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Why Your Toddler's Boob Addiction is a GOOD thing (and the real reason it drives you CRAZY)

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Your toddler is still waking frequently at night to breastfeed. You can’t leave them with anyone without an *epic* meltdown. You are embarrassed to take them to the park because of the amount of shirt-pulling that is likely to occur, and it seems everyone around you thinks you should have had this figured out already.

(If you need help saying "no" to the feed while saying "yes" to the need, grab my free guide.) In our culture, all of those things are pretty “strange” for a toddler to be doing. Because it’s strange, our brains immediately go to “bad”. Psychologically, we want to be like our peers. Practically, the standards we are used to measuring our child against (milestones, growth charts, etc.) are based on averages. “Kids that fall outside of the norm have something wrong with them” is an unconscious belief that is easy to develop.

Mother with hand on her face looking stressed with a toddler on her lap with brown hair in a green pony tail.

Your toddler is addicted to your breast, and your only options are tough love or toughing it out. Or so you perceive... But here is what your unconscious brain misses - it’s not your child with the problem. It’s the culture.

Now, I know that doesn’t seem to leave a lot of hope. You’re thinking: “I can’t change the culture, Jenna. Am I supposed to surrender to this chaos and hope that I survive until my child magically stops being a boob monster?”

I promise you, there is an alternative to the “tough-love/toughing-it-out” conundrum. (If you want to learn what that alternative is, I have a free workshop all about it here.) You don’t have to force your child to do anything they aren’t ready for, *and* you don’t have to wait until they decide they are no longer going to scream “BOOB” as they dig their hands into your bra at your in-law’s Thanksgiving table. (No? Just me?)

Despite what others around you might say, your child still being “addicted” to breastfeeding is a good thing! (If you want some support for navigating that judgment - I've got you covered too!)

It's no secret that breastfeeding is not the “norm” in much of our Western world.

In Canada and the US, despite infants being recommended to be exclusively breastfed until 6 months, only about ¼ - ⅓ of babies are. Both countries also recommend continuing to breastfeed for “2 years and beyond”, but again, only about ¼ of children are still breastfed at a year. (In certain areas within North America, those numbers can be much, much lower). Your breastfed toddler falls outside of the norm just because they are a breastfeeding toddler.

This means that when your pediatrician is talking to you about your child’s behaviors, they are comparing them to the majority of children that they see in their clinic, who are likely to be different than your toddler. The studies they read are likely to be using kids who have not breastfed past 12 months either!

So, even though you have chosen a path that on paper is “right,” - culturally, your toddler sticks out as “strange.” Which is often unconsciously equated with “bad.”

Knowing that how your child’s behavior is perceived by others is majorly influenced by the society around you is helpful - but why is your child acting the way that they are?!

Your child’s #1 need isn’t food, water, or shelter. It’s you.

Nature is clever - your deep bond with your child is what stirs you to provide food, water, and shelter. That rush of oxytocin you get when you smell their hair or look at their chubby little fingers compels you to care for them.

Your child is not entirely helpless, however. While they cannot hunt, fish, or build a hut - they *can* seek out your connection. The same rush of oxytocin you receive, they receive and they are wired to seek it out. They feel safe and secure when they are with you.

You can leave a bottle of water, some fishy crackers, and a tent in your yard, but they will still seek YOU out. This is biological. They aren’t driven to find food; they are compelled to find you. Children’s need for emotional safety is the primary driver behind their actions. For them, emotional safety = physical safety. Love = rest. Biologically, their body and mind understand that when they are in the presence of someone who floods them with oxytocin, they can rest and play and do all the things they need to mature. Their body and mind also know that even with food, water, and shelter, they are helpless without a bonded caregiver, and much of the maturity they are capable of experiencing gets put on “pause”. At the same time, they seek out that deep connection.

This means that your child will “cue” for you to be close to them. A lot. Particularly in the first 5-7 years of their life!

A graph depicting the rapid growth that a child's brain goes through in the first 5-7 years of life (90% occurs by age 5, and the final 10% takes the next 20 years).

Those 5-7 years are when they’re having the most significant leap in development they will ever experience (outside of the womb). During that time, their little brains are wired with either the knowledge that you are always there when they need you (secure attachment) or that they are emotionally alone in the world and have to rely on themselves (insecure attachment). They will carry that attachment style with them for the rest of their lives, shaping how they approach future relationships and life challenges. That means that whenever you come when they call, comfort them when they cry, laugh with them when they play - you are wiring their brain for resilience and confidence later in life.

Here’s the rub - the cultural lens you see your child through and the biological drive for attachment in your child clash - big time.

The toddler breastfeeding stress cycle - a circle showing how mom's fears that a child is too needy results in them pulling away when their child attempts to breastfeed, which leaves the child feeling separated from their parent and they pull on their parent's shirt to breastfeed and the cycle begins again.

Because you see your child’s behaviors as “strange” or “wrong” (because the rest of the world does) you push them away when they express a desire to breastfeed. That sense of separation unconsciously triggers them to cue for your connection (i.e. - breastfeed). They draw close, you become afraid of their “addiction” to you and you pull back, They feel the separation and draw closer… and around and around you go. That separation is the most frightening thing for your child. This happens in all toddlers, but breastfed toddlers (uniquely) cue to breastfeed. Breastfeeding automatically triggers oxytocin in you and your child, regulates your child’s nervous system lickity-split, and is the fastest way to do so. It’s your child’s best bet to activate the “care” drive inside you. Little do they know that the fact that they are “still” breastfeeding is really scary for you (because of the culture you are in), and instead of drawing you in, it pushes you away.

Your toddler's boob addiction is their wise attempt to feel safe and loved - it is so brilliant when you think about it.

So now you know there is a good reason why you feel worried about your toddler’s boob addiction AND why your child’s boob addiction exists. This doesn’t mean that you have to just accept that your fate is to be a walking, talking fidget toy and juice box for eternity. …in fact, just the opposite. There is a key here if you haven’t already noticed. Emotional safety is a massive drive behind your child’s breastfeeding. If you can create that safety in other ways, it will take the pressure off of breastfeeding to do the job. The result? Fewer breastfeeding sessions, more oxytocin, a child with a bright future. WOOHOO! To recap:

  • Your toddler is not broken.

  • You are not a bad mom.

  • You can make a way forward where everyone is fulfilled and loved - creating emotional safety in your home.

So, how do you do that?

Frequently Asked Question: How old is too old to breastfeed?

There is no point in time at which breastfeeding becomes harmful to your child. The president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (Dr. Arthur Edeilman, MD) declared in 2012 that “Claims that breastfeeding beyond infancy is harmful to mother or infant have absolutely no medical or scientific basis ...Indeed, the more salient issue is the damage caused by modern practices of premature weaning.”


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