Thursday, January 28, 2010

It's not about the milk

This is another in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Cave Mother from the blog of the same name. Cave Mother figures out that her toddler has three distinct nursing styles at this age, and that all three are more about connection than calories.

toddler holding hands with parent

Guest post by Cave Mother

When my daughter took her first wobbly steps in pursuit of our cat, I cheered with glee at her achievement. A few days later I realised that not only had she officially attained the title of "toddler," but that I was now "nursing a toddler." This is something that, 15 months earlier, I would never have imagined happening.

There are two attitudes to toddler nursing in our culture. The most common one is that it is a vice to be avoided, particularly the cardinal sin of allowing a baby to associate breastfeeding with going to sleep (god forbid!). We are encouraged not to submit to our toddlers' desires to nurse, and to limit feeding to night-time if we are really too soft to wean our children off the breast completely.

But there is another attitude, one which is surprisingly common among groups of women who are aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. This attitude says that is natural to continue breastfeeding beyond a year (the WHO even recommends it!) and that nursing can actually be used as a tool to help a toddler negotiate the emotional ups and downs of growing up. It is obviously a tool that can only be used by the child's mother, but toddlers are already used to receiving a different style of care from their fathers, and continuing to nurse does not have to mean that other family members are unable to care for the child.

I have purposely avoided books on toddler nursing because I wanted to find out what it was like for myself, without any hopes or misgivings. What I am about to say is all based on my experiences alone. So here it is: the key thing that stands out to me about nursing my toddler is that is absolutely not about the milk. Yes, the milk still provides untold benefits to my daughter, but they are more like bonus extras nowadays. What really matters now is the comfort, the closeness and the familiarity of breastfeeding.

Nowadays nursing happens for a variety of reasons, none of which really have anything to do with hunger or thirst. First up is the "just checking in" nurse, where my daughter takes a short break out of her busy day to nurse for just long enough to check that I'm still there, watching and looking after her. She is usually on the breast for just enough time to stimulate a let-down, but she's gone before any significant amount of milk has time to flow. This feed is all about touching base.

Next we have the "upset/tantrum" nurse. I have many ways to deal with crying due to pain or frustration, and one of them is to let my toddler feed for a couple of minutes. It is as if she has a reset switch — when she's allowed to nurse to calm herself down, she can go from wailing banshee to smiling angel in a matter of minutes. Of course I don't always put her to the breast; if I'm in a crowded cafĂ© it's not exactly my first resort. But it works, and it works for a reason (think hiding cavewoman, dangerous animal, crying baby). And it is not about suppressing emotions. Nursing is a known tension-reliever for babies, and it seems to me that it is perfectly sensible tool to have in my arsenal of methods to deal with tantrums.

Finally there is the "going to sleep" feed. As with the "tantrum" nurse, I don't always use the breast to put my daughter to sleep. But we share a bed and our whole sleeping format is geared around using the breast to settle her, so I have no hesitation in conditioning my daughter to fall asleep when nursing. The "going to sleep" feed is one of my favourite times of the day, not least because it gives me a break from the constant activity of chasing after a toddler. It takes only a few minutes and I know when she is sufficiently deeply asleep to be left because she lets my nipple fall out of her mouth. It is also the only time when she actually drinks a significant amount of milk. The "going to sleep" feed is a time of peace, relaxation and closeness, and I love it.

Though I have thought long and hard about my daughter's motivations for nursing, I can't help coming to the conclusion that these three reasons really do account for almost all of our feeding sessions. They vary wildly in frequency, from every few minutes some days to only two or three times on others. But what every day has in common is that my daughter knows that the comfort of nursing is available to her when she requests it. Not everyone can provide this, but I am fortunate enough to be able to stay at home with my child and while I can breastfeed her, I will. In the stormy ocean of toddlerhood, it can't fail to be a wonderful anchor.

Cave Mother logoFollowing stints in teaching and the civil service, Cave Mother is now a full-time mum to her 16-month-old daughter. She is also a breastfeeding peer supporter and a passionate advocate of attachment parenting. Read more of her writing at

Photo courtesy Adrian Yee on stock.xchng


Anonymous said...

I can so relate to the different types of nursing, especially the touching base. With my last daughter, she used to walk up (and was perfect breast height when I was sitting on the couch) and want milk. I'd give her the nipple and she'd latch on for about 2 seconds. I took it to be a bit of a "just checking, yep they're still there."

I had always thought the bedtime nursing would be the last to go, but it was those "just checking" moments that went last.

global mamas said...

I love this post, thanks to you both!
I am nursing my little 17 month old and am not planning to stop any time soon...the constant support from blogs like this is just so very valuable :)

Olivia said...

I love the going to sleep nusing just because it works so well. I keep hearing about mothers being able to calm down tantrums or making babies feel better when they get a bump with nursing, and I wish I could do that with my daughter.

When she gets a bump and starts crying she will not be distracted with the breast, and shushing just makes her cry more. It's funny that she seems to just need to be heard before she will calm down. :)

Cave Mother said...

olivia - it's interesting that your baby needs to "be heard" before she can calm down. There is this whole theory of Aware Parenting that says that babies need to cry sometimes to let go of their emotions. And I guess, at least for some, that it's true.

Betsy B. Honest said...

Sweet. I like that you skipped the how-to books.

Anonymous said...

I have been the opposite. I read just about any book I could get my hands on. It turned out to be just a search for some support on what I was already doing. Of course, I had to figure out on my own that what my little girl was teaching me was right all along. At 18months and still nursing. I love the down time and closeness we have together.
Thanks for your post.

Lisa C said...

My toddler nurses for all the reasons you list, and more. He still nurses out of hunger sometimes, or thirst, so if it gets to be too much for me, I start offering food and drink. But he also nurses for comfort, for sleep, out of boredom, to reconnect with me, and lately...teething! I swear it's all he wants when he's teething! I give him homeopathic teething medicine, too, but it's not enough. If he didn't have my breasts to soothe the pain, I don't know what we'd do (he doesn't like teething toys).

My little guy needs a mix of crying and nursing to relieve tension. If he doesn't cry before nursing, he'll cry afterward. I wish nursing could make it all go away for him, but at least when he's weaned, he'll already have a method for releasing stress.

It's still comforting to me that he's getting great nutrition and protection from the milk, so for ME, it is about the milk! :)

Darcel said...

That's how I felt about my daughters nursing as she got older. She would ask for ni-ni's when she became very upset, or I would offer.

We made it to 29 months when my milk dried up, due to the pregnancy. I miss our nursing relationship.

Toddlers nursing is just as important as nursing a newborn/infant.

Cave Mother said...

darcel - 24 months! Well done.

Lisa -yeah, the "teething" nurse is a popular one here too. In fact she's had so much time on the breast over the past week, I'll soon be back up to newborn levels of milk production!

motherese - I know what you mean about searching for support. I am so lucky that I have a supportive partner, parents, bfing peer support colleagues and friends. It's thanks to them that I don't feel like I'm doing something weird. As long as you can find just one or two people that support you, it makes you feel a whole lot more confident about toddler nursing.

Melodie said...

I love this. My 2.5 yo still nurses out of hunger/thirst too, because she just prefers it over food and water, but the rest of the time, these are absolutely why she nurses. And why not? These reasons are just as important as quenching one's thirst or hunger.

Jessica said...

I'm always a little wistful reading posts like this since my son stopped nursing at 14 months. I really embraced the idea of child-led weaning, I just wasn't expecting it to happen so quickly!

Great post :)

Hippie Mommy said...

Wow! I've been thinking about this same topic all day! It was lovely to read about it from someone else's perspective. My daughter definitely has the same three nursing needs :) Fantastic blog!!!

Kristin said...

That is so right on!

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