For many women, making it to a year of nursing is a milestone. And it is, especially on our world, where there are so many roadblocks to making it past the first week! And even after a mom finds her groove with nursing, making it through the months ahead isn’t always easy. Between the prospect of going back to work that so many face, to dealing with teething, growth spurts, and criticism from others (this might be the biggest one), it’s no wonder only 27% of U.S. women are still nursing at a year. Another way of saying this, of course, is that 73% of women are not nursing at 12 months. For more about this, check out the CDC’s latest “Breastfeeding Report Card” for the U.S.
Anyway. So suppose you’re here, at 12 months. What to do now?
First, let me just say that although I do think babies need breastmilk nutritionally for a minimum of two years (and the World Health Organization would back me up on this), I understand that every family is different, and how long to nurse is a very personal decision that really doesn’t involve me. Whether you nurse for three days, three months, or for three years — I applaud you.
But what happens at twelve months? Does nursing change? Does it need to change? What does the milestone mean?
For me, at least, nothing particularly happened at twelve months with either of my children. I knew that I wanted to continue nursing them for quite some time. With my first child, I thought it would be at least two years, but I just didn’t know when it would seem like the right time to stop. I felt a little freaked out about the idea of stopping! I couldn’t really imagine how it would happen. He (and I) were so attached to nursing at that point, it would have really turned our world upside down had we made any kind of changes to nursing at 12 months.
With this baby, I expect to nurse him for years, probably well beyond two years if he’s anything like my first son (which he is so far, at least in terms of nursing). Of course this baby could certainly throw me for a loop in terms of nursing, and wean sooner than my first son did. But as he reached his first birthday, I didn’t feel the same worry about the prospect of weaning. I felt so very happy about nursing him. Looking down at him, I felt the great expanse of nursing ahead of us.
But what if you want to end it now, at 12 months. You have to remember that, for your baby, nursing is much more than nutrition at this point. You will, of course, need to replace the breastmilk with other milks (cow and goat’s milk are the top choices), but even more than that, you will need to find other comforts for your child. Some children will be happy with extra cuddles, some will be OK with a stuffed animal or other soothing object. Sometimes enlisting the help of your partner to do some of the soothing is helpful, especially if your baby nursed at night or other sleepy times. You will find your way. Trust yourself and your baby.
If you do want to continue, there isn’t much you need to know. It is normal for babies to nurse quite a bit at this age (mine both easily nursed every two or three hours!), and for some to start to nurse a bit less. As long as your baby is nursing 2-3 times a day, you don’t need to supplement with cow’s milk — your milk IS the required dairy that your baby needs. Also remember to choose your word for nursing. Soon your little one will be saying it outloud, so you might want to shy away from calling nursing “boobies” (although if you don’t mind your toddler shouting that to you across the playground, be my guest!). Know also that there will be times that your toddler will nurse a whole lot more for a week or two (there are still growth spurts at this age). These times you might doubt all of it — “I have created a nurse-a-holic!” you might think then. But these extra nursing/clingy times really do pass. And it’s normal to feel irritated, touched-out, etc. Everyone feels that way sometimes about nursing a toddler. It’s also OK to set limits as your baby gets older. Toddlers can learn to wait to nurse until you’re done cooking dinner, eating, going to the bathroom, etc.
But what if you’ve reached 12 months, and you’re not really sure if you want to continue or not? It’s OK not to know. Lots of moms feel that way. Just take it day by day. Be mindful of your feelings, and the feelings of your baby. Talk to your friends. Go to a nursing support meeting. Know that nursing a toddler is different than nursing a baby. Know that you can set limits and still nurse your toddler. Know that it’s not all or nothing. Know that it’s OK to stop if that’s what your heart tells you. You will find other ways to love and nourish your baby. Just be open. There is no harm in saying “I don’t know,” and letting the pieces fall where they will.
As for me and my little guy, we’re so happy where we are right now, with nursing, with everything. The days are long, and sometimes I’m bleary-eyed with exhaustion, but I know how quickly it passed, so I’m savoring it all.