Consider this: Many parents will spend more months breastfeeding than they spend being pregnant. It shouldn’t come as a shock; breastfeeding for two years or longer is a well known recommendation from the World Health Organization. But, when you’re still pregnant, it’s hard to wrap your head around the reality of two years of breastfeeding. And while you’re nursing a newborn, it can seem even more mind-boggling.
So today, I’m going tell you what breastfeeding for two years looks like. I’m telling you this as a lactation professional, as well as someone who has nursed two children for 2 years and longer. I’ve literally been there. If the notion of nursing a 2 year old makes you uncomfortable (and believe me, I used to feel the same way), just try to hang in there – I promise the firsthand experience isn’t as weird as you might think.
But let’s start with the newborn phase, which I’ll define here as the first 12 weeks of your baby’s life. Breastfeeding during this “fourth trimester” is some of the hardest work a person can do. It is new, there’s a steep learning curve, and your baby’s needs are relentless. It’s common for parents to be concerned about milk supply, focus a lot on their baby’s weight gain, and feel overwhelmed frequently. In terms of milk production, the body tends to over-achieve and make as much milk as it possibly can*. So leaking, plugged ducts, and even mastitis are relatively common experiences. This is the most important time for parents to be supported and encouraged in their breastfeeding journey. And it does get easier.
Next up, we’ve got nursing a young baby – let’s say 4-10 months of age. By this time, many parents are out of the woods with any nursing problems, and there’s a lovely honeymoon phase. Breastfeeding becomes a magical cure-all for the baby – tired? Boob. Hungry? Boob. Sick? Boob. Teething? Boob. Bumps and bruises? Boob and other boob. Parents appreciate not having to prepare bottles when they’re on the go, and some of the convenience payoffs of nursing over formula become more apparent. It’s common for babies to reach a point where they’re distracted at the breast and need calm and quiet to nurse. Parents navigate issues like the intersection of infant sleep and breastfeeding, and when/how to introduce table foods. This is also an age where many babies begin attending some childcare, and parents may be figuring out the best pumping strategy for their situations.
Then comes the experience of nursing a 10-15month old. Notice there’s no magical demarcation between 11 months, 29 days and 12 months! Many parents envision a much older child when they imagine their newborn as a one year old, and then when that first birthday arrives, they realize “She’s still just a baby!” Many one year olds still rely on breastmilk for their primary nutrition and hydration. It’s common for parents to be concerned about the pace their child is switching from nursing to table foods, but there is a wide range of normal and it usually isn’t a problem. Some babies may go on “nursing strikes” during episodes of sickness or teething, but baby-lead weaning** at this stage is very unusual. Babies may practice their new motor skills by nursing in all kinds of strange positions, know in some circles as “gymnursetics.”
From 12 to 20 months, babies are working on walking, talking, and interacting with the world around them. Breastfeeding may begin to transition from an experience that’s nutritionally essential to one that’s more emotionally supportive, although both pieces have always been part of the puzzle. Parents may feel like breastfeeding is a “parenting hack” that can overcome all manner of young toddler struggles, including tantrums. It’s common for children this age to continue nursing to sleep, although some parents may be eager to leave that behind. Many families become more private about their breastfeeding habits out of concern that others will be judgmental. Parents are intimately aware of what nursing means to their child, and often find themselves revisiting previous expectations (“I would never nurse a child who was old enough to ask for it”) and laughing about how far they’ve come. Babies may give a special name to breastfeeding like “Milkies,” or in my son’s case “Naa.”
With 20-24 month olds, it’s common to see parents wanting more boundaries around breastfeeding. Their babies don’t need much nutrition from breast milk anymore, but nearly-two-year-olds can be pushy and demanding, insisting on nursing out of boredom, frustration, tiredness, and more. The change in priorities from nursing a newborn on demand to teaching healthy boundaries to a toddler can give parents whiplash, even though it takes a whole two years to accomplish! It’s normal to and healthy to teach toddlers that we only nurse when both child AND parent want to. That could mean pretty much any time is the right time, or it could mean very narrow parameters like “Only in bed when we wake up and go to sleep” or “Only for one round of the ABCs.” This is also an age when many parents conceive another child, and pregnancy often brings changes to both the parent’s and child’s experience of nursing.*** Many parents with 2-year old nurselings comment that quiet breastfeeding sessions are a sweet reminder of their little baby, who is growing fast, and these moments are deeply cherished. Parents may also choose to continue nursing their older toddler after the birth of a new baby, known as tandem nursing.
Like everything else in parenting, breastfeeding has its seasons. Breastfeeding for two years doesn’t mean nursing a newborn for two years. Children’s needs change, and so do parents’. For best results, I recommend keeping an open mind and taking it one season at a time. Nobody’s expectations, including your past self, need to influence your choices.
- *IF baby is able to breastfeed effectively. If you have a newborn and are struggling with milk production, don’t assume this is the best your body can do. Seek help from a qualified professional.
- **Baby-lead weaning means here that the baby chooses not to breastfeed anymore. This is also a term for a method of introducing table foods, which isn’t what I’m talking about.
- ***Stay tuned for a detailed post about this.