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Breastfeeding a toddler – what you need to know

A mother breastfeeding her toddlerIt probably doesn’t feel like long ago that you were learning how to breastfeed your newborn baby. Struggling with attachment, stuck on the couch for most of the day, worrying that it might never come easily.

Fast forward to now and your baby is now such a pro at breastfeeding that they might even attempt to pull up your shirt and feed themselves. Their feeds are usually short and sweet – or sometimes not very sweet at all, as they put their finger up your nose or press their foot against your throat.

When your baby isn’t so little anymore breastfeeding has a new set of challenges and rewards but, compared to the wealth of information and support available for breastfeeding in the early days, there isn’t a great deal out there to help you adjust to this new phase.

You may feel quite alone and you may feel pressure to wean your toddler, but rest assured that many women continue to breastfeed long after their baby’s first birthday. And there are many good reasons to continue – breast milk changes as your toddler grows and it adjusts to their needs. It remains an excellent source of nutrition and it contains antibodies which help build your child’s immune system and protect them from illness.

Breastfeeding a toddler – what you need to know

Every toddler is different, every day is different

Breastfeeding for longer doesn’t necessarily mean your toddler will become more attached to the breast and harder to wean. All children are different, some will try to lift up your shirt for a feed at the supermarket, while others really couldn’t care one way or the other. They can also go through different phases, your toddler might feed like a newborn one week, then seem disinterested the next.

It is best to just go with the flow (no pun intended), don’t stress about what might or could happen, listen to your own instincts and continue to feed your baby for as long as you are happy to.

Try to cut out annoying behaviour before it becomes a habit

Toddlers can be a challenge to breastfeed simply because they don’t stay still like babies do. Toddlers will move around, try to stand up, turn upside down, crane their head back to watch TV! You name it, they’ll try to do it. They’ll also often fidget with their free hand – pinching or scratching your skin (or your other nipple!), twirling their hair (or yours) and sticking their fingers in your mouth and nose.

This can test your patience so it is best to stop it before it become a habit. Try wearing a breastfeeding necklace or giving your child a toy to hold and play with, this will keep their free hand busy. Tell them ‘no’ sternly when they scratch you, pull your hair or twist your nipple around as they attempt a back bend!

You can continue to breastfeed when you’re pregnant

Breastfeeding can delay the return of your menstrual cycle but generally, as your baby grows and feeds less frequently, your cycle will return. It isn’t uncommon to be still breastfeeding one child when you fall pregnant with another. If you’re not ready to wean your first child there is no hurry – if your pregnancy is normal and healthy with no history of miscarriage, there’s no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding can endanger a pregnancy.

Your body is very clever and will always serve your unborn child first – ensuring it gets all the nutrients it needs for proper growth and development. Your breast milk is also very smart and will change to colostrum towards the end of your pregnancy, ready to feed your new baby. Your toddler might not like the taste of the colostrum and may wean themselves, temporarily or permanently. Some take it all in their stride though and will simply feed on as normal. The only side affect being looser bowel movements as colostrum has a laxative affect.

Tips for weaning a toddler from breastfeeding

At some point you will want to, or need to, wean your toddler from the breast. For some, weaning might just start to happen naturally due to circumstance. For example, breast feeds might be dropped as naps are dropped or the morning breastfeed is replaced with breakfast. But for some, a dedicated effort may be required.

For the most part, weaning a toddler is the same as weaning a baby. Remember to drop feeds one at a time to allow your body (and your child) time to adjust, and to help protect against blocked milk ducts and mastitis. There are a few extra challenges though, so we have the following tips for when you want to wean you toddler from the breast.

  • Try the ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ method.
  • Decide on which feeds to drop first. It’s a good idea to start with the ones that won’t be missed and leave the harder ones (bedtime feed) till last. But if you’re struggling with certain feeds you might want to tackle them first – for example, the overnight feeds are becoming too much and you desperately need sleep, then work on dropping them first.
  • To drop the morning feed try waking before your toddler and having their breakfast ready for when they wake.
  • Don’t try to wean when there are other major upheavals in your child’s life, such as moving house, toilet training, new baby, starting daycare or teething.
  • When weaning at night, try offering water instead. Or have your partner try to resettle your toddler. If co-sleeping have your toddler sleep beside your partner instead of you or wear clothing that is hard for them to gain access to your breasts.
  • Talk to your toddler. Tell them how they are ‘a big kid now’, talk to them about how they won’t always need breastfeeding and if you want to set limits on breastfeeding (eg. only at home or only before bedtime) let them know what these limits are.
  • Wear clothes that make it hard for them to gain access! It also might help if you don’t let them see you naked for a little while as it will remind them that they’d like a feed.
  • Allow yourself to feel sad. It is normal to feel quite emotional when you finish breastfeeding your child. It has been a big part of your life and a way to bond with your child. Make sure you still get plenty of cuddles and time to connect with your little one!

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