By Karen Plomp
You are nursing HOW many? Are you STILL nursing?
Yes, I’m still nursing the baby-and my two year old, three year old, and four year old! I’m tandem nursing four siblings. It is just the way things worked out, because I had my babies close together, and I am letting them self-wean.
Actually, it’s not that big a deal, and not very different from tandem nursing just two. Nursing older kids isn’t the same as nursing babies. They don’t nurse as frequently, and they can wait a while if the location or time is not convenient for nursing. My older children mostly nurse in the morning when they get up and at night before they go to sleep.
Why Tandem Nurse?
Most people know that breastfeeding is best for babies, but fewer are aware that it’s also very important for toddlers and beyond, for emotional as well as nutritional reasons. The AAP now recommends nursing for at least a year, and longer if mutually desired.1 The immunological benefits of breastmilk for a toddler are the same as for a baby. Nursing toddlers get sick less often, and usually less severely, than those who have been weaned. If a toddler does get sick, it’s nice to have food available that is easily digested, full of antibodies, and offered in a warm and comforting way. Toddlers who are picky about food might not eat vegetables, but they get a lot of nutrition from mother’s milk.
Breastfeeding is also a great way to calm out-of-control children, especially if you are visiting a place where they can’t roam around freely. It gives busy toddlers a few rest periods in the day, to get more energy and security to go on exploring. At night and before naps, nursing helps children unwind and relax for sleep.
There are benefits for the mother too. A woman’s risk for breast cancer decreases the longer she nurses. Nursing can help with natural child spacing, because it often takes a while for fertility to return when you are nursing. Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has determined that the natural age of weaning for humans is somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years.2 If you nurse that long, it isn’t unusual to end up tandem nursing if you want more than one child.
The Fun Part
Tandem nursing really has helped my children accept a new baby. Toddlers can be jealous about the time mom spends nursing the baby, but this is not an issue if they still have the comfort of the breast. Also, there is something inherently calming about baby and toddler nursing together, both for the mom and for the nurslings. The nursing will generate a lot of prolactin, the “mothering hormone.” It also has been reported that siblings who are tandem nursed seem to experience less sibling rivalry. I can’t confirm this, since I don’t know how it would have been if I had not tandem nursed my kids, but it makes sense to me. It is so nice to see my two year old put a loving hand on her baby brother when they nurse together.
Another huge benefit of tandem nursing is the opportunity it gives the mother to rest and relax while nursing. If you nurse only the baby, your toddler may take the opportunity to get into things. I remember being a pretty exhausted mother of two, one of them a toddler who did not nap. My way of getting some quiet moments was to take both kids to bed and nurse them together.
Tandem nursing also solves the problem of postpartum engorgement when your new baby is a few days old. It can be quite a relief to have an older nursling to help take care of those full breasts! They never seem to mind helping out in that regard.
Relaxed weaning is one of the biggest advantages of tandem nursing, in my opinion. I want my kids to nurse as long as they need it, and tandem nursing enables me to not push them into a stressful and premature weaning. My oldest son began weaning himself from the breast, nursing less frequently and often skipping days at a time. One day he nursed and then told me, “Now all the breast is for our baby.” And he didn’t nurse again!
Tandem nursing can be a challenge at times. Some women worry that the baby will not get enough milk if a toddler continues to nurse. This usually is not an issue, since breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand system-if there is greater demand, there will be greater supply. (Just think of all the people who successfully nurse twins!)
But if you are worried, there are some things you can do to ensure that both children get enough milk. One solution is to assign one breast to each nursling. You can do that very strictly or more loosely, letting the toddler use one breast and the baby always starting at the other breast, supplementing with the toddler breast if needed. (Of course this could cause some lopsidedness.) Another way is to make sure that the baby nurses before the toddler most of the time. And, depending on the age of the toddler, you can explain that she can nurse when the baby is finished.
Sometimes a toddler wants to nurse all the time. I think this has to do with needing reassurance when there is a new baby around. Although it is a natural reaction, it can be very draining to feel that you are nursing the whole day! There are two different approaches to this problem. One is to give in to the increased demands of the toddler, nursing whenever she wants and hoping this is just a passing phase.
The second approach is to set some limits. That is what I ended up doing with my oldest when he was nursing like a newborn again after my second was born. My solution was to let him nurse, but only on the bed, and I communicated that to him. When he asked to nurse, I’d say, “Okay, we’ll go over to the bed.” Then I gradually started saying, “I want to finish the dishes first, and then we’ll nurse.” Later I would say, “Not now, darling, I am not on a bed now! But after we have eaten a snack, we can go lie down and nurse.” Surprisingly enough, this worked very well. It also led to an amusing experience: We were visiting a friend, and my toddler was exploring the house. He came back very excited and said to me, “They have a bed here! We can nurse!”
You can tailor the limits you set to your own situation; for example, let the toddler nurse on demand at home but not out in public. Which approach is best? That depends on the individual mother-child relationship. And if one approach doesn’t work, you can always try the other or make up something for yourself.
Sometimes the problem is worse at night. If you are tired and not getting enough sleep, it’s easy to resent the toddler who wants to nurse in the middle of the night. The best advice I can give is to relax! I figured out a way to nurse them both at the same time, lying almost flat and using a lot of pillows.
I felt very alone in my tandem nursing when my first kids were young. One day at a La Lache League meeting I met another woman who was tandem nursing, and felt reassured that maybe I wasn’t as weird as I sometimes thought.
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, by Norma Jane Bumgarner (La Leche League, 2000), is a helpful book; it’s mostly about toddler nursing but also has some good information on tandem nursing. La Lache League has a publication called Nursing Two: Is It For You? On-line support includes a tandem nursing mailing list at groups.yahoo.com/group/tnl. Parentsplace has a tandem nursing discussion board at boards.parentsplace.com/cgi-bin/boards/tandemnursing that offers support, answers questions, and lists some good links to tandem nursing information. And you can talk to other women who are tandem nursing on the Mothering discussion boards.
Tandem nursing is very rewarding for mom and kids alike. I’ve been doing it continuously for more than seven years now and have found that the benefits definitely outweigh the challenges.
1. “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk (RE9729),” American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, Pediatrics 100, no. 6 (Dec. 1997): 1035-1039.
2. Katherine A. Dettwyler, “Time to Wean: The Hominid Blueprint for the Natural Age of Weaning in Modern Human Populations,” in Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, P. Stuart-Macadam and K. A. Dettwyler, eds. (Aldine de Gruyter, 1995)
About Karen Plomp
Karen Plomp lives with her husband and six kids in New Hampshire. All the children were born at home and are being homeschooled. Karen enjoys reading, writing, hiking, and baking bread. Her home page address is plomp.com/homepage.html.