Six Myths About Breastfeeding Toddlers - Let's Bust These Now!

As he pulled on his little ‘working boots’ my three year old gazed up and told me very matter of factly, “Mummy, when I get scared, booby makes me feel brave.”

When I breastfed our first two babies, I wasn’t aware of the nutritional or immunological benefits of breastfeeding older babies or toddlers (no, there is no ‘best before’ stamp on mama milk!); I simply kept on breastfeeding them because it felt right. In fact with each of our five children, breastfeeding has been an integral part of my relationship with them and not just about ‘food’.

As newborns, breastfeeding gave my babies a gentle beginning, and as toddlers, it soothed life’s little knocks, easing the discomfort of swollen teething gums and picking them up when they fell (or fell apart emotionally). 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 our toddlers at a deep soulful level, reassuring them if they felt challenged and helping them regain equilibrium if they were overcome by emotions that were too big to handle just yet, just as my three year old explained.

The wonderful hormonal effects of breastfeeding helped me to feel calm too and as my kids grew, they noticed this. Once, when I was dealing less than calmly with a teenager (there is an eighteen year span between our oldest and youngest kids), the youth in question grinned cheekily and suggested, ‘I think you need to go and feed the baby!’

Although breastfeeding a toddler isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (or drink of milk), if you choose to nurse beyond babyhood (whatever that means is relative to the culture we live in, the world average age of weaning is somewhere between four and seven years), you can expect some strong reactions. At various times while I was breastfeeding my toddlers I was told:

“You will make him gay.” (Interestingly, nobody ever suggested I would make my daughters gay, but it certainly made them all happy).

“You will be going to school to give him lunch.” (Only if I am on tuck shop duty).

“He will be wanting a breast on his twenty-first birthday .” (He might, but it won’t be mine).

Then there are the curious (am I being generous here?) but ignorant comments about breastfeeding an older baby or toddler. Just in case you are beginning to doubt yourself, lets 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 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 – think, sharing toys and food with other ‘germy’ or ‘snotty’ toddlers – he is 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, such as at childcare, 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 short-lived, if not prevented altogether.

2) If they are old enough to ask for it, they are old enough to wean: Umm, 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 or dummy/pacifier or a comfort toy. Instead, you are your child’s comfort. In case 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 though or you could find yourself like me – my younger 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 ’. Younger babies may bite as they start teething or if biting continues, there are gentle ways to trouble shoot why this is happening and how to prevent or stop it here.

4) Why don’t you just pump and give it to him in a cup? Really? Isn’t the best thing about breastfeeding that it’s so convenient – no tubing to dismantle, clean and sterilise, no crap to wash? Besides, by the time your child is a toddler, most mums don’t find pumping very effective, anyway. And that’s just our perspective. To a toddler, breastfeeding is about connection and comfort and emotional regulation: sucking and snuggling, along with the soothing chemistry of your milk (oxytocin, cholecystokinin and endo-cannibinoids all have relaxing effects) changes your child’s brain chemistry so he is calmed at a physiological level.

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 and this is fine but please don’t suggest a mum who is breastfeeding should give her kid a drink from a cup instead of the nurturing she can offer with a snuggle on her lap and warm milk from her breasts.

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 and pinching or tweaking your skin or your other breast 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 that can stop a tantrum dead in its tracks or soothe an overtired, overwrought toddler to sleep in minutes, it’s not all lovey dovey, 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 will remember that! What a lovely memory if indeed your toddler remembers. I have asked my own children and they can’t actually remember breast-feeding. I guess this depends on the age of the breastfeeding child but most children would be weaned long before they ever became aware of any implied 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 upset, here is a beautiful quote by Kabongo, an African chief when he was ninety 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.“