There are tiny footsteps across the landing and a little hand that needs a lift into his mummy’s bed. In he climbs and they lie down, him in the crook of her arm, her smelling the Johnson’s Baby shampoo off his soft head, listening to the quiet buzz of the house. Quietly, he asks, “back?” and settles down to nurse. Back is his toddler pronunciation of ‘milk’. The baby starts snuffling and sucking her thumb in the basket. “Baby, back,” he says and so she’s lifted out and joins them in the crook of mummy’s other arm. He strokes her little fingers and her copious amount of hair … or pokes her in the eye saying “eyes, mummy!”
Stanley is now two years old and his sister Lucy is four months and I breastfeed them both. If you had talked to the 21 year old me I am sure that I would have had very different ideas and attitudes about tandem breastfeeding. To me, it was something that fitted a certain stereotype and one that I did not seem to fit. I haven’t suddenly gone vegan or started going around barefooted in floaty tie-dye fabrics with flowers in my hair doing yoga, which is what my younger self would have perhaps presumed tandem feeders look like. The younger me would have felt uncomfortable at the thought of breastfeeding for an extended period of time, let alone having two nurslings simultaneously. Tandem feeding was not something that I planned. Rather like a child would say when he’s smashed your favourite ornament: It just happened.
As I lay in bed this morning I remembered how it was three years ago this week I was injecting drugs into my tummy which ended up in me conceiving Stanley. After the years of waiting to have a baby, I struggled to accept that I was pregnant; that my body would do what it was meant to do. I did know that I was determined to breastfeed. Who knows where my steely determination came from? Perhaps it was wanting to do the ‘natural’ thing after the unnatural conception, or maybe it was down to the fact I knew it would reduce my elevated risk of breast cancer. Whatever the reason, I was stubborn to the point of refusing to give up when the going got unbearably tough. At eight weeks old it was still agony. I suffered from bacterial infections, thrush and bleeding nipples with a baby who wanted feeding every two hours at best. Despite all that, we continued and it got easier. It got so easy that he would latch himself on when I dozed during the night. At six months he was found to be allergic to cows’ milk proteins. This only fuelled my determination to continue feeding him for as long as possible.
We breastfed happily into his second year. I was so incredibly proud that, despite all the challenges we’d faced, my body had grown and nurtured this boy for so long. I was happy to continue to breastfeed him for as long as he needed it and as long as we were both happy to carry on. Aware that he was becoming a toddler and that the baby days were fading, I continued to do what I’d always done: I breastfed my baby just like I had done every day since his birth.
It crossed my mind that if we wanted to have another baby then I would have to stop breastfeeding in order to maximise my chances of a frozen round of IVF being successful. However, we had no immediate plans to have another attempt and I hoped that it wouldn’t later be a choice between breastfeeding and trying to give Stanley a sibling.
One day when Stanley was 15 months old my well-used nipples became sore. I presumed Stanley had become a lazy-feeder or was growing yet more teeth. I was not prepared for the fact that it was because I had somehow rather miraculously become pregnant. After the shock had died down (actually, I still don’t think it has!), I began to wonder about how being pregnant would affect our breastfeeding relationship. I felt saddened at the thought that his breastfeeding may come to an unexpected end, forced by me – either willingly due to me encouraging him to wean, or unwilling due to pregnancy forcing him to self-wean. I decided to go with the flow and to take each day at a time, just as I’d always done. Part of me hoped that he’d self-wean and the decision would not be mine but the other part of me hoped he’d continue for his benefit (there are a number of benefits to longer term breastfeeding.)
He did continue and, as my pregnancy progressed, he became more interested in breastfeeding. At times this was challenging. I wanted to reassure him and allow him to make his own choices but breastfeeding in pregnancy was hard. It was uncomfortable at times, not to mention the bump getting in the way. Sometimes he wouldn’t have looked out of place at tumble tots with the amount of breastfeeding acrobatics that were occurring! However, despite the challenges, nursing him would often allow us to fall asleep together which was often a God-send in late pregnancy. In the last few weeks of my pregnancy we gradually introduced some ‘rules’ for breastfeeding, knowing that soon enough there’d be a newborn in the picture. Stanley readily accepted that he could breastfeed first thing upon waking in the morning and just before bed.
We’d just finished an early morning feed when my waters broke 8 days before my due date. I’ll always treasure that memory of his last feed before having to share with his sibling. Later that day I gave birth to his sister, Lucy, and unlike her brother, she latched on beautifully straight away. The first night we were home I ended up feeding them both at the same time. It was an incredible moment for me. We’d overcome so much just to have one baby and here I was, breastfeeding two!
I did come across some interesting view points and curious questions when I admitted to continuing breastfeeding in pregnancy. I was asked questions such as “but isn’t it risky in pregnancy?”, “but won’t Stanley take the baby’s milk?” and “how will your body make two different milks?“.
In answer to these questions, the body prioritises the baby in pregnancy and beyond. During pregnancy the breasts return to making colostrum, the antibody-rich first milk that a newborn needs. This means that when the baby is born, in tandem feeding, both baby and toddler receive this ‘liquid gold’ (it also makes for some interesting toddler nappies due to its laxative effects to rid a newborn’s body of meconium!).
I’m fairly open with folk about breastfeeding and I always have been. I’m not so loudly open about tandem feeding. Most people presume that I have long since finished feeding Stanley and I choose whether or not to correct them depending on circumstance. Most of the time I do admit to our continued breastfeeding because it makes me incredibly proud but there are times when I’m rather sheepish about it, after all, I know how I felt about tandem breastfeeding and breastfeeding toddlers before I found myself doing it! I’ve been faced with a range of reactions, mostly a surprised exclamation or expression closely followed by a question about it or a “wow, well done!“. People are naturally curious and I understand why. I guess most people want to know what it’s like.
What is it like?
The Good: It’s wonderful. Exhausting, tiring and tying yet wonderful. When I see their sleepy faces whilst feeding it makes my whole body fill with more love for them than I ever thought possible. I see my two-year-old son look over at his baby sister with curiosity and kindness. He takes her hand, and pats her on the head (he’s not yet mastered the skill of gentle touching just yet!). Sometimes I just wrap my arms around both of my nurslings and wonder how I got so lucky.
When I’m feeding Lucy and he’s playing he’ll often come over and look and smile and say “back” (he can’t say ‘milk’) and “baby”. He doesn’t show any jealousy towards her. In fact, at times, he has told me to feed her when she’s crying! Sometimes he’ll sit next to me with a book about tractors and we’ll read together while she feeds. It is my experience that continuing to breastfeed Stanley has aided his bond with his sister. He’s already learning to share and this sharing of mummy is allowing him to still have that very close contact with me and also his sibling.
The Bad: Breastfeeding in pregnancy is hard. At times I experienced an intense irritation of it. I didn’t want to be touched and often felt a bit mauled (this breastfeeding aversion is common in in pregnancy and sometimes afterwards too). I rode the storm and it did go away. It was also sore and the bump got in the way. I also worried a little at the rather intense bashing the bump took during acrobatic breastfeeding sessions!
It can also be hard once the baby is there. Sometimes my bigger one sees me feeding my littler one and sometimes he wants milk too. Saying “no” to a toddler, whatever the reason, is often met with a tantrum! Distraction works well (often, ashamedly in the form of a biscuit here!).
The Future: Since we put Stanley into a big boy bed we also used it as an opportunity to stop the bed time feed which he readily accepted so he tends to just feed in the morning, usually at the crack of dawn as is his new getting-up time. In the morning I’m often engorged (Lucy’s an amazing sleeper of a baby!) and so Stanley feeding actually helps lessen the painful engorgement. I think it will be a while before he willingly gives up this feed. It is our moment together and is most certainly preferable to his very early wake ups! I look at him and I see the baby he still is but also the boy that he is becoming and it makes my heart swell. I know that these days where he is a babe in my arms nursing at my breast are limited and I intend to treasure these rare moments of peace where we’re back where we started and where we are meant to be.
If you’re thinking about, or facing the prospect of tandem feeding, then there isn’t a vast array of obvious support available. It’s rare to find breastfed toddlers never mind tandem feeders! I was recommended a book “Adventures in Tandem Nursing” by Hilary Fowler though I have to say I haven’t actually read it myself. The best advice, though, comes from those who have been there. I was lucky enough to be able to find like-minded individuals through studying for a breastfeeding peer support course provided by my local infant nutrition team. Us tandem feeders are out there – you just need to look and ask! It won’t always be the tie-dye that gives us away.