A World Beyond the Breast

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My son (approximately 16 months) has recently become less interested in breastfeeding. We nurse four times a day. First thing in the morning, which used to be his largest/longest nursing session, he often refuses the other side and only nurses on one. Other times during the day he fusses and is disinterested. He does typically still nurse well before nap/bedtime when he is sleepy. My question is, is this a sign of weaning? Or is it just typical active toddler behavior? I take it quite personally and feel upset when he pushes me away. I am hoping to nurse much longer. Any thoughts?

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Shae: Firstly remember he is still getting all the benefits from any amount of breastmilk he is receiving, and it sounds like he is having a few big drinks during the day. Many children drop off the frequency of feeds when they are active, busy toddlers.

It can be upsetting when they refuse the breast, especially at such a young age, but the frequency and interest in breastfeeding is often quite changeable with toddlers. There is a whole big world out there of new things and exciting food opening up, and he is much more mobile to access it all.

The introduction of food is said to be the start of weaning, but weaning can take years! Your son may feed like he is now for many years to come, or he might be back feeding with renewed intensity tomorrow. The key is access to the breast – if he knows the breast is there when he needs or wants it he will wean at his own pace.

Acacia: Don’t worry, your son’s behavior is quite typical for a breastfeeding toddler. As babies move into their second year of breastfeeding, their habits can look very different from when they were just an infant. You might notice that your son’s nursing habits reflect his eating habits: just as toddlers like to snack instead of eat full meals, they also want to nurse in small bits because they are more interested in play and exploration. At this point in his development, your son can nurse quickly and efficiently, therefore, he will nurse for shorter periods of time. This also could explain why he chooses to nurse from one side only; he’s found that the one side works better for him.

I understand how much it can hurt because of the way you are used to specially connecting with him when breastfeeding. However, try not to take it personally. His habits will continue to change as he grows. Perhaps to coax him into a little longer nursing session during those times he is interested, try to set the mood. Keep the lights low, put on some soft music and snuggle. Also, try to find new ways to connect with him as an infant, such as playing and rough housing mixed with stolen moments of snuggle time.

Amy: What a committed Momma you are! Your willingness to nurture your child through breastfeeding beyond infancy is evident in your question, and in your feelings about the possibility of weaning.

Toddlers between the ages of 9 and around 18 months, sometimes longer, can be easily distracted from nursing. In that sense, it is typical for an active toddler to nurse a bit, go play, and tank up for more later on. Sometimes this is a sign of weaning, while other times it is simply a sign of a change in nursing, and weaning itself is still off in the future somewhere. It’s important to remember that weaning is generally a gradual process and many babies begin at a young age, decreasing the amount and frequency of feeding over a long period of time.

Many moms have mixed feelings when their babies grow out of the need to nurse for food and connection. We are encouraged to nurse for at least one year by the American Academy of Pediatrics and two years by the World Health Organization. While these recommendations are helpful in nurturing our young, we still need to consider the uniqueness of each mother-baby nursing couple. Some nursing relationships change form at 11 months, while others continue for years. I say change form because that is what happens and that is what many mothers find difficult: the change of the way they connect with their young one.

You can offer to nurse your son and notice how you feel when he does not want to nurse. Think of some other ways you enjoy or can begin enjoying to interact and connect with him. This is new territory for you so be gentle with yourself. Whether he picks up more frequent nursing or not, you will become more comfortable with the changing tides of your relationship and be able to handle it when he is interested in nursing. It’s usually not personal, it’s just that he’s growing up and his need to nurture at your breast is transforming. He still needs you, just maybe not in that way so much anymore.

As a mother you will have many opportunities to accept your child where he is at while offering your love to him unconditionally. May this experience bring you closer together.

Photo credit: Chickpea.

2 Responses to A World Beyond the Breast