Even though the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding up to two years and beyond, breastfeeding a toddler is still shocking to some. Natural term weaning is usually between 2 and 7 years old. But many women stop breastfeeding before that.
Really, it isn’t anyone else’s business whether a woman breastfeeds her toddler or not. As long as both the baby and mother are happy to do so, that’s fine. And anyone who has breastfed a toddler before will know that you cannot make a child breastfeed if they don’t want to!
Some women are just DONE by this age. It’s hard work and you can feel so touched out. There’s loads of breastfeeding support groups that give advice on gentle weaning in these cases. Or some women set boundaries with breastfeeding when the child gets to a certain age, such as only feeding before bed and in the morning.
But it’s their choice to carry on or to stop.
As my son approaches 19 months, I’ve grown more aware of judgement around extended breastfeeding. The UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and only 1 in 200 women in the UK are still breastfeeding their toddler. That compares with 23% in Germany, 56% in Brazil and 99% in Senegal (source).
In the UK, it’s seen as a bit hippy or odd to breastfeed an older baby. We forget that breasts are literally there to feed a child. We would rather wean our children onto cows milk, which is made for baby calves instead of giving them actual human breastmilk which is tailored for that individual baby’s needs based on if they are ill, the temperature (it’s more watery when it’s hot!) and it even changes depending on the time of day.
We sexualise breasts and shame mothers for feeding toddlers. It’s not uncommon for a man to make some comment like ‘he’s a lucky boy!’ for breastfeeding. The only thing perverted about that is an adult sexualising a child taking milk from their mother.
Benefits of extended breastfeeding
So many people believe that breastfeeding a toddler has no nutritional value. This is nonsense – it has the same nutritional value but the child also has food, so they don’t get 100% of their nutrition through breastfeeding.
The main reason I wanted to carry on breastfeeding this long is ANTIBODIES! Especially during covid. Every time I had a covid vaccine, my child got antibodies via my breastmilk. Every time we got a cold, my breastmilk produced antibodies to help him fight it off quicker. When he had a stomach bug, breastfeeding was a form of comfort and hydration. At one year old my GP even said that breastfeeding him was the best thing I could do for him when he was ill.
Comfort is another big benefit of breastfeeding. Toddlers are wild. Leo runs around and is always falling over, banging his head and getting into trouble. When he is hurt, he takes comfort in breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a natural form of pain relief. It also gets them through teething pains!
As well as physical comfort, it provides emotional comfort. Being a toddler is frustrating and they struggle to regulate their emotions and have BIGGGG feelings. Also, they may go through lots of big changes around this age, such as starting nursery and spending time away from their mum. Breastfeeding is a way for them to reconnect after being apart.
Studies show that breastfeeding for longer than 4 months can prevent babies from developing allergies Breastfeeding past 6 months can reduce the risk of developing leukaemia and lymphoma, as well as diabetes in later life
For the mother, it also has great benefits. As well as reducing the risk of postnatal depression, breastfeeding also reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attack in mum. How great is that?
So when people say breastfeeding a toddler is pointless, or even selfish, remember the above.
Social pressure to stop
Many women feel social pressure to stop. Our society pressures us to take away a child’s comfort to force them into independence (same with sleep training/cots and being criticised for contact naps!). But this can be really harmful to them when they are in a state of stress. They are babies. They need us to comfort them and feel safe. Their brains actually develop BETTER when they are not under stress – so comfort your babies!
I do believe times are changing and more women do breastfeed older babies. It’s just not done publically. Or spoken about. I know many women with babies a similar age to mine that still breastfeed, feed to sleep and bedshare. But they don’t tend to offer that information until I talk about it first. It’s fine to keep things to yourself, but it makes me sad that it’s not seen as the norm.
Even people that pretend to be supportive do so in a negative way. Saying things such as ‘it’s not for me’ or ‘I wouldn’t breastfeed my toddler’ is not helpful and is a backhanded compliment. Worst of all, people usually say this when nobody asked. It’s like when someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m not being funny but..’ and then they processed to be funny about something.
I still breastfeed my toddler.
So, this blog post is just so say that I still feed my toddler. He feeds to sleep, he feeds when he’s upset, he feeds when he needs comfort.
At this point, I have no idea when we might stop. I just know that I am happy to feed him and I see the benefit it has. So it seems daft to wean him when I have the perfect tool to comfort him right here!