouldn’t trade that time together for anything. I miss it SO much <3

    • Congratulations on a job well done! It is a very special time, but hopefully you’ll have another chance soon! Sending baby dust your way!

  • My son is 2 yrs, 4 mths old and I am still breastfeeding him primarily at night! It’s so hard to constantly hear how I “need to stop” and “omg you should’ve stopped once he could talk” etc. Yes, I admit at times it can be inconvenient but it’s comforting to him and the fact that it is coupled with co-sleeping is what can make if frustrating too. Thanks so much for sharing this post, I needed it!!!

    • Natalie, I’m fortunate that nobody has ever actually said that stuff to me, but it makes me wonder how it’s anybody else’s business what goes on between your breasts and your child. You’re not hurting anyone and in fact, you’re improving your son’s and your own long-term health outcomes the longer you nurse. You have my support, and that of a lot of other nursing mamas out there. You’ll stop when you and he are ready, and that’s all anybody needs to know.

  • Being an EPer I gave my son expressed BM full time for the whole 12 months of his life (with occassional formula) and only partially until 18 months because I need some time of my life back. EPing takes a least twice as much time and effort than BFing and it was already taking a toll on my health and quality time that should have been spent with family instead of pumping. Sometimes it make me sad that EPing moms doesn’t get that much credit/understimated. Every time that I get hardships of pumping, I always wish my nipples shouldn’t have been flat or wish my son didn’t have a lip and tounge tie or my son didn’t have to stay in the NICU before or wish my son knew how to pause to breathe during feeding so I didn’t have to bottle feed him and watch him intently and count how many times he swallows and if he breathes.

    • I agree with you that pumpers tend to get left out of the conversation, and that’s a shame. I rarely pumped, but just the little I did gives me a lot of respect for the dedication it takes for pumping mamas to keep it up day after day, month after month. You did what you needed to do for your son. You should be proud of your accomplishment!

  • I breastfed both my kids 2+ and lots of people including my family hassled me, but i didn’t care cause my kids needed it!

    • Congratulations on a job well done! You know what your kids need, and really it’s nobody else’s business but yours and your nursling’s.

  • I would have BF as long as possible too, but it didn’t work out that way unfortunately. My toddler loves to have her down time, or just some cuddling time in all the same spots around the house we used to get comfy in for breastfeeding…gonna hang on to that bit of time for as long as possible.

  • I breastfed my baby when it was not popular to do so. There were 25 moms with babies and the only two breastfeeding were a mother who had immigrated from Holland with her husband and myself. Breastfeeding was common there. It took a long time for it to catch on here and I am so happy for the Moms and babes who benefit from it.
    Two of my three daughters also breastfed their babies. All my granddaughters breastfeed. One could not because of problems with
    her breast milk, which caused problems with her baby’s digestion.

  • I wish I could’ve breastfed longer – my oldest had 6 months and youngest had 9 months – but I immediately began losing my milk when I had to go back to work (I phased back in to work after 4 weeks, and although I pumped and expressed it wasn’t the same for my supply as actually nursing). It’s so hard in our society that essentially requires two incomes in order to pay a mortgage. I missed out on maternity leave because we simply couldn’t afford for me to be off that long. The pressures to return to work are why I think most mothers are unable to breastfeed past a year (or even 6 months, like me!), even though they may have the best of intentions to do so.

  • I nursed my toddler for 2 months into my second pregnancy. I started having complications with the pregnancy and stopped nursing him at 18 months. My doctor said I could continue if I wanted but it was becoming painful. Looking back, I wish I would have nursed longer. I have my 4 month old now and we hope to nurse longer than the first. Breastfeeding creates such a beautiful bond, giving comfort and nourishment at the same time. Love your blog entry ❤️