22 January 2014
Tandem Breastfeeding - Our Personal Story
I was recently asked by a stranger, admiring my beautifully healthy baby boy, ‘Are you breastfeeding?’ My straight answer, ‘Yes, both of them’ produced a response of mild shock as she turned to look at my toddler running ahead.
Tandem feeding, the practice of breastfeeding two children of different ages, is not common in our culture. It is however perfectly healthy and works well for some families, like mine.
My boys were born two years and seven months apart. When his brother was conceived, our eldest was still very reliant on receiving comfort at the breast. My husband and I had agreed that it would be best to allow him to outgrow breastfeeding at his own pace, especially considering that the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding along with family foods for two years or beyond.
My greatest concern entering a new pregnancy while still breastfeeding, was how I would cope with breastfeeding if I again experienced intensely tender nipples as I had during my first pregnancy. I didn’t intend on prompting my toddler to wean, but knew there was a chance that we would have to go down that route.
I know some mums who had weaned a toddler during pregnancy for a range of reasons, on the initiative of either the mum or the child. I know others who have tandem fed after the arrival of a new baby. I saw both of these as realistic possibilities in our case.
Before planning my second pregnancy, I did some research to confirm the safety and feasibility of continuing to breastfeed. I learned that in most cases, it is perfectly safe for a well-nourished mother to continue breastfeeding throughout a normal, low-risk pregnancy and to continue feeding both children after the baby is born. It is however a very personal decision and there are many factors to weigh up including the needs of the mother, the child and the foetus.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) is supportive of mums who wish to tandem feed. ABA’s Position Statement on Breastfeeding includes the statement ‘A mother can continue to breastfeed when she is pregnant. A mother may also simultaneously breastfeed two children of different ages — this is called tandem feeding.’
I found the ABA a huge source of support. Through regular attendance at group meetings I met other mums breastfeeding toddlers or tandem feeding. I also talked through personal concerns at various times with breastfeeding counsellors both locally and on the Breastfeeding Helpline.
Unfortunately health professionals are not always so supportive. The various midwives I had contact with during my pregnancy were supportive, some even delighted that I was still breastfeeding my son and planned to continue. However when our very blunt obstetrician became aware that I was still breastfeeding, his first response was a steely stare and the comment ‘well that will have to stop’. This floored me as I had expected him to be supportive. However I quickly pulled myself together and informed him that this was contrary to information I had received from ABA. I asked whether he had any particular concerns for me with this pregnancy, or just not like the idea of breastfeeding through pregnancy in general. It turned out to be the latter. I can understand his position, his job is to minimise every possible risk to mother and foetus. However my job as a mum is to consider the needs of my child as well as any small risk to my foetus.
After this encounter I felt extremely shaken and started to question if I was actually doing the best thing for my children.
Prior to pregnancy, I had not chosen to set limits around my son’s breastfeeding. He still breastfed regularly, although of course as a toddler he was also tucking into family foods. During pregnancy this changed. I started refusing him some feeds and limiting others due to physical discomfort. With the encouragement of my ever supportive husband, I also made the difficult decision to night wean a week before our second baby was due. At two and a half my big boy managed this admirably. We were stunned how easily he transitioned from frequent night feeds to ‘just cuddles until the sun wakes up’.
In the days following the birth of the new baby, my toddler visited us in hospital and had a few feeds but there was plenty of colostrum and milk for the baby. Once we came home I continued breastfeeding both boys, although chose to further limit feed frequency and duration for my big boy.
This pattern has continued for four months so far. Generally I feed them separately for ease and individual ‘Mummy time’, but there have been times with a tired or slow waking toddler when ‘milkies together’ has been requested and granted. This is generally brief and logistically awkward for me, but undeniably worth it to be able to comfort both boys at once. They even hold hands sometimes, and I think the tender moments outnumber the times little brother gets ‘poked’ – just!
My top tips for other mums considering tandem feeding:
- Do your research. A good place to start is ABA’s article on tandem feeding.
- Find other mums who have continued breastfeeding throughout pregnancy or beyond. They can be a great source of encouragement and practical suggestions.
- Surround yourself as much as possible with people who support your decisions – your partner, close friends and family, supportive health professionals or ABA
- Be flexible in your expectations –probably not everything will pan out as you expect, but that’s ok.
There is not much about my breastfeeding journey so far that I would want to change, and I am happy for both of my babies to continue breastfeeding until they are ready to move on. I am sure it will happen eventually!
Have you tandem breastfed your children or are you contemplating trying? I'd love you to share your thoughts and experiences below.
About the Author: Tanya Fyfe is an eco mum and environmental engineer and lives in the WA Goldfields with her husband and two young sons. The family's aim is to live sustainably and for their children to grow up understanding where food comes from and how it is produced. They generate solar electricity and have an organic vegetable garden and modest fruit orchard irrigated entirely with grey water.