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Extended Breastfeeding
by Michelle Branco

extended breastfeeding

A reader asked: "My sixteen-month-old baby is still nursing, including several times at night. I love breastfeeding (most of the time), but I am also feeling very alone. I can’t turn to anyone for support because all I get is judgment from people about letting him sleep in our bed and barely-veiled horror that I am still breastfeeding."

And here's my response:

You feel very alone right now, but I can promise you that you are not. In fact, chances are you are not even the only mother on your street who feels this way. Your baby is among a lucky minority of babies who are breastfeeding into the second year, but he does have lots of company. When our babies are little, we nurse them out and about and everyone sees us. As babies turn into toddlers, breastfeeding often becomes more intimate again – something we do happily at home, often in the dark of our bedrooms. Toddlers out in the world are frequently too busy to breastfeed, so we see it less.

Sleep is an interesting thing. As adults, the goal seems to be functioning on the least amount of sleep possible. We marvel at the successful people who manage on just five or six hours per night, while feeling sorry for the poor slugs who need nine or ten hours to be at their best.

With babies, it’s entirely the opposite. A “good” baby sleeps all night and has long naps all by himself. The baby who wakes often and seeks out comfort is troublesome and lacks the independent spirit that would assure him lifelong success. Right?

Not really. The emerging research in sleep is showing us that many of the assumptions we made about infant sleep and particularly about the impact of sleep training on development were deeply flawed. Much of the information on which we base mainstream sleep advice is inaccurate or poorly applied to normal human babies. I encourage all parents to check out the Infant Sleep Page at the Durham University Sleep Lab – a project to create a clearinghouse of information for parents and professionals.

Breastfeeding often gets blamed for sleep troubles. From birth, mothers are led to believe that their babies would sleep longer if they were not breastfed. As their babies get older, they are often told that their babies don’t need to wake in the night and do so out of habit. The underlying assumption is that sleeping all night alone is the goal and that it should be achieved as soon as possible. Someone forgot to communicate that performance measure to the babies, unfortunately!

After a number of years spending time among parents as a mother myself and as a helper to them, my experience suggests that how babies are fed has a lot less to do with sleep satisfaction than with the parents’ values about their family. Parents who recognize that their baby is an individual with needs that change and develop over time find satisfaction more easily than those who look outward for validation. Breastfeeding does tend to force that focus on the baby instead of on external measures!

If all you have is a hammer, all you’ll see are nails. Most of the baby care books in the world (with a few exceptions) focus on behavior modification to get babies to do what we’ve assumed they should do. This is the advice that parents and their health care providers often share when presenting with a nighttime concern, skipping the whole question of whether what we’re expecting is healthy at all.

Of course, knowing that your baby is normal, that you are normal, and that it’s the rest of the world that is catching up to what you already know and live is one thing. It is entirely another challenge to put one foot in front of the other on too little sleep and even less support.

Find your tribe: In virtually every community (and in many virtual communities too), there are mothers who are breastfeeding their toddlers and preschoolers right now. Go here, here, or here for leads. Even if the group you find isn’t exactly the right fit at first, keep an open mind and focus on what you have in common.

Birds of a feather: If there are no existing groups nearby, pick up some books on toddler nursing and camp out on a park bench until you find another mother who is interested! Two good reads are Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jean Bumgarner and Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping by James J. McKenna. Volunteering as a resource for a hospital or community breastfeeding clinic may be another avenue to consider.

Look to your baby: When you are feeling discouraged, consider the positive things you see in your baby and your relationship with him. Breastfeeding is not just about feeding – it’s an integral part of your family life and daily activities.

You don’t have to be the poster child: Being sure that your baby needs breastfeeding at night and that it’s the right choice for your family is no antidote to feeling judgment when those around you have made different choices. Don’t feel that you have to carry the flag for breastfeeding every single time. It is okay to end a conversation that feels shaming with, “Breastfeeding is important for our family. It would be best to talk about something else.” Modeling is important, but feeling good in your skin matters more.

Count the calories: A baby who is busy and independent all day may truly need breastfeeding at night to fuel his fast-paced days. Even babies who are not separated from their mothers during the day may get a significant proportion of their total calories at night. Knowing that your baby is getting needed food at night goes a long way to making those night-wakings easier.

Routine is okay: Knowing that night-nursing is pretty normal behavior and responding to those needs doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fairly predictable evening and nighttime routine. Finding a rhythm to your days and weeks is an important part of developing a healthy family.

This is not a dictatorship: Just as you’ve chosen to parent in a way that’s sensitive to your baby’s needs, you are also entitled to consider your own needs. Small babies have only immediate needs; as children get older, they can wait or adapt their requests of us to meet both of our needs. Even if your baby doesn’t quite have the language to communicate back and forth yet, start talking with him and your partner. You may be surprised at what you negotiate.

Michelle Branco is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice, a La Leche League Leader, and mother to Isabelle and Thomas, both breastfed. She provides evidence-based breastfeeding care to mothers at Latch Lactation through phone, email, and in-person consultations. Visit her website at

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