Find breastfeeding and chestfeeding help HERE.
 

Thinking about Nursing Your Toddler?

Toddlers breastfeed for many of the same reasons babies breastfeed: for nutrition, comfort, security, for a way to calm down and for reassurance. Parents breastfeed their toddlers for many of the same reasons they breastfeed their babies: they recognize their children’s needs, they enjoy the closeness, they want to offer comfort, and they understand the many health benefits to both baby and nursing parent.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend that babies be breastfed for at least two years.

Review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.” 

Just as babies do, toddlers receive health benefits from breast milk: it continues to provide immunities and vitamins and can help protect your toddler from illness and allergies. If your toddler does get sick, nursing will help comfort them. In fact, a toddler with an upset stomach may be able to keep down your milk when nothing else works.

 

Benefits of Breastfeeding Your Toddler

Nutritional Benefits 

Research shows that human milk is a valuable source of nutrition even beyond a year. Here are just a few studies as examples.

In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides:

  • 29% of energy requirements
  • 43% of protein requirements
  • 36% of calcium requirements
  • 75% of vitamin A requirements
  • 76% of folate requirements
  • 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
  • 60% of vitamin C requirements (Dewey 2001)

According to a 2017 study, “Human milk in the second year postpartum contained significantly higher concentrations of total protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme and Immunoglobulin A, than milk bank samples, and significantly lower concentrations of zinc, calcium, iron and oligosaccharides.” (Perrin 2017)

According to a 2005 study, “Human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for >1 year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant.” (Mandel 2005)

Immunological Benefits 

Research shows that nursing toddlers have fewer illness and get better more quickly than non-nursing toddlers. The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that children weaned before two years of age are at increased risk of illness (AAFP 2008).

According to a 2017 study, “Human milk in the second year postpartum contained significantly higher concentrations of total protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme and Immunoglobulin A, than milk bank samples, and significantly lower concentrations of zinc, calcium, iron and oligosaccharides.” (Perrin 2017)

Some of the immune factors in breastmilk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process. One 2011 paper notes, “Feeding an infant human breast milk is not a matter of filling the infant with an “appropriate” amount of important nutrients and a protective level of bioactive factors. Although the various factors do complement and supplement the innate immunity of the infant, they actively affect the ongoing development of the infant’s immunity and intestinal development.” (Lawrence & Lawrence 2011)

Social and Mental Benefits 

Toddlers have a huge world to explore, and breastfeeding provides them (and their parents!) with some quiet time in their busy, waking hours. Often, breastfeeding serves as a “home base.” It can help toddlers feel more secure while they stretch their new-found independence.

Benefits for the Nursing Parent 

Improved health and reduced risk of certain illnesses. Breastfeeding beyond infancy — as well as breastfeeding for 12 months or more cumulatively in life — has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Improved mental health. “In mothers, breastfeeding significantly reduces physiological and subjective stress, facilitates positive affect, and improves maternal sensitivity and care. Again, the oxytocin system likely plays an important role in explaining the effects on maternal psychology and behavior.” (Krol 2018)

 

How often do toddlers breastfeed? 

How often a toddler nurses will vary from toddler to toddler and from day to day. Often, a busy 12 month old who is learning to walk may be barely nursing at all while an 18 month old who has started preschool may be nursing as much as a newborn. Generally, toddlers will increase their nursing frequency during periods of stress or transition. They also may breastfeed more while going through a developmental leap.

 

What role does breast milk play in an older baby’s diet?

Toddlers can be famously picky eaters. Many families with breastfeeding toddlers see nursing as an insurance policy or “multivitamin” for those days when their toddler’s diet is less-than-perfect. How much solid food your child eats will vary and depend on many factors, including how much milk they are consuming, as well as continued growth spurts through their toddler years. While families may hear from their healthcare provider that their child should be eating “X” number of meals and snacks per day, a toddler may eat very little one day and then gorge the next. Parents of nursing toddlers can take comfort in knowing that even on those “light” days, their child is still receiving a food that is tailor made for them.

 

Breastfeeding Positions for Toddlers 

Just as there is no one right position for nursing an infant, there are many positions that work for toddlers. Do what works for your body and breast shape as well as your child, being mindful about how it feels for you rather than how it compares to the pictures of the “correct” way. You’ll find that there are many different positions as your baby grows, including some very creative toddler-invented options. There is a reason why many families jokingly talk about “gymnurstics” and “niplash.”

Do be aware that as your toddler teethes and gets more teeth, their latch may no longer feel the same and may begin to hurt. It can help to be vigilant and communicate clearly about how they need a big wide open mouth to nurse well. You can even demonstrate by opening your own mouth wide. It can help to get back to basics and review basic positioning and latching if you are feeling pain or discomfort.

 

When to Wean

There is no set number of years or months that you should nurse your child. If you and your child enjoy breastfeeding, there is no reason you need to stop. Both of you will continue to benefit from breastfeeding as long as you like. Many parents choose to wean naturally, allowing the child to outgrow the need gradually, in their own time.

Breastfeeding an older toddler or child can be different from breastfeeding an infant. Many parents naturally begin to place some restrictions on nursing as their child grows. This may include delaying feedings, (“We can nurse after I finish cooking.”) or limiting access. It also may mean focusing more on good “nursing manners” to discourage some behaviors, such as, twiddling, shirt pulling, pinching, fidgeting, “niplash”, nursing gymnastics, and more. While all of these behaviors are normal, they certainly can be unwanted or even painful. Luckily, there are strategies to help to establish good breastfeeding manners.

  • Start early– Putting in the effort to stop unwanted behaviors like twiddling in the beginning is more effective than waiting until it grows into a more ingrained habit.
  • Wait it out– Often annoying toddler behaviors are a phase that they will eventually outgrow. 
  • Distract and redirect– Find alternatives like playing with a necklace or soft toy. Talk to them or read a book to shift their attention.
  • Communicate– Older babies and toddlers can sign for “milk” or “please” rather than pulling at your top. Praise them for gentle nursing, and also set firm boundaries and communicate those boundaries clearly. For example, “I can’t nurse you while you wiggle. Let’s go play and get the wiggles out. Then we can nurse in a little while.”

Learn more about Nursing Manners (PDF), LLL USA

It also can be helpful to learn more about typical childhood behavior and needs based on age. A good place to start is by attending La Leche League meetings. There you will meet families who have nursed their children through the years and are happy to share information and ideas with you. Find a group near you.

 

RESOURCES

Breastfeeding Beyond A Year, LLL Great Britain

Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Fact Sheet, KellyMom

Handling Criticism, LLL USA

How do I wean?, LLL USA

Gentle Toddler Weaning (PDF), LLL USA

PERSONAL STORIES 

Breastfeeding Through the Years, LLL USA blog

Toddler Breastfeeding: The Rainbow After the Rain, LLL USA blog

One of Those Moms: Reflections on Toddler Nursing, LLL USA blog

Tandem Nursing While Pregnant, LLL USA blog

Ashley’s Story: Pumping Past One Year, LLL USA blog

Breastfeeding Beyond Toddlerhood: Why Support Matters, LLL USA blog

The Dad of a Breastfed Toddler, LLLI blog

Dealing with Twiddling, LLL New Zealand blog

Disciplining Toddlers: The Art of Loving Guidance, LLL USA blog

My Weaning Story: Honoring the Last Time, LLL USA blog

 

IS YOUR CONCERN OR QUESTION NOT COVERED HERE?

Please contact a local LLL Leader with your specific questions.

Medical questions and legal questions should be directed to appropriate health care and legal professionals.

 

Page updated January 2020