Breastfeeding Older Children: 9 Things You Need to Know Today

Nursing and caring for the young is normal in the animal kingdom. Yet, somehow, breastfeeding sparks a lot of debate in human society. These disagreements vary from feeding breastmilk or formula milk, to juggling nursing with work, to breastfeeding in public—truly, it seems that breastfeeding has become everyone’s business.

As if these debates are not abundant in itself, come now the talk on breastfeeding older children, which was further set off by a TIME Magazine cover in 2012 that featured a mother breastfeeding a toddler.

The road to your breastfeeding journey, especially if you are considering breastfeeding an older child, surely can be tricky. This article then aims to inform you about what you need to know about nursing an older child.

In this article:

  • Is it normal to breastfeed a toddler?
  • What are the myths about breastfeeding older children?
  • What are the advantages of breastfeeding past infancy?
  • What are the disadvantages of breastfeeding older children?
  • What are some tips for breastfeeding older children?
  • I want to try extended breastfeeding. How should I handle the criticism?
  • What are some tips about breastfeeding in public?
  • Can I breastfeed my toddler while I’m pregnant?
  • What should I consider before breastfeeding a toddler?

Is it normal to breastfeed a toddler?

In the Western society, breastfeeding a child beyond infancy or 12 months is considered unusual and many find it even absurd. However, the average weaning time for children across the world is from 2.5 years to 7 years. Some babies self-wean at 6 months, but some go beyond a year or even get to toddlerhood before they wean.

This cultural evidence is moreover supported by biological evidence. It is reported that on average, mammals wean their young when their first set of permanent teeth emerge. Translated to human terms, that is about 5 to 6 years of age.

Reputable institutions also do not set a limit on breastfeeding. In fact, the World Health Organization promotes that breastfeeding is best for babies up to two years old and above. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly stated that “there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding.”

What are the myths about breastfeeding older children?

The negative view on breastfeeding older children are not without cause. The following may be some remarks you may encounter about it:

  • The milk is not nutritious anymore. – Babies begin to get nutrition from sources other than their mother’s milk as they mature, but this does not mean that breast milk is not a source of nutrition anymore. As we will soon discuss, children who breastfeed have more developed immune systems. They still get nutrients from their mother’s milk.
  • Children with emerging teeth should stop nursing. – It may hurt at first when you breastfeed as your child explores with his or her teeth, but this may be remedied with adjustments to latch and position.
  • Breastfed toddlers will have a hard time weaning. – Breastfeeding always comes to an end. In fact, the easiest way for both mother and child is letting the child decide when to wean. It will happen gradually, and there will be less pain and complications for both mother and child.
  • Children who breastfeed will not be able to become independent. – As much as breastfeeding is a source of nutrition, it is also a source of comfort for babies and children. Still, there are studies suggesting that children who breastfeed do not grow the same way non-breastfed children do. The American Academy of Pediatrics furthers that, “there is no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
  • Breastfeeding older children is sexual abuse. – This thought is fed by the over-sexualization of breasts in modern society, especially in the media. Breastfeeding is normal for toddlers and young children in many developing countries. However society may view women’s breasts, the fact remains that they function to give nourishment to their children.

What are the advantages of breastfeeding past infancy?

The benefits that breastfeeding provide does not stop when your child reaches his or her first year. The following are some of the benefits it gives for both mother and child: 

For the child

  • Nutrition – Your body naturally adjusts to the needs of your child. Continued breastfeeding can, therefore, help increase your child’s immunity to illnesses. The World Health Organization said that breastfeeding toddlers have decreased chances of acquiring childhood illnesses like pneumonia. Moreover, breastfed toddlers are less likely to be obese and overweight. According to Dr. Kathryn Dewey of the University of California, a toddler who is breastfed can be provided: 29% energy needs; 43% protein requirements; 75% vitamin A requirements; and 60% vitamin C requirements.
  • Boosted development – Several studies have been conducted to measure the cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional development of children who breastfeed. While conclusions vary, there is a lot of evidence supporting that children who are breastfed have better performance in school and are less likely to develop behavioral problems.
  • Comfort – Breastfeeding is not just a means of providing nutrition. It also gives comfort, a sense of security, and protection. Contrary to popular belief, extended breastfeeding does not make it hard for kids to become independent. Rather, it is involuntary weaning that may actually cause more distress for the child, and thus, lowered self-esteem.
  • Bonding – Constant skin-to-skin contact and time together naturally increases the bond between mother and child. A breastfed child may be more inclined to trust that his mother will always be there for him, making it easier for him to open up and share his thoughts.
  • Sleeping – Nothing is easier than nursing your child when trying to lull him to sleep. It is stress-free and relaxing for both mother and child.

For the mother

  • Losing weight – Breastfeeding uses a lot of calories, and so it is a natural way for mothers to get back to their pre-pregnancy body.
  • Reduced risks of disease – Studies show that breastfeeding mothers have lowered risks of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer. Moreover, it also reduces the chances of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Relaxing – It is truly far from easy to fill the shoes of a mother. For this reason, you need all the rest and relaxation you can get. Nursing your child can also be time for your much-needed naps without having to be away from your child.

What are the disadvantages of breastfeeding older children?

Probably the biggest concern about breastfeeding older children is the criticism you can get from your community. Knowing the evidence in support of extended breastfeeding, you can rest in the thought that you are making an educated decision. Still, you can choose to nurse within the privacy of your home.

You may also experience initial discomforts as your child begins to grow teeth. However, this does not mean you should wean your child. If your child is biting, it is good to first know why. It may be that he is just exploring with his teeth. If so, a teether may come in handy, as well as making adjustments with latching and positions.

Finally, breastfeeding for an extended period of time may cause you some frustration. You may feel like you do not have freedom. You may also feel impatient about getting your body back to yourself. Truly, extended breastfeeding requires extra patience.

What are some tips for breastfeeding older children?

  • Have a healthy lifestyle. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep and nutrition when breastfeeding, as producing milk required calories. La Leche League suggests that mothers take 1500-1800 calories per day, from different food groups. Do not consider crash diets. Also, enlist the help of your partner and other trusted adults in handling household responsibilities.
  • Consider different latches, positions, or acrobatic nursing. As your child grows, you may need to adjust for efficient and comfortable nursing. For this, try different latches and breastfeeding positions. However, you may soon find that your child would become restless and would like to do all sorts of things while still attached to your breast. This can be a fun time, but at times, it can be frustrating. Here are some things you can do about acrobatic nursing:
    • Try to enjoy the experience. Your child is learning to explore other ways to nurse. Acrobatic nursing can actually be a fun experience and a good bonding time between you and your child.
    • Distract your child. You may give your child a toy that he can play with so you could nurse him in peace. You can also use this time to read him a book or sing a song.
    • Establish limitations. This may also be a time to begin instilling discipline in your child. You can explain that his moving around hurts you and that he should limit his movements. You may also tell him to keep still, or even warn him that you would stop nursing if he does not stay still. You can also try doing a different activity first before nursing your child.
  • Explain boundaries to your child. Time will come when your child cannot nurse on demand anymore. Explain to your child that you will only breastfeed at certain times, perhaps when you get home. You can also begin educating them about privacy, as there may be instances that they would tug your shirt down in public, which can be embarrassing.
  • Breastfeed at strategic times. Since you may be beginning to teach your child about privacy, it is best to nurse him before you leave your home, and right when you get back home.
  • Offer other activities or snacks. Chances are, your child is not breastfeeding for food, but rather for comfort or even boredom. Introducing other activities can help him understand that there are alternatives to breastfeeding. Giving him healthy snacks will also help him get nutrition from other sources.

I want to try extended breastfeeding. How should I handle the criticism?

Breastfeeding older children is closely related to extended breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding is going past the infancy stage in nursing a child. If there are already many issues about nursing a baby, much more can be expected when breastfeeding a toddler. Here are some things you can do to deal with criticism:

  • Talk things through with your partner or trusted adults. – It is important to have a breastfeeding-friendly environment. To do this, enlist the help of your partner and trusted family members or adults. It is important that the people around you understand your decision and support you through it.
  • Seek like-minded individuals or peers. – You may find that there are more mothers who breastfeed older children than you think. It helps to find individuals that share the same experience. Also, seek counsel from a support group or a lactation consultant.
  • Research and explain the benefits of breastfeeding older children. – While opinions about extended breastfeeding clash, facts do not lie. Be well-informed about the decision you are about to take. This may also be a great opportunity to educate others about extended breastfeeding and its benefits.
  • Ignore criticisms. – In the end, it is your child and you who will be most affected by this decision.

What are some tips about breastfeeding in public?

Breastfeeding a baby is already frowned upon in many societies. How much more if you are breastfeeding a toddler? Many mothers breastfeed their children within the privacy of their homes. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to breastfeed in public, here are some practical tips:

  • Know that it is not illegal to breastfeed in public. There is nothing wrong about breastfeeding in public. Whichever country you may be from, it will be helpful to know the laws that protect your rights.
  • Wear multiple layers of clothing. – In order not to bare too much skin when you breastfeed, it can help to wear layers of clothing. For example, you can wear a tank top that you can pull down for your child to feed on, and then wear a big shirt to cover what’s on top.
  • Find a quiet place. – For you and your child’s comfort, choose a place where there are not many people around. This will also help your child latch properly and comfortably.
  • Explain to your child that he or she may not nurse on demand. – Perhaps you can delay breastfeeding until you get home. It can also help to do other distracting activities or feed your child other healthy snacks when he or she asks to nurse.

Can I breastfeed my toddler while I’m pregnant?

This question is one that is closely linked to breastfeeding older children. The answer to this question is yes, you can. If you are having a healthy pregnancy, there should be no reason why you should wean your child. Here are some things you can do if you are considering breastfeeding your toddler while you are pregnant.

  • Eat extra healthy calories. You must remember that you will have to eat for three individuals now. On the one hand, pregnant mothers take 300-400 more calories to provide nutrition for their unborn child. On the other hand, breastfeeding mothers take around 500 more calories to successfully nurse. Together, that makes almost 1000 extra calories per day. However, if your toddler is mostly getting nutrition from solid foods already there is no need to eat that many calories.
  • Your milk will change for a while. As another baby is on the way, your milk changes its composition back to colostrum. This is safe and nutritious for a toddler, although you may observe that he may initially have softer stools. Your toddler may also want to wean because the taste of your milk becomes saltier than normal.
  • It will not affect the health of the unborn baby. As long as you are eating healthy and having a healthy lifestyle, the health of your unborn baby will not be affected if you continue breastfeeding your toddler.
  • It may be hard for the first trimester. Breastfeeding your toddler can be challenging during this period of nausea and morning sickness. Know that this phase is temporary although you may need to be more patient. Drink a lot of water, eat healthy foods, rest whenever you can, and only breastfeed when you feel okay.

What should I consider before breastfeeding a toddler?

Extended breastfeeding is not for everyone, however. If you are already determined about breastfeeding, you should consult your healthcare provider if you have prior experiences of premature birth, and/or miscarriage.

During breastfeeding, the mother’s body produces oxytocin, the same hormone that causes uterine contractions. This amount is small enough to affect a healthy pregnancy. However, this may cause complications for high-risk pregnancies. Again it is always good to consult your physician if you are thinking about breastfeeding older children.

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