two toddlers playing

Breastfeeding After 1 Year: Do Toddlers need Milk?

“Oh you’re STILL nursing?”

“Wow you need to just let it dry up.”

Breastfeeding past 1 year catapults developed world moms into a special category of women few and far between.  To be fair the less positive responses tend to come from people who have never nursed before or friends encouraging you to take your body back.  The reaction to a mother nursing a toddler usually combines a mix of awkwardness and lack of full understanding.


What is it really like to nurse a toddler?

What is it like?   After Daddy has taken her out to the playground and entertained for a few hours, your toddler runs from the door into Mommy’s arms and then coyly says “Milk, peez”, carefully enunciating each syllable and filling the room with the sweet tenor of her baby voice.

It is not hard to to want to do somersaults, knowing that in that moment Mommy can immediately provide EXACTLY what she needs.

If you need to grab a sip of water first or want to move into another more comfortable location, she will keep repeating the request, sometimes in the most angelic voice known to mankind, and progressively in an urgent, pleading, insistent tone.  She understands you’ve said yes ok, but she has not seen the follow through yet, so the reminders keep coming.

As mommy assumes a comfortable position, she does a victory dance and giggles, tap dancing her feet as she finally sees her master plan unfold.  This is one of the moments of sheer joy that parents want to freeze in time.

Warning: Toddlers can be quite mobile, and even while attached to the boob, the action continues.  There are flips from side to side, full squats, acrobatic twists, a private preview of an olympic worthy routine.  The toddler olympics that is.  Can you imagine that drama?

It’s not all fun and games - I have to put my daughter to bed virtually every night, and the nursing time has actually gotten longer. The older she got, the more she understood how to delay bedtime, and nursing or asking for another glass of water were part and parcel to that.  Toddlers are old enough to understand how to milk it, so to speak.

I would be dishonest if I didn’t mention that during some of the 20min-45 min nursing sessions, I often hope she will hurry up so I can get on with my night.  I’m sure I’ll look back on the snuggle time with nostalgia.  She becomes incredibly calm and content.


Do toddlers need milk

Cow’s milk is a good source of protein and calcium, but not strictly necessary if other sources of these nutrients are available.  Excessive milk (>24 oz/day) can actually leave the baby at risk of anemia by making it more likely they consume less protein, fiber, and iron rich foods.  Calcium has been also known to inhibit iron absorption, and separating iron heavy and calcium heavy meals can be ideal.  Yogurt and cheese are other viable sources of similar nutrients.

My daughter began having cow’s milk after 1 year, with snacks and some meals, while I continued to nurse.  Whole milk is recommended due to the higher fat content needed by children.

Mother’s milk, while no longer the main source of nutrition for a child, can continue to be a source of supplementary nutrition.  Add to that the added comfort of breastfeeding for both mom and baby.

New Born Babies

Benefits of breastfeeding a toddler

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

Breastfeeding has long been known to have calming effects on both mother and baby because of the oxytocin released during the process. When my daughter has been away from me for a period of time, she often wants to nurse.  It’s also a useful tool for dealing with tantrums. She can be screaming inconsolably but completely resets after nursing.

Babies tend to be healthier and and show less severity in illnesses because it takes 2-6 years for a child’s immune system to fully mature.  Mother’s milk continues to boost the immune system for as long as it’s offered.

Benefits for mom include lower risk of diseases.


How long should a mother breastfeed?

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years and beyond.  However they also say that how long to breastfeed to get the benefits is about 6 months.

The best answer to this question is the length of time that works best for mom and baby (with the biggest emphasis on mom).  Pressures on a woman’s time have not eased up.  Research repeatedly shows that working women continue to carry the burden of housework and the added commitment required of nursing can be admittedly overwhelming.  For moms caring for babies full time, if nursing keeps you from getting the nights out that you need (those crazy elusive 8-9pm dinners before the 9:30pm bedtime), then it might be time to stop.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

How To Nurse A Toddler

The support for toddler nursing seems to drop off as a result of the sheer number of women that stop nursing.  The most effective way for me to nurse my toddler has been to set boundaries, as with any toddler demand.

A popular weaning technique has been called “don’t offer, don’t refuse”, but seems rather idealistic with strong willed babies.  I no longer offer (unless I really need to put a tantrum to rest), but I do refuse sometimes.  Refusing becomes harder and harder with toddlers, and sometimes a quick fix is actually leaving the house, if that’s an option.  If I’m not around she seems to forget about it and would be amenable to other liquids (milk, water) if she were thirsty.  I find solace in the fact that she no longer “needs” the milk exclusively to survive.

I’ve also stopped nursing when out of the home, which can be a challenge if the baby is used to it, but as they get older they are often more interested in other pursuits anyway.

There are several nursing positions, but my favorite for nursing the toddler would be side lying, basically any position where I can be lying down.  It’s a nice contrast from toddler chasing.

Diet for breastfeeding

For extended breastfeeding, moms don’t need to maintain any particular diet or restrict themselves of anything, especially because the toddler has likely been exposed to a larger range of foods.

What’s the impact on my body?

Nursing will likely result in breast changes in shape and size. Pregnancy and breastfeeding loads up the body with hormones in the first place, and fat cells are replaced by milk ducts. Many moms report an increase in cup size while nursing, but a decrease (if only temporary) can also occur because of the reduction in fat cells. Moms may have to adopt a wait and see approach before rushing to buy a new set of bras.

From a medical perspective, doctors recommend waiting a few months after breastfeeding is over to do any diagnostics like mammograms to get a clearer picture.

Two Babies

How often do toddlers nurse

There’s a fairly high correlation in how often Mom is around and how often a toddler ends up nursing.  I’ve heard of babies dropping to 2 feeds (morning and night) or even 1 feed a day, which is probably an easier schedule for working moms to maintain. Full time moms may still be nursing 3-5 times a day, with plenty of variability.

Nursing time is clearly an incredibly individual statistic, but anecdotally can range from the 5min mark up to 45 mins. Nursing times typically speed up between 3m-1yr because babies become more efficient eaters, but I’ve found they can slow down again, especially for the cuddly night feed.

Two Babies Play



Parents quickly learn that babies rarely stay at a happy medium type of equilibrium, it’s just a set of highs and lows.  Breastfeeding and older baby is no different.  Continue breastfeeding only if it can still be fun and makes sense for the family.  The best age to stop breastfeeding is when mom is ready!

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