I have been pregnant or breastfeeding for 10 whole years now (!), and given that I don’t have 10 children, most of that time has been spent nursing toddlers and preschoolers. Having been in the trenches for a while now, I can tell you that breastfeeding past the baby months is something that not a lot of people understand. I mean, it’s not something you see a whole hell of a lot (more on that later), and there are a million myths floating around about what it’s like.
First, let me clear up a few popular myths. No, breast milk doesn’t turn to water after a certain age (it actually continues to pack a punch in terms of nutrition). Breastfeeding toddlers and preschoolers is absolutely not “just for the mom.” Nope, you can’t just “pump and put it in a cup” (at that point, it’s about bonding as much as milk). And for Christ’s sake, it does not cause emotional damage and is not a form of sexual abuse (no way, no how, case closed).
So what’s it like, really? The bottom line for me is that it’s kind of a bit of everything at once — beautiful, irritating, relaxing, and even hilarious.
It’s a lovely time to reconnect with your little one. You are their safe space, and they come to you not just for a quick snack or drink, but also for relaxing and unwinding. So they’ll be playing on the floor while you’re immersed in your phone, and then they’ll look up at you, a little sleepy, maybe on the verge of tears, and you’ll both know it’s time.
They’ll crawl into your lap and nurse, letting out faint little sighs as their eyes start to flutter shut. Maybe you’ll get a nap out of them (nursing to sleep is sometimes the only way my toddlers will nap), or maybe you’ll both just relax together for a bit, taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the day.
But breastfeeding a toddler can also be supremely annoying, and this is not something we need to gloss over. Sometimes your toddler will whine for “milkies,” “num nums,” “boobies,” or whatever you happen to call it (I adore the different names toddlers come up with for nursing), and you will not want to do it. Their asking to nurse again will make your blood boil and will grate your very last nerve.
That’s okay, and the great thing about nursing a toddler is that you can start to set some limits. You begin to realize that this is a relationship, and it goes both ways. For it to work, you both have to be happy with where it’s at. You’ll also find that there will be times your toddler wants to nurse non-freaking-stop and times when things kind of die down. So you can rest assured that whatever annoying phase you’re in will probably be over soon, like every annoying phase in childhood.
Another thing? Nursing a toddler is not all or nothing. I repeat: It is not all or nothing. So lots of moms night wean their toddler successfully (Warning: This doesn’t always mean they will stop waking in the middle of the night. Sorry about that). Lots of moms can get away for a few nights or more without their nursing toddler, and usually everyone does fine, especially if your toddler is left in loving hands.
You should know that moms of toddlers aren’t necessarily bursting with milk, but have just enough for their toddler’s needs. So being away from your toddler doesn’t leave you engorged — usually. And there are a lot of ups and downs with milk supply in those toddler years. Word to the wise: Your toddler can increase your milk supply any time it seems to tank by simply nursing more, or “like a newborn,” as some of us like to say.
And let me say a few words about nursing preschoolers and older kids, like 3 years old and beyond. If you make it to this point, you’re going to end up having a pretty different experience than you did in the toddler years. You will mostly be nursing before nap and bedtime, maybe in the morning, or here and there during the daytime. You almost always will be doing it at home, which is one of the reasons most people have no idea what nursing at this age looks like. They’ve literally never seen it. And there are absolutely opportunities for setting limits and boundaries nursing at this stage.
In fact, nursing during the preschool years might be my favorite time. My kids are close to weaning then, and every session is kind of bittersweet because I know it will be over soon. We can discuss breastfeeding (one of my nursing preschoolers was actually fascinated with lactation physiology and anatomy) and what it means to both of us. It is a special, special time of day — a little shred of babyhood we both hold on to until we’re ready to let it go. Weaning at this stage almost never takes any effort, and there are no hormone crashes or anything like that.
Obviously, how long you breastfeed — and whether you even breastfeed at all — is a totally personal decision, and one that you (and only you) get to make. But for anyone curious about what it’s like to breastfeed beyond 12 months, know that it can be fun, cuddly, frustrating, and peaceful, all at the same time. For moms who do it, it feels completely normal, just like any other aspect of parenting.
And when it’s over, you miss it. Yes, you really do. A whole hell of a lot.