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Tandem Nursing: The Challenges and the Rewards

Nursing a baby is one of motherhood's greatest joys, but as most moms would agree, it requires dedication and encouragement. Tandem nursing (breast­feeding siblings) needs these elements many times over. It requires devotion and support on a daily, sometimes even an hourly, basis. While its rewards are wonderful, it can be one of the toughest parenting decisions a mother will ever make.

Nursing two is often tiring and stressful - especially when the children want to nurse at the same time. "As soon as I would sit down to nurse my newborn, my toddler would come running for my other breast," sighs a mother of four. "On the good days, it was cute, but on the bad days it was exasperating." Many toddlers want to nurse simultaneously for emotional reassurance while others do it simply because a newborn's frequent feedings remind them of it so often. Still others show a marked increase in their interest because after months of a diminished, even meager milk supply, mother has an abundance. Whatever the reason, it takes a great deal of understanding and patience on the mother's part.

Despite the sincere reasons behind tandem nursing, many dedicated mothers find them­selves feeling overwhelmed. "Nursing two was one of the hardest things I have done as a mother," admits one mom. "It was also one of the most rewarding," she adds. But this mom just took it in stride: "I tandem nursed three different times and didn't find it, in and of itself, overwhelming. I think having two young children is always overwhelming; nursing at least provides one more tool to satisfy their needs. And if the older one is nursing, you certainly know where she is!"

The reasons women choose to tandem nurse vary from mother to mother, but they tend to focus on three overlapping ideals.

An easier transition

"Bringing a baby into a family makes changes for everyone," says a mother of three, "and it can be especially difficult for older siblings, who may feel jealous or insecure. By continuing to nurse my toddler," she adds, "I could help her feel close and loved." Another mother of four who tandem nursed for two years agrees: "By nursing my 18-month-old son, I felt connected to him and his new sister. There was no feeling of pushing him out of the nest." Young children can find a new baby threatening, and typically will struggle with sharing mama, her love, and her time. By maintaining the close nursing relationship, the toddler will likely feel more nurtured and comforted as he adapts to his new sibling.

Closeness of siblings

"I chose to tandem nurse," explains one mother, "because of the bond I knew it would create between my children. I would watch their eyes looking at each other and their fingers touching. It was beautiful." A mother who nursed her newborn and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter remembers, "I was overwhelmed by the beauty of those two faces gazing up at me with such peace and pleasure. My toddler would reach out and stroke my son, and it brought tears to my eyes. How could sharing something like this not bond them together?"

No abrupt or premature weaning

Perhaps the most compelling reason women choose to tandem nurse is to avoid having to wean a child before he/she is ready. Any mother who has nursed past one year has already learned to recognize the need in her child to keep breast­feeding and probably is aware of the psychological damages an unwanted, premature weaning can cause. Ending an active nursing relationship just before the arrival of a new baby can be particularly stressful or upsetting to a child. As one mother explains, "I felt I just had not given my son a good enough start when his sister came along. He still needed that special time with me." Another echoes her feelings. "My daughter had a hard time accepting her new brother. I just couldn't imagine adding to her struggle by taking away one of the things that brought her the most comfort and security. It seemed heartless."

Making Tandem Nursing Work

  1. Always position the baby first, and then let your (more flexible) toddler arrange him - or herself around the baby.
  2. Make sure the baby gets the chance to nurse on the fuller side first. Your toddler needs this special time of closeness, but unlike your infant, is not depending solely on breastmilk for nutrition.
  3. Use pillows under your arms and/or behind your back to make it more comfortable as you nurse and cuddle two.
  4. Don't attempt to tandem nurse without strongly considering a family bed arrangement. Leaving your warm bed to feed one is hard enough; two would be exhausting. Utilizing co-sleeping will greatly increase your opportunity to rest and sleep - not to mention all its other benefits!
  5. Attend La Leche League meetings for empathy and ideas.
  6. Find a friend who has either tandem nursed or appreciates the reasons you have chosen to do it. You need her voice on the phone on the rough days!
  7. Enlist your spouse's or partner's support as much as possible. You need someone close to you to both love and support you, plus lessen the other demands on you so you are free to nurse. Be sure to communicate clearly how you are feeling and specifically what you need.
  8. Get as much rest as possible to help renew body and spirit. Doze while you are nursing, and cat nap whenever you can. Drink lots of fluids and eat healthy foods. You are providing calories and nutrition for three!
  9. If simultaneous nursings are stressful for you, look for other things to do with your toddler while the baby is being fed. Try reading a book, watching a movie, coloring, sharing a snack, or any other activity that keeps you close without involving nursing.
  10. Most important, hang in there! "It can be hard," acknowledges one mom, "but you will never regret your decision." Another admits, "Some days were really tough for me, and I got tired of having a child at my breast every five minutes. Just when I thought I had had it, though, I would take a deep breath and gaze into two pairs of gentle eyes and be reminded of why I have made all of my parenting decisions - because these are the most precious creatures in the world to me, and I want them to have the best possible start they can have in life. Tandem nursing is one step in that journey, one I would never have wanted to miss."

Tandem nursing is indeed much like many other aspects of parenting - harder, more stressful, and more tiring than you could ever have expected. But like the others, it is part of providing your children with the best you are capable of giving them. Breast­feeding siblings brings closeness and joy to both you and your children, and it's worth every moment - the difficult and the blissful. They will pass down the nurturing legacy for generations to come.

Tamra Orr and her husband, Joseph, are the parents of Jasmine, Nicole, Caspian, and Coryn. Tamra is the author of A Parent's Guide to Homeschooling and After Homeschool: Fifteen Homeschoolers Out in the Real World. She is a full-time freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her family unschools together and all teach each other something new every day.