If my pre-child self could see me now, she would be surprised. I was keen to breastfeed, but thought 6 months would be about right and after that my baby would eat solids and I could drink wine. As I soon learnt, babies have opinions, and mine decided very early on that breastfeeding was hernumber one favourite activity. I breastfed into my second pregnancy, sure that weaning wasn’t far off, as I had been assured that babies didn’t like the changes in milk supply caused by pregnancy hormones and mostly self-weaned. My supply dropped off at about 20 weeks and reappeared in the form of colostrum at the end of pregnancy. I was hopeful that my dear daughter would be dissuaded by the extra effort needed to get milk and by its funny taste, but she had other ideas. It was a firm no to alternatives (cow, soya, almond and coconut milk all ended up watering the floor) and a firm yes to the breast, whatever the changes in milk quantity and taste.
I suddenly realised that if I didn’t do anything, I would still be feeding my 22 month old when the new baby arrived. Was this possible? How would it work? Should I force the issue? As my due date got closer and closer, I became less and less willing to force weaning onto my toddler just before her world got turned upside down by the arrival of the new baby. Although pregnancy can cause very sensitive nipples, turning breastfeeding into agony for some mothers, nipple sensitivity never became unbearable for me, thus giving me even less motivation to call a halt to nursing. I turned to La Leche League and the authoritative (and only!) book on the subject, ‘Adventures in Tandem Nursing’ by Hilary Flower. One of the first things I learnt was that my stats were all wrong. Babies feeding during pregnancy didn’t ‘mostly’ self-wean: instead, they tended to choose to continue to nurse. Data on this topic are scarce, but it seems more realistic to say that about 50% wean, half initiated by the mother and half by the child. One way of looking at that would be to say that, if given the choice, 75% of children would choose to continue. And my daughter was certainly in that 75%!
I had many questions and I thought that sharing my answers, purely based on my experience of 5 months of tandem nursing, might be useful for some mothers finding themselves in a similar position to mine.
Will I have enough milk for two?
Yes! Supply and demand work just the same. Increased demand leads to increased supply. My system sorted itself out quite quickly. And my toddler often helped to solve the engorgement problems of the early days which could have otherwise made it difficult for the newborn to latch on.
Will I have to always feed the baby first so the toddler doesn’t take all the milk?
I did feed my baby first to start with, to make sure she maxed out on colostrum, had complete feeds and gained weight. I am more relaxed about this now. My toddler normally feeds a lot less than the little one, but if she is feeling poorly and wants to nurse frequently, I tend to allocate sides for that day. That way, I can be sure that the baby gets a good amount of both thirst-quenching foremilk and creamier hindmilk. My toddler loves that and enjoys pointing and naming sides “my round” and “baby’s round” (I have no idea why she calls it ‘her round’. Perhaps practising for the pub later in life?)
Will the milk I produce be ‘toddler milk’ or ‘newborn milk’?
As the composition of breastmilk changes depending on the age and requirements of the child, one of my main questions was whether my milk would be different because I fed my toddler through pregnancy. This is quite a complex question which I’m sure would benefit from more research, but my experience was that the pregnancy hormones reset my system to start again for the new baby. Fascinatingly, kangaroos have evolved to feed babies (joeys) of different ages. They nurse their tiny newborns in their pouch on one teat while feeding an older joey on a second, and each teat produces a different milk composition appropriate to that joey’s age.
How will my toddler react?
This is an ongoing process! Sometimes she is beautifully kind, holding her sister’s hand while they are feeding, telling me that her sister “needs milk” and stopping to say “baby’s turn!” And sometimes she can’t restrain her inner toddler and pokes the baby in the face… To put a positive spin on it, the negotiation and sharing which are involved in tandem nursing are definitely a learning opportunity for all of us! And I am grateful to still be able to turn to nursing to comfort her during the many bumps and little stresses of a toddler’s life.
Can I feed both girls at the same time?
Yes. But it certainly wasn’t easy to start with and it felt very odd the first time we managed it. Now the little one has improved her latch and strengthened her neck, feeding both girls at the same time is easier. It requires cushions, patience and tolerance on all sides, but it can really smooth those moments in the day (or night!) when all three of us get fraught!
How have people reacted?
Although I’m happy with our choice, I don’t tend to shout about it. I would have to be feeling very brave to tandem feed in public and I can generally distract my toddler with a banana until we get home. I have had to agree to disagree with my parents, but most people I have told have been supportive, even if they feel it wouldn’t be the right thing for them.
Would I do it again?
Sometimes I feel frustrated to have so much focus on me (specifically on my breasts!) and I can feel ‘touched out’. But yes, I would do it again if I felt that the older child, like my daughter, would be unhappy to wean earlier. It is great to know that my milk is providing immunological protection to them both, protection which is designed specifically to combat the bugs the toddler brings into the house from nursery. I also love the fact that I haven’t had to deny my older daughter something which so clearly gives her comfort, and I love the relationship it creates between the girls as they learn to share. In conclusion, it’s not always been easy, but it’s definitely possible and for us, it’s certainly been worth it!
This story was originally published in issue 217 of Breastfeeding Matters