Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Darcy Smith, Norman, Oklahoma, USA
Question. Where’s the harm in breastfeeding toddlers?
Answer. There isn’t any.
She’s old enough to eat food. She doesn’t need milk any more.
You are making him nurse because you don’t want him to grow up. How is he ever going to become independent?
What are you going to do when she goes to school? She’s going to be teased by her classmates!
He’s going to grow up obsessed with breasts.
Hey there, breastfeeding moms, any of these sound familiar?
Time and time again, I’ve heard comments such as these about why breastfeeding needs to stop when a baby turns into a one-year-old.
I believe these assumptions are untrue and here’s why.
The healing power of milk
Toddlers are known for their picky (or selective) eating habits. My daughter, Ali, would live on popsicles and yogurt if I let her. By continuing to breastfeed Ali, I can be sure that she is getting the nutrients she needs even if she’s not eating everything I give her. This is especially true when Ali is sick.
Upset tummies can easily cope with breast milk. I don’t think I can imagine a more restful way for children to recover from illness than combining snuggling against someone who adores them while drinking such nourishing food.
At the end of the first year, your baby’s immune system is still not close to being fully developed. Whenever a mother breastfeeds her child, she is passing on her own immunities. These immunities do not just stop after your child has her first birthday. Just a teaspoon of breast milk contains three million germ-killing cells! Not only that, but immune factors in breast milk actually increase during the second year.
Anyone who has been around toddlers knows that it is very difficult to make them do anything, much less make them nurse if they don’t want to. We don’t make our children walk or talk before they are ready because, firstly, this is not possible and, secondly, trying to force them could make them apprehensive about trying anything new.
Children who gain independence at their own pace tend to be more confident. Toddlerhood is a time for learning about what your body can do and how to control it. As they learn to control themselves, toddlers need a positive, caring environment to encourage continued success.
Toddlerhood is a well known time for tantrums. Those little ones need all the help they can get during this age of big emotions. Rationalizing isn’t an easy job for toddlers and they will often need your help to find ways to calm down.
Who doesn’t have a story about a child struggling with his emotions in a grocery store, mall, or parking lot? Your toddler starts by flopping down on the floor, the kicking and screaming begins, the irritated looks from people nearby follow, and the feeling of panic intensifies. We’ve all been there … Nursing can de-escalate such an incident and soothe your toddler very quickly. There are few things more calming than a hug from a loved one and breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin, which gives both of you a peaceful feeling. Breastfeeding your child during a meltdown can be a helpful distraction because it’s pretty challenging to continue to cry, flop around, and scream, all at the same time.
My older daughter, Madi, weaned when Ali was six months old. By giving Madi control and allowing her to wean in her own time, her needs were met and she was able to transition more easily into her new role as a big sister. Madi is one of the most independent children I’ve ever known and, and at four-and-a-half years old, she’s already shaping into a natural leader. She is the kind of child that you see at the park seeking out older children to join in the game she has just made up.
Breastfeeding is normal
Three-year-old Madi only nursed when she woke up in the morning, sometimes before a nap, and then before she went to bed at night. I found that breastfeeding wasn’t a topic that came up in any discussions with her friends. Nursing to her was similar to the hugs and kisses that her friends got in the morning and at night from their parents. She was way more likely to talk about dinosaurs or re-enact a fairy tale. Sure, your nursling might talk to you about “num-nums” but it’s not likely a topic that will come up with her friends.
And if your toddlers do talk about it? So what? Breastfeeding is something that happens all over the world. The more people talk about it, the less it’s taboo. When I’ve nursed in public, I’ve noticed that kids are just curious and won’t be distressed by breastfeeding unless parents make it an awkward topic.
Breastfeeding is not a sexual act
As crazy as it sounds, some people really do believe that by breastfeeding a boy, he will be sexually active at an early age. The opposite is more likely.
By not exposing your sons—whether by breastfeeding them or having them see babies breastfeeding—to the fact that breasts are made to feed babies, they are more likely to view breasts only as sexual objects later on. In fact, by breastfeeding and discussing body parts and their functions, you are helping to normalize the female body and make your sons more comfortable in their own skin too.
Breastfeeding longer than the first year also teaches the importance of consent.
Many times, my toddler’s nursing is more about comfort than nutrition and I can tell her to wait. I want her to know that everyone gets to make choices about their own body. I want to teach her early that when I say “no,” that should be respected. This will help her from the time that she tells a grandparent “no” to tickling to when she says “no” to a boy picking on her to get her attention, or when she says a very important “no” on a high school date. This will also help her understand that when someone says “no” to her, she must honor their wishes.
Two very well-regarded organizations recommend breastfeeding well beyond the first year. The World Health Organization‘s and UNICEF’s recommendations on breastfeeding are as follows: initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after the birth; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months; and continued breastfeeding for two years or more, together with safe, nutritionally adequate, age-appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting around the sixth month.
So if you’ve decided to breastfeed your toddler past babyhood, high five! You’re helping her in more ways than most people realize.
If you see another mother breastfeeding her child in public, especially if it’s her toddler, give her a smile and a big thumbs up.
Darcy Smith is a mother of mighty girls, devoted wife and mother, teacher, and breastfeeding advocate who lives in Oklahoma, USA. Her articles have been featured on mostlyplanned and theaccessproject..