Breastfeeding toddlers?

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Q. Why continue to breastfeed after baby starts eating lots of solids?

A. Some of us have a hard time wrapping our heads around the idea of “older” babies breastfeeding. After all, they are getting plenty of nutrition once they start eating a variety of solids. And by a year or so, they are probably even drinking regular milk from a cup. So what’s up with breastfeeding for two, three, four years . . . or longer?

Well, let’s go back to the beginning and see what breastfeeding is all about in the first place, as it gives the baby so much more than nourishment alone.

But first, let’s look at the nutritional aspects of breastfeeding.

Sure, breastfeeding provides baby with breastmilk — and that’s great. Not only is breastmilk excellent nutrition, but it gives baby a lot of antibodies and ingredients that fight infection. Those antibodies are activated anytime baby is exposed to a virus, and mom “feeds” her baby those antibodies whenever even a few drops of breastmilk are consumed. Interestingly, the antibodies are present in the same quantity at two years as at one year, even though the amount of milk a mom produces at two years is reduced because of the baby’s increased consumption of table foods.

But do moms need to analyze all that? No! Why not just breastfeed without watching the clock or calendar and see the wonderful breastfeeding experience you can have when you just let nature guide you. Just let your heart show you the way. After all, breastfeeding is so much more than a way to provide nutrition and protection against disease.

Unlike artificial feeding, which provides nourishment only, breastfeeding offers food, hydration, disease protection — and, maybe more important than all the rest — it provides love. Baby feels secure.

Breastfeeding — starting from the beginning when mom has her newborn in her arms — is the beginning of a baby’s RELATIONSHIP with mom. And when baby is breastfeeding, s/he is not just connected with the breast, s/he is relating to MOM! Baby learns to rely on mom as a source of great comfort, both physical and emotional.

And creating the ability to have a strong bond in the early years surely paves the way to have the capacity for deep, involved, stable, and committed relationships in later years. Breastfeeding teaches the child to count on one specific person. And later to be discerning about who to trust. And that translates into having a good relationship with dad and other significant people in the child’s life too, as s/he transitions away from needing mom to needing lots of people in their life.

Breastfeeding an older child teaches the child a give and take, which is necessary in all healthy relationships — s/he learns to wait sometimes until mother is ready, for instance. Maybe it really isn’t possible to breastfeed in the grocery store lineup — so older babies learn to wait until they can sit down after shopping, for example, and have a breastfeeding break.

But remember, there are very few places you can’t breastfeed! Babies can breastfeed in church, in stores that have chairs, on the bus, on airplanes, etc. Let’s face it, a quiet breastfeeding baby is much less noticeable than a crying, unhappy baby wanting the breast and being told “no”. So sometimes, it’s good to drop the schedule or even sit down at the grocery store or bank and breastfeed first before taking care of other tasks that really can wait. Remember, give and take means sometimes it’s best for mom to be flexible. The grocery store will still be there after the breastfeeding break!

Of course, if you really do need to tell your child that s/he needs to wait to feed, then maintain your credibility and make a point of thanking your child for waiting as you are offering to breastfeed later.

Did you know that the worldwide average length of breastfeeding is OVER four years? That includes babies who were not breastfed at all! So even though breastfeeding for two years or over might be seen as un-cultural in the modern world, it is quite natural, and has been a practice throughout traditional cultures.

Breastfeeding a toddler or older child is not the same as breastfeeding a newborn. It is not time-consuming and does not happen around the clock. It’s sort of a way to “touch base” with mom from time to time. And it can be wonderful for mom to feel needed a little bit in this special way from time to time, by her amazingly self-directed and independent little growing child. So both mom and child get to touch base with each other again.

Moms in earlier times did not question the value of child-led weaning, and weaning did not signify independence. In some languages, there isn’t even a word for weaning. As far as the fear about the child not maturing quickly enough if they are allowed to continue breastfeeding: in fact, sometimes older breastfed kids are quite independent in many respects compared to their non-breastfeeding peers, and they do tend to gradually outgrow the need for “touching base” with mom. As adults they seem to have a very grounded sense of themselves and their direction in life.

And breastfeeding teaches the child about giving — s/he sees mom being loving every time she responds to her child’s needs. And this in turn tends to help make the child become a person who cares for mom in return. A child who has a great capacity for caring and who learns to care for others. Who WANTS to care about others. And it all starts with the warm and tender relationship that breastfeeding creates in the first place.

What about the fear that mom can keep her child breastfeeding longer than the child needs to? There is just no way to force a child to breastfeed who doesn’t want to. Older breastfeeding children tend to breastfeed from time to time, perhaps to relax before sleep, or when they are frightened or feeling shy, or if they have hurt themselves, and they just need that quiet time and special comforting that only breastfeeding — and mom — can give them.

When the breastfeeding happens at the child’s request you can relax and just have a breastfeeding break — knowing that soon your child will be off once again to explore their ever-growing world.

Sometimes older — or even younger — babies SEEM to have weaned — only to want num-nums again when something emotionally challenging starts, such as mom’s return to work, or a move to a new home, or a new playmate in the neighbourhood, or being introduced to a stranger. What a great opportunity to provide the special comforting that only breastfeeding seems to offer!

Many moms who approach breastfeeding in this relaxed and casual way — based on her child’s emotional needs (because at this point, that is the need MOST actively met with breastfeeding) — moms who breastfeed like this often do not recall a specific weaning, because the tapering off is so slow and gradual. And interestingly, often the child does not recall weaning either, although some kids even verbalize the weaning and tell mom they no longer want to breastfeed.

Thus, there is often no sad or dramatic end, no feeling of loss — the flower blooms in its own time. Does the butterfly miss the cocoon? Probably not. And likewise, children who are allowed to set the pace for weaning also feel no loss, because they simply outgrew the need.

And so, following the “baby-led breastfeeding” approach, the child weans when s/he is ready and not before — and it means the child taking the next step out of choice — what an empowering message that sends the child about making life choices on purpose! The child feels their own sense of direction and growth in their own time.

What a lovely way to start the next phase of mothering — and for the child, the next phase of relating to the world. With mom close by, reading to guide and protect the child amidst whatever new things life has to offer!