Breastfeeding Beyond Toddlerhood: Why Support Matters

Image by Shutterstock
Image by Shutterstock

Rita Brhel, Hastings, Nebraska

From my experience supporting breastfeeding mothers, many do not set out to breastfeed beyond toddlerhood. While these mothers know they are doing what they feel is right for their families, each of them struggled at points with personal expectations, outside pressure to wean, and doubt about whether to set limits with their child.

But each one also has reached out for support when it was needed. Breastfeeding support is critical, no matter where a mother is on her parenting journey—even, or perhaps especially, when breastfeeding beyond toddlerhood.

My first baby was an early preemie and never did latch on, so I exclusively pumped for about six months until I, regrettably, became overwhelmed and stopped pumping. I was shocked at the cost of artificial infant milk and dismayed when she developed an allergy to cow’s milk.

Seven months later, I had my second baby. I was determined to breastfeed and I did. But I struggled with low supply until I finally lost my milk supply when she was nine months old. I was shocked again, this time by how much I missed breastfeeding.

Four years later when I had my third child, I was determined to breastfeed for a full year and to avoid struggling with low milk supply. Early on, I had problems with poor latch, sore nipples, mastitis, thrush, and an abscess. After a few months, I felt I had the easier breastfeeding relationship I had been looking for since my oldest was born.

I set a goal of one year. When his first birthday arrived, he was still breastfeeding at least six times a day and a couple times at night. So I decided to set 18 months as a new goal as he was clearly not ready to wean. At 18 months, I set a new goal of two years. And at two years, I made a firm decision in favor of child-led weaning.

But a few months later, I was surprised by my feeling of being touched-out and tied-down. I felt ready to wean, but at the same time, I was very sad at the thought. It was quite evident that my son was not ready to wean. I never thought that I would be struggling with these feelings.

Image by Shutterstock
Image by Shutterstock

And then I reviewed the book To Three and Beyond: Stories of Breastfed Children and the Mothers Who Love Them by Janell Robisch.

A former La Leche League Leader, Robisch put together breastfeeding stories from mothers who have engaged in child-led weaning and breastfeeding beyond three years. Robisch breastfed her three children until the ages of five, four-and-one-half, and three-and-one-half years.

The support I received from these stories helped me work through my conflicting emotions about breastfeeding. I continued to breastfeed my son for another year and some months: he weaned completely on his own terms. I was happy with how it all went. Not a tear was shed by either one of us!

I find support, especially local and in-person from other mothers who’ve “been there, done that” to be empowering for every breastfeeding mother. So does Robisch, who had this to say about supporting mothers who are breastfeeding beyond the age of three:

“Remember why you have made the choice to continue breastfeeding.

You are not alone, not by far. I feel comfortable saying that, at this moment, there are thousands—if not more—mothers nursing beyond infancy and even toddlerhood.

One of the most important things to do is to find support. It means the world, even if it is only online or from one friend or family member in your life.

Rita Brhel and her son, Nathan
Rita Brhel and her son, Nathan

While no two mothers’ experiences are the same, one of the main threads running through their stories is of individual mothers carefully considering their children and their families and making decisions about breastfeeding and parenting based on the family’s needs as a whole and the children’s needs in particular. There is compassion and respect here for children’s needs, even when they contrast with what society presents as the ‘right’ way to do things, and there is balance as well.

I just want to give a shout out to all the brave mamas out there who fly in the face of tradition, not to rebel but to parent in the best way they know how, those who are brave enough to question parenting practices that ignore the needs and developmental stages of children and do what feels right for their children and families.”

Rita Brhel loves attending La Leche League Group Meetings, especially for the local in-person mother-to-mother support critical to sharing the joys of breastfeeding and helping mothers navigate breastfeeding challenges. She is a breastfeeding and attachment parenting advocate and a Women, Infants, and Children Breastfeeding Peer Counselor and Certified Lactation Counselor in Hastings, Nebraska. She has been married for 14 years and is the mother of three breastfed children, now 9, 8 and 4.