Tandem Breastfeeding

By Christine Gilbert

0-3I have a secret. I’m still breastfeeding my three-year-old son, along with his three-month-old sister. They call it tandem breastfeeding, but they might as well call it shameful-secret-of-mommies-who-are-doing-it-wrong because that’s exactly what it feels like.

My husband and I have become adept at maneuvering around the major obstacles, hiding the fact from my Ob-Gyn while I was pregnant, since our first doctor said we had to stop immediately because our toddler was stealing nutrients from the unborn baby (not everyone agrees with that and she was fine). Not telling our son’s dentist because when he was six-months-old he said we had to wean from our night feedings or risk cavities, which we didn’t do, never mind his other advice of wiping down his teeth with a wet cloth after each session. Whispering to my son when he mimes for my breast in public, “not now sweetie, when we get home.”

In the hospital, the day after my daughter was born, I covertly breastfed my son while the nurses were away. I didn’t know what their policy was, but I couldn’t face finding out. I sat in the reclining rocker with my newborn on my lap and my son stood next to me and suckled from the breast I held at his mouth. It was a quick furtive gesture to let him know he was still mine and I was still his.

My attempts to keep a low profile have slowly become futile, as my son, the late-talker, has overnight gone from giving me dreamy moon eyes when he wants to feed, to shouting at me from his car seat, “Mama! Boobie! Booooooobie! BOOBIE!”

At a recent beach picnic, I had to out myself to my childless friends and pre-empt what I knew would come after my son went swimming. “So, we’re still breastfeeding. Both of them. Both.”

I didn’t wait for a reaction, I lobbed it at them like a warning, a simple instruction: Please do not freak out about what you’re about to see today. We know. Trust us, we know.

You see, I’m not a lactation-nut. I’m aware that breastfeeding isn’t a magical improvement over formula nutrition-wise and I have plenty of friends who chose formula for medical or convenience sake. I get it. For me, I liked breastfeeding because it seemed especially loving and tender, something that was missing from my own childhood, something I wanted so desperately to give my son. From my pre-baby perspective, two years sounded about right, but as two rolled around, my son was still so little, and barely talking, so I let it continue. Three months later I was pregnant with my second, but for the first two months I didn’t know, so when my breasts started to change, I thought there was something wrong with my body. It became painful to breastfeed, just a gnawing discomfort I couldn’t pinpoint. Fed up with it, I decided to wean my son.

For a week, I tried everything to get him to feed less: distractions, hiding from him, saying no, letting him cry a little, putting him off until later. None of it seemed to work; instead, he would wrap his legs around me, trying to hold me in place to try to catch up on all the feedings I had put off. Still as the pregnancy continued, my breast discomfort grew more intense, and I began to feel desperate. I put lemon juice on my nipples for three days in a row. He kept feeding. I switched to vinegar. He winced but suckled anyway. I gagged so hard at the smell that I finally realized perhaps I was pregnant, confirming it the next day with an over-the-counter test.

Once I knew I was pregnant, it was clear what was going on. Like many women, my milk supply was drying up from the pregnancy hormones. I had new hope. Perhaps this entire weaning thing would now resolve itself. My milk would go away and my son would just lose interest. I removed all restrictions on breastfeeding and just let him feed on request, knowing that at any point he could self-wean. I tried to relax and enjoy these last few sessions we had together.

My milk dried up completely at the four-month mark of my pregnancy, yet he persisted. It became increasingly uncomfortable, but something in me shifted: this was our last time together before the new baby came. He would lay with me so peacefully, the only time he wasn’t running around the house, and he would look into my eyes. He would curl around the swell of my baby bump, and his little sister would gently kick him while he fed. I would talk to him about the baby, while he melted into the bed next to me, and I would push back his hair from his sweaty forehead.

“There’s a baby coming. She’s in my belly. Can you feel her moving?”

He would nod. He wouldn’t let go. He wasn’t getting any milk, but this ritual, this habit of ours was still important.

Two days after the baby was born, my milk came. Milk glorious milk, where there had been none now my cup overrunneth. My son was in heaven. His face got fuller in the first month, and he slept more deeply. There were moments when both children wanted the breast at the same time, and while I tried to defer to the youngest member of our family, sometimes I’d feed both of them at the same time, breastfeeding my newborn on my side in the primary position, with my toddler draped over my back and hanging on to me as he fed up-side down. Whatever works.

Three months out and things have settled down to a manageable routine. I’m beginning to feel twinges of wanting to stop again, wishing he would just outgrow this stage, that he’d let me off the hook from what I know will be stand-off. I could just go to a hotel with my newborn, I think. A week away would solve it. It wouldn’t even register in the long-term-damage-I’ve-likely-done-to-my-son. And then he comes home from the park with his father, crying. I rush out to the gate to see what’s wrong.

“I’m crying,” he says to me as I scoop him up.

“I see that, why are you crying? Are you sad?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you sad?”

“The boy… “

And he breaks into sobs again.

“That’s okay, I’ll make you feel better.”

“Boobie?”

“Yes, boobie.”

And I think to myself, maybe at four, maybe four is a good age to wean.

Christine Gilbert is the writer behind almostfearless.com and is currently working on her first book for Gotham/Penguin about learning languages (Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish) with her kids. Her writing and photography has appeared in the BBC, Esquire, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.

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  • Catherine

    I think tandem nursing is far more common than we realize. It just isn’t talked about. I had a very similar experience to the author during my second pregnancy. My daughter finally weaned at age 4.5. I found it easier to continue to nurse her during pregnancy, and then to tandem nurse both my children, than to put the effort into weaning a child who was clearly not ready.

  • Donna

    Christine, thank you so much for sharing your experience. Mine was similar, though I had midwives the second time around who encouraged me to tandem nurse, so I didn’t feel pressure to hide it. (I did also assume that when the milk dried up during my pregnancy, my son would lose interest in nursing, and I was very surprised when he wanted to continue.) I ended up weaning him when he was almost 3 and his little sister was about 5 months old, simply because I was so physically uncomfortable and overwhelmed with the tandem nursing; they each insisted on nursing whenever the other was, and I was exhausted and finding that I was losing patience. I made a choice to end the tandem nursing so that I would have more to offer emotionally to both of them. A year later, my son still expresses sadness about not nursing, and I feel guilty about pushing him to stop before he was ready. But now he is the protector of milk for his little sister, crying, “She wants milk, mama. Give her milk!” whenever she is upset. As relieved as I am to be nursing only one child again, I do still feel sad that I broke that bond before my son was ready. I applaud you for continuing.

  • http://lizawyles.wordpress.com Liza

    Good for you for recognizing what works best for BOTH your kids (and in turn, you)! I breastfed my older child until she was 2 years 3 months, when I was entering my 2nd trimester with my son. It was getting uncomfortable and she only nursed before bed, never asking for it any other time. I thought it was a good idea to have a little break, also, to distance her nursing experience before her sibling arrived. That way, we could avoid those kinds of jealousy issues.

  • Vanessa

    So good to read the story. The more women talk about breastfeeding the more every different choice around breastfeeding becomes normal.
    I take exception though to this line- “I’m aware that breastfeeding isn’t a magical improvement over formula nutrition-wise “. Just dead wrong. Thousands of studies say it is a magical improvement. On almost every health marker breastfeeding trumps formula feeding.

    • Heidi

      agreed! :)

  • Geetare

    I too tandem nursed; my son until his 5th birthday, and my daughter is still nursing at age 3.5. She was born when he was 2. I did it because he was so attached to nursing, and I didn’t want him to equate her birth with the loss of “his milkies” and be jealous of her in that way. I envisioned sweet siblings bonding over me as they nursed together.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way; my son was STILL jealous, wanted all the milk, and it was sometimes hard to make sure baby got enough. He (and I) had used nursing for comfort so many times, he became overly attached to nursing as a comfort item, and didn’t learn enough self-soothing skills (I said he was done when he turned 5; now nearly a year later he still greets me in public by trying to grab my chest; it’s such an instinct with him- he said the other day that he’d still nurse if I let him. Which I won’t because I am DONE; still nursing my daughter, but I needed a bit more space). I feel like it was hard on my body, too…I have been nursing non-stop for the past 6 years, making a huge amount of milk. I got sick a lot when I was nursing both of them (while also working part-time) and was SO tired.

    I totally bought the LLL “self weaning” idea, but now I am wondering if I depended too much on nursing to comfort my kids, instead of being wholly mentally present, and have done them a disservice that way. Nursing is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and tandem is also sometimes a good idea, but I feel it’s important to share my “on the other side” perspective. Good luck!

  • Tina

    I love this blog post. I have 2 girls 21 months apart, and it was my youngest who was actually the marathon nurser. After trying to wean several times during her 3rd year and when she turned 4, I talked to her about it for months, and we planned a 1/2 birthday celebration when she became 4 1/2. She would stop nursing (at this time it was only around bed time and waking up), and we would celebrate 4 1/2 years of our beautiful nursing relationship. We had a pinata, and my girls each had “half” a cupcake, and we were done with nursing. It went very smoothly…. we did have to talk about it for months though….

    You are giving your son what he needs — he’ll wean at some point soon.

  • Vanessa

    At this very moment I am pregnant with my second child, and my first turns two next month. She is still nursing like mad and the more I tell her “milk later”, the more she begs for it. I am so glad to read this as I realize I am not alone, and not weaning her at this moment isn’t the worst thing in the world. I will note that she has nursed to sleep every time she has slept since I got her home from the hospital, and she already has had three cavities. I don’t give her candy or pop or any form of fast food or junk. It’s just genetics. So I’m glad this mother didn’t have ill effects from nursing to sleep, but don’t let that “it didn’t happen to me” convince you that it wont happen to yours. I felt like a terrible mother having to get her teeth worked on at such a young age. Please please wipe your baby’s teeth if they fall asleep nursing! It is the most magical experience in the world putting them to sleep like that, but I just want the world to be warned. Also, I agree with the previous comment. I’m an RN and breast milk is most definitely much healthier and much safer than formula.

  • Kelly

    I too tandem fed my 1st two and was prepared to do so for the middle one and the last one (but the middle stopped on his own when he was 3-3.25). Many, many comments were given to me. And now the eldest is 22, living in China, speaking Chinese; the middle one is a junior in college; and the youngest is in high school. They are happy, smart, loving, well adjusted humans. They all nursed for about 3 3-3.5 years. They all needed that time. It was fatiguing tandem nursing, but the older child needed it so much. The rule was that the baby nursed first, and then the older child could. The middle child graciously offered (and did) show the youngest how to nurse. While some choose not to nurse, I felt for my family, nursing was important physically as well as emotionally for the child. Kudos for doing what you feel is the right thing for you and your family.

  • Ann Van Regan

    Tandem nursing was the best thing I did for my kids. The youngest was very sick as an infant and we spent time in the hospital Continuing to nurse the older child when I ran home for a shower helped us stay connected.

  • Esther

    I finally weaned my oldest daughter on her fourth birthday. I’m still nursing her younger sister, who is 18 months. My four year-old will often say, wistfully “I wish I weren’t four. I wish I were three, so I could still have milk”. Part of me wants to let her nurse again. Part of me is glad to be done. It was getting socially uncomfortable for me, and she talks so well that I found myself in some embarrassing situations. I wish I didn’t care what other people think, but I know they judge not only me, but her as well. I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in this struggle.

  • Jane

    Thank you for sharing your story. It will help a lot of mothers who may struggle with the same issue I am sure! And I want to say I am sorry that you faced opponents to your instinct to nurse through pregnancy and then to tandem nurse, and to nurse a toddler in public. I had midwives and doulas for both of my pregnancies and homebirths and had their full support and encouragement as I did coming from my family as well. I tandem nursed both of my girls for a year, until my oldest was 3 years 3 months and am still on-demand nursing my second daughter, who will be 3 in 2 weeks and who until a little over three weeks ago stopped waking every 1 1/2 to 2 hours through the night to nurse both sides “boobie” – with my suggestion she only needs one side through the night and this has also for some reason lessened the number of wake-ups. I am happy for a little more sleep after over 5 years of not sleeping for more than 2 hours at a time ever but it makes me aware of the fact that ultimately the precious breastfeeding relationship sn in some ways starting to head towards it’s end. I do plan for the end to be at her decision…my role as breastfeeding mother has been an important one for my daughters and me – and what other people think of it or thought of it is none of my business.

  • Lily

    Totally agree that you don’t have to be a “lactation nut” to be breastfeeding beyond age 2 or tandem bfing! I only have one child – she’s 2.5 – but we still bf 2-3 scheduled times a day because it’s easy and comforting for both of us. I don’t have another one on the way but I can imagine if I had been pregnant the past 8-9 months there would be a good chance that I would end up tandem bfing too. If it works for you, why not? I have to say, though, that I have most enjoyed breastfeeding the past year, when I no longer had to pump while I was at work or spent a day away. After bfing was reduced to fewer times a day and no longer at night, that was when I most enjoyed it! And that was after the 1.5 year mark! You just don’t know how it’s going to go for you. Love to all the other ladies! :)