By Deborah Bershatsky, PhD
At two years old, my son Ezra was a happy child, who seems to handle the frustrations of becoming socialized and civilized with amazing ease. If things got to be too much for him, he sought out momentary comfort at his mother’s breast, his tears were dried, tantrums were avoided, and hurts were healed.
At that time, he began the night in his own bed, and when he awakened to nurse, we took him into our bed for the rest of the night. He nursed once more before he awakened at 7 a.m., unless he is teething or ill, in which case he may nurse several times more.
By the time a child is two years old, it is appropriate to consider the approach of modified demand feeding, a technique that allows the child to nurse on demand but also allows the mother to gently nudge the child to feed on a schedule. Twos are ready to begin learning the truth that we cannot always have everything we want exactly when we want it. A child’s wants are no longer necessarily his needs.
A Budding Ability to Wait
At two and a half years old, Ezra could finally understand it when I said at 3 a.m.: “I need to sleep; no more nursing now.” Most of the time, he would roll over and go back to sleep, but occasionally his need was greater than mine and he insisted. I relented and let him nurse, but slowly I began to see that the ability to wait was developing in this little person. I recognized it as a first step toward weaning.
The Truth about the Terrible Twos
It is the struggle over learning the protection of infancy and facing the real world that has earned this age the name of “terrible twos.” It is terrible to a two-year-old to realize how small and powerless he really is in the world. If it comes upon him too suddenly or intensely, he will fight against it with his whole being and his behavior may indeed be terrible. But if his parents work with him, allowing him to regress at times and setting limits with love, and if he can find refuge in his mother’s arms when he feels overwhelmed, two can be more terrific than terrible. The two-year-old who still nurses has a wonderful way to ease the tensions and difficulties of growing up.
Also at this age, the child has more sophisticated needs of his mother. In addition to nursing, it is important that she distinguish his need to engage her in play or work from the need to merge and be close. A tired mother may be tempted to offer her breast to a toddler who wants her attention, just for the chance to have a few moments off her feet. It would be unwise to do this too often since we do want to help our children to begin the process of gradually letting go of babyhood.
Weaning Gives Way to Other Types of Bonding
Many mothers of toddlers who still nurse wonder whether they will ever wean. All children give up diapers eventually and use the toilet, babyhood, and all that goes with it. Nursing slowly gives way to early childhood, and one by one, baby needs are abandoned in favor of more mature pursuits. However, if a mother wants her child to be content with less time at her breast, she must be willing to give more of herself. A weaning child needs more, not less, of his mother’s time and attention.
If a mother wants her child to be content with less time at her breast, she must be willing to give more of herself. A weaning child needs more, not less, of his mother’s time and attention.