Supporting the seasoned breastfeeding mother
What’s the breastfeeding mom of a toddler supposed to do? Our lactation educator Sarah Siebold gives her two cents about why seasoned breastfeeders need support too.
My 20-month-old son straddles me in the park’s sandbox on a 90-degree day. He lifts up my shirt, frantically demanding “Milk! Milk!” Then he futzes with my nursing bra but can’t quite figure out how to access my breast. So he switches gears, in case I didn’t get the memo, and starts signing the word “milk” repeatedly, clenching and releasing his fists until he gets what he wants. His sweaty body is pressed against mine and I can’t stop thinking about running for cover under the shade of a nearby tree.
Don’t get me wrong. I love breastfeeding Noah: the cuddles and connection, the health benefits for the both of us, and the knowledge that my body can provide both physical and emotional nourishment. It’s unbelievably cool and magical, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
But as the breastfeeding mom of a toddler, and as a lactation educator who helps women limit their barriers to successful breastfeeding if this is the path they choose, I’ve hit my own barrier again and again. There’s hardly any support for the seasoned breastfeeding mother.
Maybe it’s that people assume we have it all figured out, and logistically we do. There are no issues with position or latch (oh, that pesky latch!); there’s no concern about weight gain or milk transfer; we’re not engorged, unless we wean abruptly, and we’re often past the days of needing to express milk. Smooth sailing all around.
Smooth-ish sailing all around. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to wrestle a toddler who nimbly hooks onto your breast from Downward Dog. Sometimes, my arms are too tired to carry a 25-pound human when he refuses to de-latch and either let me carry him more comfortably or walk hand-in-hand by my side. Sometimes, it’s hard being one of the only moms who breastfeeds her toddler at all or who willingly breastfeeds her toddler in public.
Despite all of these challenges, there’s nowhere to go that’s geared specifically towards these moms and these sets of challenges. There are, of course, free La Leche League groups around the country that cater to all moms at all stages of their respective journeys. These groups are often populated by new moms in the first forty day haze or who are returning to work a few months postpartum. I love La Leche League with a full heart and am grateful for the work they do. And it’s true that the early postpartum period deserves the most attention: our hormones have gone haywire and we’re caring for a new member of the family all hours of the day and night. We’re physically and emotionally spent. I just wish there were other spaces to support moms at later stages in the breastfeeding game, too.
Why the lack of additional support? Breastfeeding still isn’t the cultural norm in this country. There is no national paid family leave, so working women are penalized for having children and more often than not don’t have accommodations to express breast milk at work. We don’t set women up to breastfeed successfully in the long-run, nor do we commend them for going past the 6-month minimum recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to breastfeed exclusively. In short, we’ve made it difficult for women to become the seasoned breastfeeding mother I keep referencing.
For women who are able to breastfeed past a year, many are often asked when they plan to stop or if they worry about spoiling their baby. I had a client who was so afraid to breastfeed her 22-month daughter in public that the two of them rarely left the house. Fear of judgement kept them inside. Even though public breastfeeding is now legal in all 50 states, how often do we really see a woman publicly breastfeeding her walking, talking toddler, let alone her peanut of a newborn baby? It’s every mother’s legal right, but that doesn’t mean many of us feel comfortable exercising that right. And ‘round and ‘round the vicious cycle continues; the more barriers we create to successful breastfeeding, the less we breastfeed in the long-run, the less we breastfeed our toddlers in public, the less people are aware that this is a real and legitimate thing to do, and the less people think we need the emotional support.
But there’s hope! And so much we can do to encourage and support the seasoned breastfeeding mother — and all mothers, however they choose to feed their little ones:
Create Your Tribe
If you’re a seasoned breastfeeding mom, try finding other moms in your community like you. Social media can help connect you to others like you, even if they’re hard to come by sometimes. Mobilizing even a few of you means something. You can swap stories at a local park and chat about the good and the bad of breastfeeding your older child.
If you see a breastfeeding mom in public, acknowledge what she’s doing. Something as simple as “I so respect and admire what you’re doing.” A little love goes a long way in re-normalizing something biologically so normal.
If you see a mom at her wits end or just overwhelmed by a flurry of energy and activity (moms of toddlers, I’m looking at you), offer to hold the door or help pack up her stroller or, whatever. You don’t have to acknowledge the breastfeeding, per se, if that doesn’t feel right to you. But you can show that you see her struggle and that you’d like to offer a helping hand.