Breastfeeding Your Toddler: What to expect

August 21, 2011. Posted in: After the First Year,Considering weaning,Older Infant,What is Normal?

By Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC

Are you considering breastfeeding your baby into toddlerhood and wondering how the breastfeeding relationship will change? Are you wondering if your toddler is trying to wean, or wondering why your toddler is suddenly breastfeeding round the clock? Here are a few observations on typical toddler breastfeeding behavior. As always, the way your particular baby approaches nursing will also depend on her unique personality.

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How long do breastfeeding sessions last?

First off, it’s really normal for the breastfeeding sessions to get shorter as baby gets older – this doesn’t necessarily mean that baby is getting ready to wean. As baby gets older, she can get milk more efficiently (by this time your baby is an expert nurser) so she doesn’t need as much time to get the same amount. Another factor that comes into play is distraction – baby gets so interested in the other things going on around her that she doesn’t like to take the time to nurse as long. A typical toddler nursing session may last only a couple of minutes – just enough time to take a sip and reconnect with mom for a moment before running off to do toddler things. Naptime, nighttime, and waking up nursing sessions usually last longer, since baby is usually sleepy and not as intent on jumping into the middle of things.

How often do toddlers breastfeed?

Breastfeeding frequency for toddlers is usually pretty erratic and varies greatly from child to child. It’s normal for toddlers to be interested in everything around them and, as a result, not as interested in breastfeeding. At other times, baby will be so focused on the big changes within herself (developmentally), that she will want to spend lots of time at the breast to reconnect with mom and adjust to all the new skills in her life. Some children breastfeed often (“like a newborn” is a frequent comment that you hear from the moms of 12-15 month olds), some breastfeed only once or twice a day, and some breastfeed a few times a day on some days and frequently on others. No matter what the breastfeeding pattern, average breastfeeding frequency decreases gradually as baby gets older. Once or twice a day breastfeeding sessions can continue for months and even years, depending upon the child and mom.

Toddlers breastfeed for comfort, in addition to nutrition. Breastfeeding can work wonders when baby is hurt, sad, upset (nursing is a great tantrum-tamer), or sick. Toddlers may also use breastfeeding as a quick way of “checking in” and reconnecting with mom throughout the day.

Sometimes your toddler may go through phases of increased night nursing. Common reasons for increased night breastfeeding in toddlers include teething, decreased breastfeeding during the day because of distraction, developmental advances and reconnecting with mom.

It is typical for a toddler to breastfeed more often when away from home for a few days, or when there are other big changes in the typical day-to-day routine. To a toddler, breastfeeding is warmth, comfort, reassurance… it’s their “home away from home” that they tend to retreat to when things are unfamiliar or uncertain. Once you are back at home and settled in (or once your child has adjusted to the change, regardless of what it was), the increased breastfeeding tends to fall by the wayside.

What breastfeeding positions work best for toddlers?

Positioning just depends upon what is comfortable for you and baby, and will evolve as baby gets older. Positioning (and sometimes latch) most always get rather casual over time, and as long as this works for you and baby it is not a problem. However, sometimes mom will get sore nipples or may feel baby’s top teeth. In these cases, it’s a good idea to look into making some changes in positioning or latch.

Acrobatic breastfeeding

By toddlerhood, most babies have quite a repertoire of creative breastfeeding positions. Acrobatic breastfeeding is typical and it’s common for baby to try breastfeeding upside down, with feet in the air, standing on one foot, wiggling and twisting and turning, and so on. Enjoy the silly positions they try, be flexible and patient, but if the acrobatic breastfeeding gets to be a problem, here are tips that have helped other moms:

  • Give it a little time. Exhibits of the most intense acrobats are generally a phase that shows up when baby figures out that she can nurse in a million different positions and, what’s more, it’s fun to try. The novelty will wear off after a little time and the acrobatics will decrease.
  • Give baby something to hold and play with while nursing (a small toy, perhaps). Some moms also wear a nursing necklace to focus baby’s attention on something other than acrobatics.
  • Try talking or reading a book to your child while you nurse. Songs or fingerplays can also help.
  • Try a firm reprimand. Say something like “Be still” in a firm voice; don’t raise your voice, as you don’t want to scare baby. You might also hug baby close to you to reiterate the point.
  • Try stopping the feeding if baby continues with the acrobatics. Say something like “I can’t nurse you when you’re squirmy. Let’s go play and get the wiggles out and we will nurse in a little while.” Then play for a few minutes before offering to nurse again.
  • Another version of stopping the feeding: Warn baby that if she doesn’t be still, mommy’s not going to nurse. And then stop the feeding if she persists. Get up, put her down, and explain to her again why you stopped nursing. Tell her that if and when she can be more still, mommy will nurse again.
  • Breastfeeding in public is sometimes a problem when baby is really wiggly. If the acrobatics are too much for breastfeeding in public, try to breastfeed before leaving and tell baby that you’ll nurse as soon as you get home, to the car, etc. (delaying breastfeeding like this works better when baby is over 18 months and is not overtired). If baby needs something (and will not settle down for nursing) you might offer a snack or a little something from a cup while you’re out.
  • See Breastfeeding Manners for additional tips.

If I breastfeed past a year, will it be harder to wean?

I’ve often heard it said that “If you don’t wean now, you’ll NEVER be able to!” It is not uncommon for moms to wean at a year (or before) — even when neither mom nor baby really want to wean yet — due to the mistaken impression that the only two choices are to wean by a year or keep nursing till age 5!

Breastfeeding past a year does NOT make it impossible or even necessarily more difficult to wean later on. If you feel later on that you would like to initiate mother-led weaning, then you can certainly do so. Age has much less to do with ease of weaning than does your child’s developmental readiness for weaning. Each child has his own developmental timeline for child-led weaning – the age that a child is ready to self-wean varies greatly from child to child and commonly ranges from age 2 through age 4 (though you certainly see children on either end of this range). When mom initiates weaning, then the closer the child is to weaning on her own, the easier it will be (for both mom and child) to accelerate this natural progression.

What is child-led weaning like?

Child-led weaning occurs when a child no longer has a need to nurse – nutritionally or emotionally. It’s relatively unusual for a baby younger than 18-24 months to self-wean if they are not being encouraged in that direction (though things like mom’s pregnancy may also affect the timing).

A child who is self-weaning will almost always cut down on nursing very gradually over a period of months, one session at a time (anything abrupt is most always a strike). Many children will continue with only a nighttime, morning or naptime nursing session (or a combination) for months before weaning. When a child self-weans, she will also have been drinking well from a cup and getting the vast majority of her nutrition from solid foods for a while.

My daughter’s weaning story is pretty typical – she self-weaned when her little brother was 14 months old. Before he was born, she was nursing mainly at naps, night and wake up, and she continued this after he was born (except for 6-8 weeks of increased nursing right after he was born – typical for tandem nursing). She cut out naps several months before she weaned, so that nursing went by the wayside. About a month before she weaned, she started falling asleep after (or during) bedtime reading with her Dad, so that nursing was cut out. She may have cut down on the wake up nursing session a bit, but it wasn’t really noticeable. When we went on vacation with her cousins for a week, she was too busy to nurse in the morning for the last few days. After we got back she nursed maybe twice, about a week apart, and that was the end.

Return to Breastfeeding After the First Year for more on toddler nursing

Helpful Books

Breastfeeding Past the First Year @ the KellyMom Bookstore