Toddler breastfeeding: what to expect

Mum breastfeeding tot

by Amy Brown |

Breastfeeding is rarely smooth sailing but when you eventually get going, it can be a lovely bonding experience that can be difficult to give up. That's why many mums choose to breastfeed their child past the one-year mark. If this is something you're considering, there are a few questions you might have.

How long should I breastfeed for?

There’s certainly no rule for how long (or short) you breastfeed for. You and your toddler can carry on breastfeeding for as long as you both want to. Many babies around the world are breastfed past their second year and this is recognised in recommendations. The Department of Health encourage breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.

How long will my milk last?

You will carry on producing milk for as long as your child feeds. If your toddler starts to feed less your body will naturally start reducing the milk that you make to match this but if they start feeding more again, such as during an illness, you’ll probably find that it increases again in response to this. You might hear the idea that milk becomes less nutritious as a baby gets older, or even ‘turns to water’. This simply isn’t true – you carry on producing breast milk with all its nutrients in it for as long as you carry on breastfeeding.

You can also feed during another pregnancy too, but as your pregnancy progresses you might find that your milk supply starts to drop a little due to the hormones of pregnancy. Don’t worry though, it’ll come back as colostrum when your baby is born – toddlers are often very grateful to their new sibling for ‘bringing the milk back with them!’.

How often to breastfeed a toddler

Your toddler is going to be eating family foods alongside feeding. Breastmilk will provide lots of nutrients and immune protection alongside that so there’s no set amount that you ‘should’ feed them. Follow their lead and let them decide when they need to feed – although it’s absolutely fine to introduce some rules around when, where and how often if you want to, especially with an older toddler.

Remember though that breastfeeding is about more than milk. It’s a way for your toddler to feel comforted and calmed and you might find they come to you for a feed if they’re unsure, upset or have hurt themselves. They may well be eating lots of different foods, but foods don’t fix a bumped knee in the same way breastfeeding does!

How to balance breastfeeding with weaning

Let your toddler take the lead. Breastfed babies are very good at balancing their milk intake with how much solid food they are eating. As your toddler eats more food they will naturally start to breastfeed less – or at least take less milk even if they come to you for a feed lots of times.

Your toddler may still want to feed for comfort or to go to sleep even when they are eating lots. You will probably find that the way they feed is different when doing this compared to feeding for hunger. The feed might be shorter or slower, or their latch more relaxed, meaning that they get the comfort of sucking without too much milk.

The benefits of breastfeeding a toddler

Breastmilk remains full of nutrients and energy for your toddler and is a great way of helping them to get lots of vitamins and minerals, especially if they’re going through a fussy stage.

Breastmilk still contains all those immune properties that help protect your toddler’s health, in particular helping them fight off infections. Research has shown that these immune properties increase slightly as your baby gets older and more mobile which makes a lot of sense. And research during the pandemic found that when a mother contracted Covid-19 (or even after vaccination) antibodies were found in her milk. In addition, the longer you breastfeed, the greater your protection against breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease and diabetes. And finally, as described above, breastfeeding can be an invaluable way of supporting toddler behaviour and needs.

The challenges of breastfeeding a toddler

Sometimes toddlers can become a little laid back about their ‘nursing manners’ and try to latch on from a difficult angle, or be casual with their latch, causing you pain. They may also fiddle during feeds or squirm about which is uncomfortable and rather distracting. You might find your toddler tries to play with or ‘twiddle’ your other nipple during a feed which can be highly frustrating to put it politely! Again, don’t be afraid to set some ground rules and take them off if they continue to wriggle around.

Teething toddlers may sometimes bite – the best response in that situation is to try not to react (easier said than done I know!) and to pull them closer in to you. It might seem counterintuitive but they’re more likely to let go in this position as when their nose is covered they will open their mouth to breathe. Sliding a finger in their mouth to break the suction can also help. You can sometimes do this to pre-empt a bite if you notice your baby looking like they might bite – slowing down and pulling back slightly from a good latch can mean they’re thinking about it.

The best nursing positions for breastfeeding a toddler

Whatever works best for you both! You may well find that your toddler gets into all sorts of creative positions for feeding now that they are stronger and more mobile. They may walk over and try to feed standing up or come at you from all angles whilst climbing around! Although you may be happy for them to do this, make sure that your latch is still comfortable and they’re not trying to stretch your nipple too far whilst looking around the room during a feed. Again it can help to set some rules around feeding – older toddlers in particular can understand that they need to wait or feed in a more comfortable position for you.

All your ‘old’ positions that you fed your small baby in may still work too – laid back on the sofa with your much longer toddler cuddled on top of you, lying down in bed or even in a cradle hold across your lap. You can marvel at how long their legs have grown whilst continuing to nurture your toddler who will always feel like your baby, no matter how big they get.

Tips for breastfeeding a toddler

Remember that you can still ask for support with breastfeeding even though you’ve now been feeding some time. You might have questions about feeding in public, returning to work or may be experiencing issues around pain or milk supply. You can still ask your health visitor for support or contact one of the breastfeeding organisations for support. The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, Breastfeeding Network, La Leche League and NCT all offer support, and you can contact the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212.

Meet the expert: Professor Amy Brown is Director of the centre for Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translation (LIFT) at Swansea University in the UK, where she also leads the MSc in Child Public Health.

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