When I breastfed our first two babies, I wasn't aware of the benefits of breastfeeding older babies or toddlers. I simply kept on breastfeeding them because it felt right.
In fact, breastfeeding was an integral part of my relationship with my five kids – and wasn't just about 'food'.
As newborns, breastfeeding gave my babies a gentle beginning, and as toddlers, it soothed life's little knocks, picking them up when they fell (or fell apart emotionally). As my then three-year-old said one day, "Mummy, when I get scared, booby makes me feel brave."
Breastfeeding provided a quiet space in the day if they (or I) felt overwhelmed, no matter where we were. Even a few minutes 'touching base' at the breast seemed to nourish my toddlers at a deep soulful level, reassuring them if they felt challenged, and helping them regain equilibrium if they were overcome by emotions.
The wonderful hormonal effects of breastfeeding helped me feel calm too, and as my kids grew, they noticed this. Once, when dealing not-so-calmly with my teenager, he cheekily suggested, "Why don't you go and feed the baby!"
Although breastfeeding a toddler isn't for everybody, if you choose to nurse beyond babyhood you can expect some strong reactions. Just in case you are beginning to doubt yourself, let's bust a few myths created by such comments.
1. "There is no nutritional value in your milk now"
Breast milk is breast milk, however long you breastfeed. In fact, breast milk is the original 'toddler milk'. Not only does it continue to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year (especially protein, fats and most vitamins), the immune factors in breast milk increase during the second year of your baby's life. So just as your little one is becoming more mobile and mixing with more people – sharing toys and food with other germy or snotty toddlers – he's receiving important protection and support for his immature immune system.
If your toddler is exposed to bugs – even if you aren't exposed to these same bugs – not only will nursing soothe any discomfort if he gets sick, but the transfer of his saliva to your breasts will stimulate the production of antibodies so any illness will be shorter-lived.
2. "If they're old enough to ask for it, they are old enough to wean"
Right from birth, your baby has been 'asking' for the breast – from his earliest rooting reflex he has been signaling for food, comfort, connection and an immune boost. Just because he can now ask with a tug on your shirt or words doesn't mean your toddler's needs are any less important or any different from a child who asks for a bottle, dummy or comfort toy. Instead, you are your child's comfort.
If you feel this could be challenging in some situations, it can be good to give your child a name for breastfeeding that isn't so obvious. Consider this before your baby can talk or you could find yourself like me: my brother taught my first kid to say "titty" at just 9 months old!
3. "But he has teeth!"
Do you chew when you drink from a straw? If a baby is drinking, his tongue will be extended over his bottom teeth and he will form a seal around the breast with his lips and tongue. If he is biting, he isn't drinking, so you can remove him from the breast and gently but firmly tell your toddler 'no biting'.
There are gentle ways to troubleshoot why a baby or toddler might bite – read how to prevent or stop it here.
4. "Why don't you just pump and give it to him in a cup?"
Isn't the best thing about breastfeeding that it's so convenient – no dishes, no tubing, no crap to wash? Besides, by the time your child is a toddler, most mums don't find pumping very effective, anyway.
If you aren't breastfeeding, you would still need to offer comfort and help your child manage strong emotions, so you would offer cuddles and perhaps a bottle or a comfort toy. But to a toddler, breastfeeding is about connection and comfort and emotional regulation. Sucking and snuggling, along with the soothing chemistry of your milk, changes your child's brain chemistry so he is calmed at a physiological level.
5. "You are doing it for yourself, not your child"
Yes, breastfeeding has some great benefits for mums, and often the only times your active, exploring toddler snuggles quietly on your lap is when he or she is breastfeeding. But there are lots of times when you have a wild little gymnast doing hand stands, pinching or demanding you also feed his toy dinosaur while he nurses. Any mum of a breastfeeding toddler will tell you that even though breastfeeding is a wonderful nurturing tool, it's not all lovey snuggly moments all the time.
Most of all though, you can't MAKE any toddler or child breastfeed. When they decide to wean, that's it. They are done. Usually this is a very gradual process and, although you may feel a certain sadness knowing this precious time is over, most mums are happy and proud that their child has outgrown the need to breastfeed. Now you can look forward to another amazing stage of development with your happy, secure little person.
6. "He'll remember that"
What a lovely memory if indeed your toddler remembers! I've asked my own children and they can't remember breastfeeding. I guess this depends on the age of the breastfeeding child, but most would be weaned long before they ever became aware of the association of breasts as sexual objects, which is what this comment implies.
It's certainly more a reflection of the mindset of the person making the comment than an issue for the breastfeeding mother or child.
In case this comment has you squirming, here is a beautiful quote by Kabongo, an African chief, made when he was 90 years old: "My early years are connected in my mind with my mother. At first she was always there; I can remember the comforting feeling of her body as she carried me on her back and the smell of her skin in the hot sun. Everything came from her."
Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant and best selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, Parenting by Heart and Toddler Tactics. Pinky is holding Seminars on "Milk ,Sleep and Your Baby's Brain" and "Toddler Tactics" in Melbourne on 4th February - for details see Pinky's website.