What It’s Really Like to Nurse a Toddler

Image Source: Elizabeth Broadbent

“Mama milk, wahhh,” my 2½-year-old says. We are ostensibly potty training, so he’s naked. He hits the frog potty about three-quarters of the time. This has been going on for quite a while, and the line between naked time and potty training has become mostly blurred.

“No mama milk right now,” I tell him, because he just had milk an hour ago, because I’m typing, and because I just don’t feel like it right now.

“Mama milk, wahhh,” he says again. His “wah” is a fake cry. It’s faintly ridiculous, but cute.

“No mama milk,” I say again. “Go play with your keyboard.”

Now he cries in earnest, eyes welling, tears spilling.

“It’s okay, baby,” I assure him. “You can have mama milk later. Right now, Mama’s typing.”

Wails subside to sniffles. Sunny wanders off to bang on his keyboard.

Tell people you’re nursing a 2½-year-old, and they don’t picture denying milk to a naked toddler. When the general public hears “breastfeeding,” they imagine nursing a newborn. Newborns, as sleep-deprived moms know, nurse about every two hours. And that’s two hours from the start of the last feeding, not the end of it. Feedings can take half an hour. Babies suck for nutrients. They suck for hydration. They suck for comfort, which usually means nursing to sleep, along with any time they feel uncomfortable or upset. Basically, nursing newborn moms live topless.

People imagine I’ve got my toddler attached to my breast as often as a newborn. That’s not the case.
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People imagine I’ve got my toddler attached to my breast as often as a newborn. That’s not the case, because I have other children. I have other things to do, like laundry. And most importantly, Sunny doesn’t need to nurse like a newborn. On average, he nurses anywhere from two to six times a day, with most of those in short bursts. We’ve chosen, for reasons that include severe food intolerances, not to night-wean yet (it’s coming soon). Some nursing toddlers continue to nurse at night; others don’t. My older children each night-weaned at 15 months and still nursed until ages 3 and 4.

Nursing Sunny looks much different from nursing a newborn, or even an older infant. Like so many toddlers worldwide, he nurses to sleep. I don’t see a reason to stop this, even when he ceases night nursing, because it’s a reliable recipe for slumber. He’ll learn to sleep on his own at some point, but neither of us need to rush towards it. As practitioners of attachment and gentle parenting, my husband and I don’t push our children to arbitrary milestones. We’re certain that the boys will reach them when they’re ready.

So Sunny nurses once before my husband and I go to sleep (he’s on the opposite end of a queen bed side-carred to a twin bed, so nowhere near us). At some point, he’ll start to fuss, and I roll over (and over, and over) to nurse him. He nurses on and off through the rest of the night, a process I largely sleep through. Usually I awaken in the morning to him nursing. I know he’s awake, so I switch breasts to buy more sleep. This works for about five minutes, until he shouts, “AWAKE!” and runs away.

Then, at some point, he nurses again. Sometimes it happens when his oldest brother does his reading (we homeschool), his middle brother works on math, and Sunny just plain feels left out. While some people would say that he needs to learn to amuse himself, Sunny’s mastered that skill already. So he nurses and reads along with us.

Image Source: Elizabeth Broadbent
Image Source: Elizabeth Broadbent

Sometimes Sunny wanders up wanting to nurse. I ask if he’s hungry or thirsty, then fetch him a cup of water, share my sweet tea, or rustle up some snacks. While he gets nutrients and vitamins from breast milk, I don’t want him dependent on milk as food and water. When Sunny tries to use me as a meal train/beverage counter, he’s perfectly content to accept a substitute.

Sunny also nurses when he’s sad. When his brothers roughhouse him too much, or his toy’s taken away, or it’s just regular 3 PM sadness, he likes to soothe himself with milk. He curls up in my lap, scowls at the world, and closes his eyes. These tend to be his longest nursing sessions of the day, and when they end, they sometimes pick right back up again. This is especially true if Sunny’s particularly tired or feels he hasn’t gotten enough attention.

As practitioners of attachment and gentle parenting, my husband and I don’t push our children to arbitrary milestones. We’re certain that the boys will reach them when they’re ready.
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Sunny can, of course, soothe himself without breast milk. His brothers knock him over, the dogs push past him, people take his toys and stop him from flinging LEGOs — and he clenches his fists and screams. Or he collapses in a sad puddle of baby. When these things happen, we pick him up. We kiss and hug and cuddle. But we don’t always nurse. And he doesn’t always ask.

He does, sometimes, ask to nurse in public, but this is seldom now and I’ve transitioned into normal bras. (I’m not latching a giant toddler in the middle of Target.) But occasionally, if he’s unsure or uncomfortable, Sunny asks to nurse. Recently, this has only happened at the nursery of our homeschool co-op and at the local park. I’m not shy about nursing a toddler in public, though people seem to think I should be. A few have stared and glared, but most have been supportive.

Support: that’s the most common response I’ve gotten during this breastfeeding experience. Some moms confess they also nursed until 2½. Others wish they did, or say that even though they wouldn’t, they don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m grateful for those kind words. They buffer the nastiness: that nursing Sunny is all about me. That I’m irreparably damaging him. That I need to stop stunting his growth.

I’ve heard them all, and worse besides. But I ignore it. Nursing my 2½-year-old works. It’s an important tool in my parenting kit, and an important part of our relationship. I’m grateful for it, and I’m sure Sunny would say the same. He won’t be little forever — one day he’ll wean. But not today.

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Article Posted 4 years Ago

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