What to Expect When Breastfeeding a Toddler

A lot changes when infants enter toddlerhood, but breastfeeding can continue to be an integral part of the relationship between mother and child.

Experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend breastfeeding for at least two years, or even longer when possible. Despite this advice, the majority of new mothers do not make it to a full year of breastfeeding — and very few continue after their child's first birthday.

Committing to breastfeeding beyond infancy is advantageous for many reasons. According to data from WHO, breast milk can provide up to one-third of a child's energy needs between 12 and 24 months. Longer durations of breastfeeding are also associated with risk reduction for a variety of illnesses and conditions, including ovarian and breast cancer.

Benefits of Breastfeeding a Toddler

While many mothers are eager to continue breastfeeding into toddlerhood, a wide range of concerns can make this difficult. Some women struggle with changes in milk supply, while others face misguided advice and even harsh social stigma. The transition can be made easier simply by knowing that breastfeeding is desirable for toddlers and often rewarding for mothers.

Some advantages of breastfeeding toddlers are:

Less demanding. While toddlers can be insistent when they want to nurse, the urgency of breastfeeding diminishes as their nutritional needs are also met by solids. This can make nursing a toddler far more convenient, especially when out in public. 

Improved immune function. Toddlers often come down with colds, but this problem can be avoided with help from continued breastfeeding. During the second year of breastfeeding, milk contains higher levels of Immunoglobulin A, lactoferrin, and lysozyme. This can help toddlers avoid illness, especially as their exposure increases at daycare or preschool.

Better communication. From bobbing to crying, your baby found many ways to communicate hunger. These will shift as your toddler learns how to get your attention with the right words. If you've used baby sign language, your toddler may start signing for milk several months before verbally asking to nurse. Terms such as "mama milk" are common, although some toddlers come up with their own breastfeeding language.


Challenges of Breastfeeding a Toddler

Toddlers have hit different developmental milestones, so breastfeeding them is different from infants in some key ways. Knowing what challenges to expect can help you prepare.

Physically active participants. While nursing can provide much-needed moments of peace and quiet on busy days, physical motion is common during daytime breastfeeding sessions. Toddlers may squirm, kick, pull hair, or grab at clothing. Some mothers find that this is a great time to switch up nursing positions, as some approaches are better for curtailing squirming than others.

Teething. The initial adjustment to breastfeeding while cutting teeth typically occurs in infancy, but teething may also impact nursing toddlers. Molars often appear during this stage and may be even more painful than the teeth cut as younger infants. To deal with their discomfort, your child may seek solace in frequent nursing.

Biting. Some toddlers bite more often while teething or as they discover cause and effect. To discourage biting while breastfeeding, aim for a muted response, such as a calm reminder that biting is inappropriate and hurtful. After biting, toddlers should take a brief break from nursing and try again later.

Night weaning. While many toddlers continue to wake up to feed through the night, some transition to exclusive daytime nursing. This may not be a permanent shift, however, as teething or other difficult experiences may prompt toddlers to revert to nighttime nursing.

Fluctuations in milk supply. Engorgement is a thing of the past for most breastfeeding mothers with toddlers. At this point, your body knows how to produce exactly as much milk as needed for your growing toddler. Still, supply may fluctuate over time, especially based on night weaning, work schedules, and your toddler's growth. When you need to quickly boost milk production, you can revert to newborn nursing strategies, such as cluster feeding or more frequent pumping when you're away from your child.

Other Considerations for Breastfeeding a Toddler

Every mother and child’s breastfeeding routine will be different, from adding another child into the mix to knowing when the time is right to wean.


Tandem Nursing

Many mothers become pregnant, give birth, and begin the newborn nursing journey anew, all while continuing to breastfeed toddlers. Breastfeeding while pregnant is nearly always safe. After the new baby arrives, the journey of tandem nursing begins.

While newborn babies should receive nursing preference in the early days to ensure proper nutrition, both babies and toddlers should eventually settle into patterns of nursing at the same time or on a schedule that works for the mother. Often, each will choose a favorite side.  Toddlers can actually help with common newborn breastfeeding problems by easing engorgement or boosting production.

Setting Limits

Because toddlers are able to be more active—and often, demanding—participants in breastfeeding, limits may eventually need to be set. This includes not only letting children know that biting is unacceptable, but also, teaching toddlers to wait for brief periods of time prior to nursing. Children may also need to be taught additional comfort measures beyond breastfeeding. This can make weaning easier when the time is right.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 22, 2021



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