Breastfeeding a toddler

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Barbara Glare, partner of Chris, mother of Zac, Dan and Cassie and ABA counsellor

One of the first Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA – then NMAA) meetings I attended with my new baby was on the topic ‘Breastfeeding the older baby’. Well, having lived through cracked nipples and a wakeful unsettled baby in the early days, and already giving complementary feeds, I doubted I would ever experience feeding an older baby. An older baby, I assumed, probably meant a baby over six months of age. Coming from a family where breastfeeding was uncommon, I assumed that breastfeeding was only for babies, if it could be achieved at all. I was completely floored when another mother there that evening was talking about feeding her almost four-year-old. I had never heard of such a thing before, and frankly, I was shocked. I didn’t say anything, but remember thinking, in an attempt to be open-minded, ‘That’s great for her, but I would NEVER do that’.

But as the months passed, breastfeeding became easier. With more support and information I was able to wean my baby off infant formula and back onto breastmilk. As his first birthday came and went he was happy, and breastfeeding was easy. I was more confident. He showed no inclination to stop, and my half-hearted attempts to comply with the pressure from my mothers’ group, friends and family were met with firm resistance from my son. I continued, past his second birthday, through my pregnancy with my second child, until, just after his fourth birthday he decided he’d had enough, and weaned.

In truth, it was a relief when Zac weaned. I knew in my heart that I was doing the right thing for us, but it was such unchartered territory. It was hard to be sure. I look back and laugh about some of the old wives’ tales I was told. ‘There’s no goodness in your milk after 12 months,’ my friend told me. Others told me ‘He’s filling up on your milk, that’s why he doesn’t eat much.’ The irony was that a couple of friends who dutifully weaned at 12 months believed they needed to give their children toddler formula to compensate for their children’s picky eating. Dire predictions were made about the effect of continued breastfeeding on his emotional development. A friend sowed the seeds of self-doubt by suggesting that I was doing it ‘for myself’ rather than for my baby. Some days it was hard to keep up my confidence. I became a closet feeder, training Zac not to ask for a breastfeed in public or at his aunty’s house.

But the truth is that it’s entirely normal and natural to breastfeed an older child. In Australia, 21.2% of children are still breastfeeding at 12 months (Donath and Amir, 2000). The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that the world average for breastfeeding is 4.2 years. WHO recommends that children be breastfed for at least two years. Anthropologist, Katherine Dettwyler estimated the natural age of weaning to be between two and a half and seven years, based on developmental factors and comparisons with other mammals.

The nutritional benefits of breastfeeding in the first year of life are well-documented. It seems illogical that these would all cease after 12 months. What better source of nutrition could you give your toddler? A cheeseburger? Many a mother of a sick child has blessed the fact that she could still give him something he could keep down, and a way of soothing the discomfort.

Lisa, mother of three, says, ‘Breastfeeding is the most powerful tool a mother of a toddler has. With a few quick sucks you can soothe a sore knee or a tantrum, or get an overtired child off to sleep in minutes. We’d be mad to give it up too quickly.’ The emotional benefits of breastfeeding are often cited by mothers as a reason to continue to breastfeed their older children. Many people feel that breastfeeding past a certain age will make children overly dependent, but research suggests that the opposite will be true – children who form a secure attachment with their mother are more easily able to form attachments with others, and become more independent.

Director of the Lactation Resource Centre, Kate Mortensen says, ‘Benefits of sustained breastfeeding are not only for the child. Mothers benefit too. Mothers who breastfeed longer have a lower risk of anaemia, reduced risk of osteoporosis, a lower risk of breast cancer, and often a sense of personal achievement.’ Many mothers who breastfeed their older child secretly admit to other benefits – ‘I couldn’t bear to get up when Sam woke at 6:30 on those cold winter mornings. By breastfeeding we could stay cuddled up together in our big, warm bed for another half hour or so. It was a lovely way to start the day for both of us,’ says Maria, mother of Sam, three.

Children wean at many varied ages and stages and if you’ve breastfed, even for a short time, you can be sure you’ve given the best possible start. However, if you find that your child has celebrated several birthdays and is still no closer to weaning, you can say with confidence ‘Yes, we’re still doing that and it’s still good for both of us!’

Further Reading

Mortensen, K. Sustained Breastfeeding ‘Hot Topics’ Lactation Resource Centre, East Malvern 2001
Bumgarner, NJ 2000, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (3rd ed) La Leche League International, Illinois
Australian Breastfeeding Association 1998 Breastfeeding Through Pregnancy and Beyond Australian Breastfeeding Association, East Malvern
Australian Breastfeeding Association 1998 Weaning Australian Breastfeeding Association, East Malvern.


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