In the beginning, when you struggled to figure out latch and milk production and all the initial challenges of breastfeeding, you wondered if you’d make it to six weeks. But you did, and then you kept going and now you’re nursing a toddler. You’re a breastfeeding pro, and so is your child, yet there can be new challenges when you’re breastfeeding an older baby. Here are some tips to help you enjoy being the mom of a happy nursing toddler.
1. Know WHY you are still nursing.
Remembering how important this is for your toddler’s health and development can get you through the rough patches. Your milk provides not only excellent, easily digested nutrition, but antibodies to help protect against a wide range of illnesses, and those antibodies are at higher levels now than when your child was younger. Your toddler’s brain is still growing rapidly and your milk contains the components needed for normal brain development. This can be a reassuring thought during those times when your toddler isn’t eating much of other foods. Not only that, breastfeeding is an easy and effective way to calm an upset toddler or comfort a tearful one.
2. Twiddling, pinching and other nursing “add-ons” can be more than a little annoying.
Many toddlers like to twiddle or tug at the other nipple while nursing on one breast; some like to pinch your arms or skin, or twist your hair, or poke a finger in your mouth. Yours may have her own variation! Once this becomes part of the nursing routine it can be hard to get your toddler to stop so to try to catch it early, before the behaviour becomes entrenched. Sometimes it works to just persistently remove the toddler’s hand from your other breast or your mouth. Some mothers have had success with necklaces of large beads that they can redirect the toddler’s hands to, or with special toys for the toddler to hold while nursing.
3. Consider the words you use for nursing.
Do you want your toddler yelling “I want boobies!” when Grandma and Grandpa come to visit. A code word that doesn’t sound like any of the slang words for breasts is less likely to offend or shock anyone. It’s good to start using this word early on, before your child begins to invent his own (although the words toddlers invent for nursing are often very cute we’ve had “naw-naws,” “ninnies,” “nits” and “dits” in my family). You can also teach a sign for nursing, or your child may make one up. At 14 months, my grandson Keagan pats his own little chest when he wants to nurse. Kay van Akker, mother of two-year-old James, says she thinks it’s important to teach some manners at this point. A whiny “m-i-i-i-l-k” is met with “please ask properly” and she says James usually responds “mick pees” in much less-whiny voice.
4. Be generous.
You won’t run out of milk! Mom of four Cynthia Waiz says: “Generously offer to nurse at random times. If you make it a scheduled thing or something to be earned, like eating all your dinner before you get dessert, often your toddler will become more demanding and anxious about nursing.” When he knows it’s freely available and even offered when he hasn’t asked first, he’ll be more relaxed.
5. Be aware of how your hormonal cycles can affect breastfeeding.
Most mothers of nursing toddlers will find that their menstrual periods have returned, and often in the days just before or at the beginning of your period you’ll find that your milk is slower to let down and may taste “different” to your toddler. Try to be patient with her if she seems to want to nurse more often or for longer periods of time during this part of your cycle. If you conceive a new baby while still nursing, you don’t need to worry about weaning (in most cases). Your milk will gradually decrease and then change to colostrum. This change will cause some toddlers to wean on their own, but others will happily nurse through the pregnancy and continue after the new baby is born.
6. Watch out for sore nipples.
Who would think sore nipples could become a problem for a nursing veteran like you? But toddlers are often teething or dealing with stuffed-up noses, and both of these things often lead to biting or clamping down. That mouthful of teeth also means that your toddler needs to re-adjust her way of latching so that it’s not uncomfortable for you, something she may forget to do when she’s tired or distracted. And if she’s nursing and a puppy or older sibling runs past, she may turn her head to look without letting go of your nipple. Ouch! Being alert and ready to snuggle your toddler in close can help.
Another cause of sore nipples can be food residue in the baby’s mouth. If you find your nipples look irritated or have a rash after feeding your toddler, you might want to get him to rinse his mouth with water before nursing.
7. Plan ahead for nursing in public.
You may have been able to get away with a blanket or cover when nursing your newborn, but a toddler is likely to whip the blanket off and wave it like a flag to attract the attention of passers-by. And the people who gave you funny looks for nursing a three-month-old will be horrified when you have a two-year-old in your lap. If you’d like privacy, try a changing room in a department or clothing store or a booth in a restaurant. In more public places, a jacket or shirt worn over a nursing tank top will help you keep covered up without covering your toddler.
8. Take advantage of your toddler’s ability to wait a little, but not too much.
Waiz points out that sometimes you can avoid the whole nursing in public issue by nursing in the car when you arrive at your destination, and letting your toddler know that you’ll nurse again after you’ve finished your tasks. Kay van Akker says that when James was an infant, she sometimes had to pull over in the car to nurse him because he got so upset. Now she can often sing or distract him by pointing out passing trucks on car trips, and he’s fine to wait to nurse until they reach their destination.
Too much “later,” though, can sometimes lead to unintentional weaning, especially if your child is sensitive and gets the idea that you don’t really want to nurse her. If you’d like to continue breastfeeding, be sure to mix in some “hey, want to nurse?” times as well.
9. Nursing at night can be a bonus, not a pain.
Even if your child was sleeping through the night beautifully as a baby, she may start waking again as a toddler. The cause can be teething, nightmares, missing you, changes in daily routine or a hundred other things. Nursing, fortunately, is one of the best and fastest ways to get a toddler comforted and back to sleep. It’s even faster if your toddler shares the family bed you barely need to roll over and your toddler can latch on.
Worried about cavities from nursing at night? Research has shown that human milk alone does not cause cavities, but once it’s mixed with other foods or drinks in the child’s mouth, it can be a problem. So the best way to prevent cavities from night nursing seems to be to brush or clean the toddler’s teeth thoroughly before you go to bed. Then it will be only your milk in his mouth when he nurses at night.
10. Enjoy the nursing reunions.
If, like many mothers, you’ve returned to work, nursing your toddler can be a wonderful way to re-connect at the end of the day. One tip: If it’s convenient for you, consider having that reunion nursing at the daycare centre or homecare. That will increase your exposure to any germs in the daycare environment, so you can make antibodies against them to pass along in your milk for your toddler.
This article was originally published in May 2011.