Extended breastfeeding, i.e. breastfeeding past infancy, may not be the norm, but it is encouraged. It continues to provides so many benefits to both mum and child, as ultimately breastfeeding is more than just milk. But extended breastfeeding isn’t for everyone – I definitely didn’t envisage breastfeeding a toddler before I ended up doing it! Though as my maternity leave ended when Evelyn was 10 months old, breastfeeding was going well and I was passionate about continuing. We had mastered the technique, got into a good routine and finally eliminated the night feeds. In many ways, continuing was the more convenient option for me and breastfeeding Evelyn in her second year was actually much easier. However fitting breastfeeding in around work and whilst I spent more time away from her wasn’t always easy. So I’ve decided to reflect on and share my extended breastfeeding journey, hopefully it will help with normalising extended breastfeeding and raising awareness of the reality of breastfeeding a toddler. Though its important to say that every mother’s choice and journey is her own and I really hope that by talking about extended breastfeeding and my journey it doesn’t upset or offend anyone. Any duration of breastfeeding is a huge achievement, but breastfeeding and the duration of how long you breastfeed does not define you as a mother.
Breastfeeding Evelyn as a large, wriggling, distractible toddler involved very different positions as to when she was a baby. Upside down, standing on one leg or twisting and turning was some of her frequent ‘breastfeeding acrobatics’! It was quite funny an impressive how she managed to maintain feeding during those positions! Fortunately the acrobats were just a phase as mostly she was happy to lay in bed cuddling to breastfed. I actually found breastfeeding Evelyn as a toddler easier on my back as she required very little to no support/guidance to feed, plus feeding sessions were also generally much shorter and less frequent.
Finding both functional and fashionable clothes to breastfeed in isn’t always the easiest. Although I love clothes and will find any excuse to buy new ones, I did find it hard to part with the money to buy specific nursing clothes, especially as the maternity clothes I bought weren’t nursing as well. So I found that as long as I wore a good nursing bra and chose breastfeeding friendly ‘normal’ clothes – either layering up tops (vest top and cropped jumpers) or wearing button-down/shirt tops/dresses – it worked out fine. This time around though I’m trying to choose maternity clothes which are also nursing so that I can get better value out of my purchases. An important thing to mention is that I continued to wear nursing pads for the whole duration that I breastfeed, even when it was just twice a day. Otherwise I’d easily get sore and develop thrush infections. I found Lansinoh breast pads the most comfortable.
For me, the biggest obstacle with extended breastfeeding was that our time apart was always restricted, especially since Evelyn wouldn’t take the bottle if I wasn’t around. Although mums don’t exactly get many opportunities to have time off, breastfeeding would limit the duration of any time away with Rob, as well adding pressure to an already long work day, as I knew I had to be back to feed Evelyn by a certain time. Nevertheless, thanks to the Little Ones programme, we were in a good breastfeeding routine and so avoided the unpredictability that breastfeeding on demand can bring. The programme also helped us drop the night feeds when Evelyn nutritionally didn’t need them anyone. However its important to say that this didn’t mean that she didn’t wake at night – nowadays the toddler wakes have nothing to do with a need for milk!
At 10 months old Evelyn was down to 3 breastfeeds a day – after waking in the morning, after her lunchtime nap and before bed time. She remained at 3 breastfeeds a day (unless I was in work) up until she was around 15 months of age. She then went down to 2 feeds a day – morning and bedtime – which was even easier to work around.
Breastfeeding & returning to work
With Evelyn being only 10 months old when I returned to work she was still reliant on milk as her main form of nutrition. She still wasn’t accepting the bottle and wouldn’t drink milk from a sippy cup either so I worried that if I stopped breastfeeding altogether, she wouldn’t have any milk at all. Neither Evelyn nor I were ready for breastfeeding to end but I was nervous as to how it would work when we’d need to spend long days apart. I both wanted and needed to make breastfeeding work. Managing to keep breastfeeding going with a busy job proved tough at times. Factoring in at least a 20 min breastfeed into the morning routine did make the morning very busy. Prep the night before helped, as well as Rob and I being very organised and focused with our time in the morning – not that easy as both of us are not morning people and would much rather hit the snooze button!
Although I could breastfeed Evelyn before and after work, she would miss out on her afternoon feed. I decided not to express in work both because of being limited with time to do so and because I knew that the breastmilk would only go to waste as Evelyn wouldn’t drink it! As a result I did get a bit full by the end of the day initially but this soon settled. Although it was frustrating that Evelyn refused the bottle, it probably helped to keep us breastfeeding for as long as we did, as breastfeeds weren’t ‘replaced’ by the bottle. Fortunately, skipping the afternoon breastfeed 3 days a week for work didn’t mean that Evelyn started to wake again at night to breastfeed – which was a big worry for me when I returned to work. In the first few weeks, Evelyn would be desperate to breastfeed as soon as I’d picked her up from nursery at 6pm and would often feed from me for a long time, potentially up to an hour. She also frequently fell asleep at the breast during this time too, which luckily didn’t result in reforming a feed-to-sleep habit. I think that Evelyn was just so exhausted from starting nursery and hungry from not eating that well there initially. I’d offer her an extra feed on my days off to help her through this. She soon adjusted and got used to our new routine. On that note, the nutritious value of breastmilk was reassuring at this time, and during any fussy eating toddler periods, when she would barely eat anything at all, let alone anything healthy.
Breastfeeding a toddler in public
Once Evelyn was down to 3 feeds a day, I only occasionally breastfed her out in public, usually when trying to get her to nap out and about. An example of this was during Evelyn’s first rugby match at the Principality stadium. She was 14 months old at the time and I needed to breastfed her in a conference room to get her to a well overdue nap, just in time for me to miss the final score!
It was more convenient to feed Evelyn at home for several reasons. I needed to feed her straight after waking as otherwise she’d be grumpy if she was made to wait, and also to avoid reforming that feed-to-sleep association. Feeding at home helped minimise distraction as once Evelyn was older, even a small amount of distraction would make her stop and pull off mid-feed to look around, potentially then refusing to start again. In addition, as time went on and my milk supply naturally decreased, Evelyn would quickly switch from each breast multiple times throughout a feeding session to stimulate my milk production, so if we were out in public it would be hard for me to keep decent!
I’ve been lucky to have the encouragement and support of my husband and family/friends when I’ve breastfed in public, settling any nerves or helping to keep me covered up and decent – flights were often tricky times! Although I’ve always been proud and felt confident to breastfeeding in public, once Evelyn was a toddler, I would wonder what other people thought about me extended breastfeeding. It’s not that common so I wondered if people judged whether Evelyn was ‘too old’ for it or that it was unnecessary now that she was bigger. By keeping breastfeeding at home I didn’t open myself up to receive any negative comments or questions, and it kept it just between us.
Breastfeeding & time apart
By the time Evelyn was 18 months old we’d only had a few nights apart. Several 1-night breaks away with Rob and 1 long weekend for my Best Friend’s hen do. I’d try and express when I’d normally be breastfeeding, both to avoid engorgement and to avoid my milk supply dropping. This wasn’t always the most convenient of times though. When I sat my final GP exam in London when Evelyn was 15 months, I needed to factor in expressing whilst doing my last minute revision on the morning of the exam! Other than then, generally I’d use photos/videos of Evelyn to help stimulate my milk production whilst I expressed (though doing this would make me miss her even more). I never really seemed to produce that much milk when I’d express so I did worry about my milk supply dropping when we were apart, but Evelyn didn’t seem to be affected that much by it.
When Evelyn was 18 months old Rob and I went on our first holiday without Evelyn after becoming parents – a trip of a lifetime to New York for both our 30th Birthdays. I couldn’t wait for it, but I was really sad about leaving Evelyn for 6 nights. I also worried whether breastfeeding would come to an end because of it. This duration of time apart made it seem like an obvious time to stop breastfeeding, however I wasn’t ready. Although I appreciated that my family were supportive trying to encourage this next step, I needed to come to this decision myself. It’s a very personal choice and as I was already finding it hard leaving Evelyn, weaning from breastfeeding on top would have been too much for me.
The decision to end breastfeeding
Breastfeeding was such a loving and special experience which I really appreciate being able to do for such a long time, 21 months. I continued to breastfeed for as long as it worked for me and for us as a family. After I qualified as a GP, work days became longer and busier. Some evenings I’d get home after Evelyn had already gone to bed meaning that she’d miss her bedtime breastfeed. I was generally getting more stressed from work and I needed to focus more on self care in order to maintain my mental health. Although I was only breastfeeding twice a day, it was taking a toll on my energy – even if it was Rob who recognised this before I did. Mum guilt made it hard to admit but I needed more than ever to do something for myself. Stopping breastfeeding would allow me to use the mornings before work to exercise, which would help manage my stress and improve how I felt about myself. As well as being an opportunity to have my ‘body back’ even if just for a little bit before trying for a second baby.
I was worried about how stopping breastfeeding would affect my relationship with Evelyn. It had always been such a good way of settling and soothing her, plus it helped Evelyn through some of her early tantrums. I feared that stopping breastfeeding would be giving up that magic tool. Though to be honest once her tantrums became more pronounced from around 18 months, she would resist my attempts to settle her with a breastfeed anyway. The older and more vocal she was getting the more nervous I was that she may demand and protest to breastfeed when I stopped, and that I’d find it too upsetting withholding it from her. Note to offer her milk in a cup as an alternative wouldn’t work as she’d refused it. Although recently at 2 and a half years old, she’s actually happy to drink milk from a cup – typical!
Our approach to weaning Evelyn from breastfeeding was to break the routine of it. We modified her morning and bedtime routine, we avoided bringing her into our bedroom at the times when I would normally breastfeed and casually offered her water instead. The morning’s went fine as they were busier and she was more distracted. The evenings were more tricky though. We ensured that Rob wouldn’t be working late and would be there to help create some distance and distraction from me if she asked to breastfeed. On the first 2 nights she did ask to breastfeed and got upset. I gave her a big hug and explained that she was a big girl now and didn’t need milk from mummy. It was heartbreaking, and I definitely had a tear too, but she seemed to understand somewhat. After a few days Evelyn didn’t even ask or look to breastfeed. I’m so glad that the process wasn’t longer or more difficult, it highlighted to me that Evelyn was ready and that we had done it at the right time.
In terms of my body coping with weaning from breastfeeding, I initially only got a little full after stopping. As I wasn’t too uncomfortable, in that first week I tried to avoid expressing in order to allow my body to reduce my milk supply naturally. I monitored any blocked ducts so to act early if mastitis was developing. This was enough until a I met my new baby niece for the first time a week after stopping breastfeeding. The hormones obviously sent my milk ducts into overdrive as I ended up getting engorged! Fortunately expressing just an ounce each side was enough to settle it down.
After breastfeeding ends
Whilst I was breastfeeding Evelyn I couldn’t have imagined it ending – how I would be or how my relationship with Evelyn would be. One of my fears with stopping breastfeeding was that the hormonal changes would leave me low in mood and add to my long list of reasons to have mum guilt. I did find stopping breastfeeding emotionally hard, and it also occurred at the same time as our miscarriage which made it extra tough. I needed to be kind to myself, be patient and have closeness with Evelyn in other ways i.e. lots of cuddles and kisses if my wriggling independent toddler would allow it! Reviewing my priorities and reducing my stress level was very important at this time, particularly by reducing work. Although I worried that my bond with Evelyn wouldn’t be the same, now 9 months down the line our bond is just as strong, if not stronger. There have been ups and downs especially related to some toddler phases but stopping breastfeeding has highlighted to me that my relationship with Evelyn is so much more than how I feed her. Regardless she loves me just the same and we have gone on to have new memories and experiences together. Our relationship has developed and grown and Evelyn has flourished into a strong minded, loving little girl who is as chatty and smart as she is affectionate!
I’m now going into my next pregnancy with even more determination and passion for breastfeeding. I hope that I’m lucky enough to be able to breastfeed our second child as well, however I appreciate and accept that our experience is going to be very different this time round now that we’ll have a toddler to juggle and contend with as well! Breastfeeding is amazing, but it isn’t the answer to everything in motherhood, especially when you hit those toddler tantrums, demands and tests! At the end of the day parenting is tough enough by itself without the added pressures of our preconceptions. Life is unpredictable, full of twists and turns, and whatever parenting throws our way we just have to roll with and hope for the best!