“Breast” or “bottle” 2 little boxes on your hospital intake form… That is what the journey of meeting your child’s needs for 2 years and beyond is reduced to. One little tick of a box before you even hold your little one in your arms. No wonder so many moms feel gaslight! It should be simple. I chose to breastfeed, I didn’t buy the container of formula to “tempt” myself with. It must just be *me* that is broken. I didn’t try hard enough, or perhaps my body just does not work. For those who choose to bottle feed, what do they do with a rooting infant and engorged breasts? The baby and your body didn’t get the memo that the “bottle” box was selected and this can present a whole lot of unique challenges!
And then, for those who make it through that early struggle, (or perhaps are one of the few who arrive at 6 months or longer without any big problems), the impact of those 2 little boxes remain… “Breast” or “Bottle”. When do you “stop” breastfeeding and what is the other choice once your baby is too old for a bottle? The early concepts you are introduced to about breastfeeding create beliefs that continue on over time whether you are aware of them or not.
Breastfeeding is NEVER black or white. EVER.
A pacifier is an alternative to breastfeeding - so is a swaddle! You can pump breast milk and only deliver it via bottle AND you can use formula and only deliver at the breast! (Yes, this is a thing!) There are as many ways to feed & parent your baby as there are unique families in the world. (And remember, feeding IS parenting!) While I support families at ALL stages of their breastfeeding journey to create a rhythm, goal and pathway that aligns with their unique family values and needs, I want to focus today on providing that for those breastfeeding OLDER babies and toddlers! Because, let’s face it, your mom, your aunty, the judgey lady at Wal-Mart and even your pediatrician all treat your kiddo’s breastfeeding as a habit that will eventually need “broken”. BUT - your breastfeeding child is ALWAYS having important needs met at the breast, regardless of their age. These needs can be beautifully met by breastfeeding, but they do not have to! The time in which you take to transition from breastfeeding meeting ALL needs to breastfeeding meeting SOME, and then eventually breastfeeding meeting NONE is completely unique to you. There is no right or wrong way. So let’s break down 3 unique needs that breastfeeding is meeting for your older kiddo and what alternatives might exist!
Need #1: Emotional Support
Breastfeeding is a beautiful time of connection. With the breast in their mouth, they KNOW beyond any doubt that their caregiver is there for them and that they are safe, loved and nurtured. It is wiring your kiddos brain for safety, amplifying important development, and even supporting YOUR brain to re-wired for increased wellbeing.
This is happening at all ages, and it is important at all ages.
But, as your child is growing and developing they are becoming more and more equipped to receive this emotional support in more complex and sophisticated ways.
As their brain matures they are able to “hold on” to you, without physically touching you. (This is generally not possible until after the 1st year of life, although their creative ways of creating physical connection to you without you being physically present, but I digress!)
However, if you view breastfeeding as black and white, this can inhibit you from exploring other ways for them to find the emotional support they need.
If your goal is to breastfeed until 2, and you are stopping to breastfeed every time they ask and feeling resentful, the emotional support they are seeking at the breast is going to be impaired - but if they don’t know another way to get that need met, they are going to ask for it more! This creates a VICIOUS push-pull cycle in your relationship.
Need #2: Nutrition
Breastmilk will always provide nutritional value as long as it is being given. It is also really important that kids receive liquid nutrition, in addition to solid foods, in the 2nd year of life as their stomachs are too small to be adequately nourished through solid foods alone. (This is why cow's milk is recommended at 12 months!).
But, with the “all or nothing” thinking, fears that breastmilk is “essentially water” once a child reaches a certain age, or that they don’t HAVE to have it after a year can lead to confusion and frustration for a breastfeeding dyad.
On the flip side, the belief that it is “liquid gold” and that a child who is asking for it must have it or you are going to cause harm sets a breastfeeding family up for burn out.
The reality is that the transition away from breastmilk as the primary source of nutrition is a long one, and not as linear as we are often led to believe with advice like “just drop one feed for 3 or so days at a time”.
Need #3: Nervous System Regulation
The act of breastfeeding itself is incredibly regulating for little nervous systems! The truth is that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25 and human babies are born with only about 25% of their brain developed!
These young humans rely heavily on the support of regulated caregivers to help their body ground when they get flooded with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline - they simply do not have the brain structure yet to support regulating all of that big energy on their own! The ground of the senses through interaction with a regulated caregiver leads to regulation - but the actual contents of the breastmilk can do influence and regulate the hormones as well!
When you believe that breastfeeding is all or nothing, it can feel as though you need to either continue, or stop breastfeeding for “comfort”. It’s either/or, black/white. You are likely to believe that doing something other than breastfeeding isn’t gentle - OR that continuing to do it is inhibiting your child from developing other ways of regulating.
The reality is that the most important thing is that your child is being supported to regulate. If breastfeeding is a good option for you in the moment, there is NO harm in using it. If it isn’t, that’s okay too!
Possibilities exist, and are truly endless. But, when you are locked into the “breast” vs. “bottle” paradigm it can be hard to see them. Breastfeeding is never all or nothing, whether you are breastfeeding a newborn, 6 month old, 2 year old or 6 year old.
What areas do you feel “stuck” in all or nothing thinking about breastfeeding and parenting? Let me know in the comments!