Breastfeeding a Toddler

My youngest is 13 months old and "still" breastfeeding. It's not as if I expected him to suddenly stop when he turned one. I also don't have any intention of cutting him off at some arbitrary and magical age. He and I will both know when he's ready to taper off and stop. What this means is that I am now officially breastfeeding a toddler. And that is a whole new ballgame. He's no tiny baby anymore!

Toddlers have some very clear ideas about their world. They want what they want when they want it, and they will let you know in no uncertain terms if they are unhappy with your response. And when they want to nurse, you'll know about it.

Toddlers are not newborns. They don't need to nurse on demand. They can eat solid foods, drink from a cup, and feed themselves (messily, to be sure). My son can be just as happy sitting in his high chair with some finger foods as cuddled in my arms nursing. Well, almost as happy. If he's hungry, though, food will suffice for him if it's not a good time to nurse him, or if I just don't feel like it. The only time it's nurse or bust is when he's tired and wants to fall asleep, and then I'll lay down with him in bed and let him nurse until he drifts off. Sometimes it's even that simple.

Toddlers are little people whose brains are developing at an incredible rate. One of the things they start learning is the difference between need and want. At the same time, they're learning to understand an incredible number of words. You'll notice your little one start to be able to follow directions, identify body parts, look at named people, point to pictures of objects and animals you name, and so on. This is called "receptive" language, and it develops much more quickly and earlier than "expressive" language. Expressive language is talking. A baby and toddler can understand an instruction or word much earlier than he can say it. This is frustrating, because he wants to tell you something, knows there's a way to do it, but can't make his mouth cooperate.

This is where teaching him some simple signs or syllables to express his need can be very powerful. When a baby or toddler can ask for what he wants and know that you understand his desire, his frustration evaporates. When a toddler can express his need, both of you can be on the same page. Pick a few basic expressions for your toddler to use first. I imagine "nurse" or "breastfeed" will be high on the list of frequently-requested items. I recommend the following three words: nurse, eat, and more. Those three words seem to satisfy most of my toddlers' basic requests.

So, when my son started trying to pull my shirt off whenever he wanted to nurse, I knew it was time to really start to work with him on using a hand sign or word instead. I had been trying to teach him the ASL word for "more," which is a simple sign that most toddlers can manage some form of. It looks like this:

 

I wanted him to use this sign when he wanted more of something, instead of grunting and whining or shrieking. Whenever he seemed to want "more" of something (especially food!), I'd first ask, "Do you want MORE?", emphasizing the word "more" and making the hand sign at the same time. When he would tentatively make the sign, I'd heap on the praise ("Very good! You want MORE! You signed MORE!"), repeat the sign, and then give him more. He eventually started to catch on. He then decided that "more" meant eating, which was fine. This evolved to his making the sign for "more" whenever he wants to nurse. But that's also fine. I understand it. He understands it. And he doesn't pull on my shirt collar anymore. Instead, he signs. It's really amazing. He even signs when he's half asleep and wants to nurse back to sleep! 

I will continue to work with him on differentiating signs, using "more" in context, as well as introducing "eat" (bringing the fingers to the mouth) and "nurse" or "milk" (opening and closing the hand as if milking a cow). The other day, he learned "water" with just a few repetitions; now that he understands that making a sign is communicating a need, he is very receptive to learning more signs. The ASL sign for water is sort of making a "W" with your fingers and tapping your index finger against your chin. His version is to tap his mouth with one finger, but he's very clear about it. Toddlers can't really make a "W" with their fingers, so you may have to modify certain signs to make them easier. You can also make up your own signs, as long as you're consistent about how you form it and when you use them. I'm very excited to have made the first step, which is encouraging a behavior I prefer and discouraging a behavior I don't like (i.e., signing a need is preferable to shrieking).

In general, if your toddler has a nursing behavior that irritates you, you don't have to put up with it. You can talk to him, tell him that you don't like what he's doing. End the nursing session if he continues. When he behaves nicely while nursing, praise him. "I like how calmly you're nursing. Mommy likes cuddling with you like this." Or whatever. When saying "no" to something, use short, simple phrases. "No bite! Hurts Mommy!" The more words you use, the less they hear.

Toddlers are notorious for "nursing gymnastics." They don't stay in one place while they nurse. Their whole body moves, except for their mouth, attached to your nipple. Toddlers will nurse in weird positions, roll around, kick, fiddle with anything they can get their hands on (like, say, your other breast), and crane their neck to see something blocked by your body. Nursing a toddler can be uncomfortable and annoying; I'm not gonna lie.

The best way to make nursing your toddler more enjoyable is to teach nursing manners. Just as you would teach him to say please and thank you, not to hit or pinch or bite others, and to share his toys, you can teach him not to bother you while he nurses. Give him something to do with his hands, like hold a blanket or toy, or wear a nursing necklace. End the nursing session if he begins a behavior you are trying to eliminate. Toddlers are smart. They'll catch on quickly that they don't get their nursies if they pinch Mommy.

If and when you do decide to wean, having already set limits will help. You can get your toddler used to your saying "no" sometimes to nursing, to being offered food or drink instead, and to limiting the length of the nursing session. You can designate a special place in the house for nursing, such as your bed or his, or a special chair, and only nurse there. Or, you can start limiting when they nurse, such as only for naps and bedtime, or only when it's light outside, or only when brother is sleeping. You can decide what methods work best for you. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but if you give it time and move slowly, weaning can be relatively painless, with the occasional tantrum or screaming jag. But that's true of anything when it comes to toddlers! 

I have found that I can tolerate or even enjoy nursing my toddler more when I know I have a choice about it, and when I have gained some control after a year of nursing on demand. It's certainly okay to nurse your toddler on demand, if you want to or feel he still needs it, but let's admit that it's not always practical. And I'll let you in on a little secret: once your toddler figures out he can ask for it, he'll ask for it constantly. So you'll probably need to say no once in a while!

Nursing a toddler is not weird. It is not exceptional or extraordinary or "out there." It's not unusual. It's not harmful to you or him (quite the opposite, in fact!). Nursing a toddler is worthwhile. It is rewarding in a way different from nursing a younger baby. Nursing a toddler is magic for soothing a booboo or calming a tantrum or distracting. Nursing a toddler is normal, and you should feel comfortable nursing your toddler whenever and wherever you and he want to.

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