Friday, August 3, 2012

A Tandem Nursing Story

Happy World Breastfeeding Week! Nursing a baby is magical - that the food I eat turns to rich milk, that my beautiful children thrive from that milk... It's really special. There is nothing like a baby or child looking up into your eyes as they nurse. That is beyond really special.

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, I want to talk about Tandem Nursing.

What? Is that like extreme nursing on a tandem bike or something?

The definition of Tandem Nursing is nursing two kids at the same time. A mother of twins might be a tandem nurser. A mother who has one older nurseling and a new nursing baby is a tandem nurser. And so on. Tandem Nursing is somewhat controversial, especially in this culture that frequently frowns upon nursing past a year (despite the recommendations from the AAP and WHO). Nursing two (or more...some moms nurse more!) children, when one is able to sustain themselves with solid food is a whole other kind of cultural taboo.

Before we delve into Tandem Nursing, I want to talk a little bit about Extended Nursing - or nursing into the toddler or preschooler years. Nursing is not a mere mechanical food delivery system; babies and children nurse for food, for medicine, for comfort, for connection, and because it's really good stuff. There is a dance and relationship that develops between baby and mother. The choice to nurse a child is deeply personal, and the length of time that a mother chooses to nurse is also deeply personal. Because it is a relationship between two people, the choice to end or change that relationship must happen between those two people. It's not my doctor's business how long I nurse (barring some extreme medical situations), and likewise it's not relevant to my friends, family, or strangers on the bus. People can and will share their opinions with me, but at the end of the day the decision has to be between the two people in the relationship. Nursing should stop when either party in the relationship is done. If the child no longer wants to nurse - Done. If nursing is too much for the mother - Done. If the dentist says nursing past a year is highly questionable - Find a New Dentist. You wouldn't let your dentist decide if you should break up your relationship with your partner, or stop speaking to your best friend, right?

On to Tandem Nursing.

When Brother-Bug was almost three, I found out I was pregnant with the being who would come to be Sister-Bug. Brother-Bug was nursing 4-ish times a day and I still cherished that time with him. It felt especially important as I contemplated sharing myself bewteen two kids - it was a time to relish my first child and the ability I had for those years to lavish attention on him without distraction. And he didn't want to stop nursing anyway. So we didn't. We talked to our midwife, did some reading, and decided to take it one day at a time. At any point I might have been done, and we would have helped Brother-Bug with the transition to not nursing.

Eventually, Brother-Bug learned to curl his body around my growing belly, and we explored different nursing positions. He would pat and rub the belly while he nursed. I gave him more of a schedule of nursing times (waking up, nap time, going to bed) and we talked about how the baby would get to nurse whenever.

It wasn't all blissful. Brother-Bug's initial latch-on hurt my pregnancy-sensitized nipples. But it only hurt for a minute and it was something I decided I could live with. I gritted my teeth for the latch moment and breathed through it. It passed fairly quickly, and stopped almost entirely somewhere in my second trimester.

Eventually, Sister-Bug made her way into the world. Brother-Bug was present at her birth. When she was about half an hour old it was time for her first attempt at nursing. She latched on my left, Brother-Bug latched on my right, sitting next to me. I looked down at my two beautiful babes and Brother-Bug reached his arm to wrap it around his new sister, gently stroking her back as they nursed together. That one moment was worth every painful latch I experienced.

Sister-Bug is about 6 hours old here. I love the smile in Brother-Bug's eyes.

As they grew together they would hold hands while they nursed, smile at each other, and connect while piled up on me. There were a few moments in which I felt overwhemed, under my two nurslings, but for the most part it was wonderful. Brother-Bug had a very easy adjustment to being the older of two and I attribute some of it to Tandem Nursing - that they could share this special relationship helped him understand the link between he and his sister. I loved having an extra tummy when I was just making too much milk - he was always happy to help take some of the pressure off! As he grew, his nursing slacked off, and just before Sister-Bug turned one, I asked him to be done nursing. He wasn't remembering to nurse and then feeling frustrated because he had missed it. His brain still wanted it sometimes, but the rest of him had grown out of nursing. He had a last nurse, we celebrated with ice cream, and I continued to enjoy nursing Sister-Bug.

Fast forward to Sister-Bug's second birthday. I was newly pregnant with the current Fetus-Bug. Still nursing. Again, we are taking it one day at a time. Sister-Bug is a LOT less committed to nursing. Sometimes she skips whole days and doesn't even notice. But we are still nursing and I plan on doing so until she is done...or I am done. I won't be surprised if she stops nursing before this new baby is born. Latching on is still uncomfortable, but I know that it's worth it for me. I treasure these moments when I can right the wrongs in her world so easily; the moments where she snuggles up to me, gazing up as we nurse. She will be a big girl so soon. I'm watching curiously to see where she goes and when she stops. The differences between my children fascinates me.


Tandem Nursing will not work for every mother. Some women have intense nipple and breast pain and must stop nursing. Some just don't want to keep nursing. And they shouldn't. Every woman's experience of nursing is different and should be supported and honored. If it's something you are considering, check out these sites:

La Leche League - Tandem Nursing : A great list of all their posts and links to Tandem Information

Breastfeeding Basics - Tandem Nursing : A very informative FAQ

Also buy yourself a copy of Adventures in Tandem Nursing, by Hilary Flowers. Good stuff there, and an invaluable reference to flip though as you nurse...and nurse...and nurse...

I've loved almost every moment of my Tandem Nursing experiences so far. If Sister-Bug does entirely wean herself before the baby is born, I will feel a little sad not to see that relationship develop as the baby sits on her lap while they nurse together. I love the way my arms and body encompass my children and feed them.

It's the best magic I can do. 


  1. Great post! People need to mind their own beeswax regarding other's nursing relationships. You have shown a beautiful way to handle nursing in your family.

    1. Thanks! I'm hoping that some day we can just nurse - and nothing about it is odd or politicized or weird. It's just nursing. All mammals do it...

  2. Great post - always love to hear your thoughtful perspective on these tender mama things.