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 café 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.
Following 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 CaveMother.blogspot.com.