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The Nursing Toddler: A Baby on Wheels

Somewhere along the way the idea emerged that babyhood ends with the beginning of walking and talking, and that with proper parental management, babyhood can end rather abruptly on the child's first birthday. Instead of standing in proper awe of the accomplishments that babies make around the beginning of their second year, we added demands for more. In addition to the big changes from crawling to walking and from body language and crying to talking, we also insisted that they be toilet-trained, sleep all night by themselves, and leave the bric-a-brac alone. It is little wonder that it is at this stressful age that our children are most likely to develop some attachment to inanimate objects. Such attachments are not harmful,1 but sometimes inconvenient and often a sign of stress.

If we stop to examine a one-year-old child, the absurdity of some adult demands on them seems obvious. They are what someone has described as "babies on wheels," still infants, but mobile and therefore quite vulnerable. Their little foreheads remain babyishly high and broad; their legs are short and often still bowed, and they continue to have infants' round little bellies. The diapers or pants that stayed on pretty well while they were prone tend to fall victim to gravity now that they are vertical. They look like babies and act like babies. They will be three or four before their bodies and faces have stretched out into the shapes and proportions of childhood. The appearance of these mobile little people still makes us feel we are dealing with babies, and unless we are talked out of it by "experts," we will respond to them in a way appropriate to the care of babies for as long as their babyish appearance and mannerisms continue.

Nursing a child in his second year seems a reasonable way to help meet some of his continuing baby needs. How long he will nurse, how often, etc., is unpredictable. Some little ones this age are too busy with exploring to be bothered with much nursing. Some are happier to eat the family's food and nurse only to go to sleep or when they are hurt. Some even wean during the second year.

Frequent Nursing

By far the most usual behavior for a child in the second year, however, is to nurse a lot. According to a study done in an area of New Guinea where extended nursing was the norm, nursing continued at frequent enough intervals for mothers to continue producing 20 ounces of milk daily into the third year.2 One researcher who recommends advising mothers to start solids gradually, starting at about six months, says to expect frequent nursing to continue. "The child should continue breast­feeding just as often during the second year, but offer solid foods a few times a day."3

A child who may have nursed less frequently near the end of her first year will often surprise her mother by going back to nursing almost like a newborn at times during the second year. Countless mothers have described this pattern to me, and it was observed among healthy children of nomadic Turkana pastoralists in Africa.4 Mothers would be less distressed by their toddlers' seemingly constant needs to nurse if they were aware of how common frequent nursing is at this time of life. You need to be prepared for such needs and know they are normal and temporary. In fact, the first half of the second year may be one of the most intense nursing periods and the one in which children react most strongly to weaning.5

As children begin to walk and explore, they meet all kinds of new, unfamiliar situations. They become frightened by things that are new to them that we may never dream are frightening. They overextend themselves in their efforts to master new skills, even though we adults may not be aware that they are "working." All that babbling or patting or digging or running around is serious work in the business of mastering a new and expanding world.

Some children handle their work with ease, pace themselves, and cope well with their inevitable frustrations right from the beginning. Most are much more easily distressed and disoriented, especially when facing a new task like walking, and tend to venture too far and get hurt easily.

This busy time of life is wearing on mothers as well as on children. You may come to appreciate your child's time at the breast as did the mother who wrote, "Nursing gives me a break from having to be constantly monitoring his latest activity, which is usually more daring than he realizes." Rapidly learning toddlers have urgent and frequent needs for reassurance and encouragement that they are progressing well and that it is safe and worthwhile for them to try something again.

The child who needs a lot of nursing is just as likely to grow up emotionally stable and capable as is the child whose needs seem less overwhelming. Each child grows at his own rate emotionally just as he does physically and intellectually. Nor do we as parents have much to say about what kind of child we will have at this age. We can minimize a child's anxiety level by meeting her needs as fully as possible from birth on. But how much intense parenting she needs, possibly including frequent nursing, in the second year depends for the most part on her inborn timetable. As parents we can slow down emotional growth by leaving needs unmet, but there is little we can do to speed it up. There is no hurry, and your investment in your toddler who seems to be "always attached" will pay off when the time for independence does come.


  1. Bowlby, J. Attachment. New York: Basic Books, 1982; 310.
  2. Becroft, T. Child-rearing practices in the highlands of New Guinea: a longitudinal study of breast feeding. Medical Journal of Australia 1967; 2:599.
  3. Greiner, T. Sustained breast­feeding, complementation, and care. Food and Nutrition Bulletin. 1995; 16(4):317.
  4. Gray, S. J. Infant Care and Feeding Among Nomadic Turkana Pastoralists: Implications for Fertility and Child Survival. PhD Diss. State University of New York at Binghamton, 1992; 199, 202, 217, 282,403.
  5. Muggins, K. and Ziedrich, L. The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning. Boston: The Harvard Common Press, 1994; 124,132.

© La Leche League International.

Excerpted from "Nursing in the Second Year" in Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (pp. 209-11) with permission from La Leche League International. For more information visit the La Leche League website.