Posted by: Morgan | July 29, 2011

“Nursing Toddler Won’t Eat – Help!”

This is a post I wrote on a few message boards, looking for help with a nursing toddler who refused to eat.  Below are many of the responses I received.  I’m posting this so that it’s available in case another mama is in the same boat. Note: This was written last January. Please read Epilogue at the bottom for our current situation.

Message Board Post

Daughter is 2, has breastfed – exclusively until 8 months and then a LOT since then. – She was nursing 5-8 times a night up until she was 18 months old. When she was 10 months old she started eating some foods, and around a year was probably 60/40 BF/food. I got pregnant and she seemed to start self-weaning, and was nursing a lot in other people’s opinion, but we were fine.
When my colostrum came in, she took it up a lot again, but still continued to eat pretty well. Some days she was gobbling the food down.
When my son was born (September 2010) and my milk came in, her appetite COMPLETELY left. After a few weeks I started asking other extended BFing moms/LLL/etc what they thought and I got a lot of ‘don’t worry, you have lots of changes, she’ll settle out’…. It’s been FOUR MONTHS and she has not. She started eating again more a month ago, but about 1 1/2 weeks ago she stopped eating completely. Again everyone said ‘don’t worry, she’ll eat’… and I’m encouraged by my BFing/LLL friends etc to continue nursing her, as she still gets nutrition and lots of comfort from it.
I will say first off that there have been lots of external stresses in the past while. We moved 7 months ago, my son was born 3 months ago, and things have been REALLY financially tight (we’ve had to have others cover our rent 3 months in a row now), which doesn’t effect her except that my husband and I are fairly stressed and that translates onto the kids. I had to go back to work (very parttime, waiting tables) this past week, and I know it’s effecting the kids for sure.All that said, she will not eat. Occasionally in the past 2 weeks we can get her to eat a bite or TWO, but no more. She’s almost constantly asking to nurse, and goes into what someone would probably call a fit when I tell her no. When she does nurse, she drains me quickly, which has upped my milk supply so that I think I’m putting out about 3-4 pints a day right now. I’m eating between 3500-4000 calories a day, and most days could eat more. And I’m losing weight (not fast or anything, but on 4000 a day a 5’7″ girl should be putting on some pounds). I’m needing to watch it so that my 4mo actually has enough TO eat.

Although I’m a supporter (obviously, I think) of extended breastfeeding, tandem nursing, nursing by request, and we’re a bedsharing family, I literally CANNOT sustain a toddler, let alone a toddler and a newborn. There is no way physically I can keep this up anymore. Which is a major reason why I’ve told her no so much lately. I’m so drained. My body cannot keep up.

I have a hard time wanting to discipline her for crying/having “fits” when I say no, because although I totally am done with her crying/screaming/etc at me all the time (SO tired of it), I know that she seriously is HUNGRY. Her little tummy probably hurts. She’s probably tired a lot because of it. She’s not sleeping well. Right now I’m up because she woke up (probably hungry), asked to nurse, I said no let’s sleep, and she cried at me for 45 minutes. I tried offering water, we were snuggling, she asked to hold me (which to her means completely smothering me, which is hard for me to sleep with, but I figured ok let’s try to get her to sleep…5 minutes later she’d start crying again)… I KNOW she’s hurting and hungry, but she will not eat anything we offer her. She asks to nurse or for chocolate (which we do not give her)…… Husband is upstairs right now snuggling her to sleep, but even then she cried for 20 minutes with him.

WHAT DO I DO?! She needs to eat. She’s obviously hurting. I’m feeling horrible, like I should just nurse her for this ‘phase’…but I cannot. It’s not that I’m against nursing a 2 year old, but I cannot completely sustain her, especially while having a newborn who DOES need me for 100% food and while having to work a night or two a week.

She’s a definite toucher, and I feel like I try to hold her often. What is hard is that every time (I’m not exagerating. without exception) she’s start pulling hard at my shirt and asking to nurse. Because she’s hungry. If I offer milk, water, foods (chicken, ham, turkey, cheese, crackers, avacado, banana, graham crackers, soup, sandwiches….lots of choices literally…) she says ‘no no no’ and then asks to nurse again.

I know that she can’t work through it in her 2 year old mind and that she really truly feels that she needs to nurse, but this can’t go on. She’s not eating. I’m at a loss. I have to teach her that food is ok and I’ll still love on her and hold her, that she doesn’t only need to nurse to have contact with me. The whole ‘she’ll eat when she’s hungry, nurse her just a few times a day’ deal isn’t working, it’s just making a really hungry babygirl and a really wiped out mommy and daddy.

please.help.

(ps. Not looking for ‘stop nursing cold turkey’ suggestions, as I don’t think that would be beneficial at all. I’m looking for ways to improve our situation, even if the solution is weaning, I’m looking for gradual (even if gradual means a couple weeks, that’s fine. I just won’t stop in a day)….

Thanks

Replies

Mississippi Breastfeeding Medicine Clinic, PLLC
You’re a wonderful mother for staying so in tune to your children’s needs throughout all the stress!!!!!!! How great that you are still nursing her- to soothe her transitions, and yours.It sounds as though your toddler is upset by all the sudden (to her) changes coming at once, and is wanting to “get back to normal” in the only way she knows how, i.e. wanting reassurance that she’s still your “baby” too. Children often mature in a 3 steps forward, 2 steps back pattern – amazingly fast one day, then needing to return to a familiar habit for reassurance and comfort when they realize how fast they’ve done something. Ironically, when we let kids know that it’s ok to still “be a baby” sometimes, they usually decide they don’t need to.Perhaps you could make some “nursing rules” that limit each nursing session, without limiting the number of times (at least at first) – still meeting her emotional needs and still meeting baby’s needs. Examples: Big girls only nurse after the baby. Big girls only nurse while we sit in a certain chair / couch / bed, etc. Big girls only get a certain number of sucks. (My favorite, because you can count quickly or slowly depending on the situation.) Also explain to her that her teeth need some exercise on foods she can use them for – her favorites. Keep offering all the options you have been – she’ll get back to them.
Other ways to make “big girls” feel special: Try a “big girl” day while baby stays home with dad, to let her know that big girls are special too – do something that babies can’t do – favorite activity at the park, fix each other’s hair, or offer going for ice cream? If appropriate, could you bring her some leftovers from your restaurant? (To give her a connection with you while you’re at work, and a tangible benefit for her of you you being gone 2 nights a week.) “Babies can’t eat yummy restaurant food.”
You might also try distraction, once she is eating again, at those times when she’s Not hungry, and using something other than another food choice – toy, game, video, etc.
Take care of yourself, too. Attention to diet – healthy calories and hydration, a good vitamin – generic StressTabs! – and a bubble bath work wonders.

Sierra K: So sorry you are struggling! My suggestion would be to offer nursing as a reward. Tell her she can nurse after she eats half of a sandwich. That way you’re not telling her flat-out no, and if she eats a little something first, she won’t be quite as hungry when she does nurse. Maybe start out small (nurse after 3 bites, or a few grapes) so she understands, but I think at 2 she will get it. Good luck!!

Kara B: …My kids are 22 months apart and my older son nurses a lot also, but not like what you are describing. He always eats at least one meal a day (dinner) and some snacks. But I’d say the majority of his diet is breastmilk. I night weaned him while I was pregnant because I had really sore nipples and was completely exhausted. It wasn’t easy, but it might help. I got my DH involved. Every time he woke up, I sent my DH in for like a week. There were tears, and we had some times I gave in, but it finally worked. Now he only nurses at night if he’s sick or we are visiting my parents. Another thing that I do is put a time limit on his nursing. He asks constantly, like every time I sit down. I’ll tell him, ok you can nurse until I count to ten. When I get to ten I tell him it’s time to let go. Occasionally he’ll ask for more and I’ll do another 10, sometimes 5. Even if I don’t put a time limit, I am always the one ending the nursing session.I haven’t done this, and am not sure how good of an idea it is, but have you told her she can nurse after she eats. I guess kind of like bribery??
Also, try explaining her hunger and thirst feelings to her. I’ve noticed my son will eat, say crackers, and then come to me for a drink. I’ll tell him “you must be thirsty, let’s have water”.

Rivi G: You as a mom know how you feel best. Gradually is always best and I think the reward milk is best. Sounds like changes and new baby are having a mega effect. You can also try peer help. If you have a play group, use them to get her to eat. “oh, look at Katy, what is she eating? Is that an apply? Do you want an apple too? Mommy will eat an apple, yum.” etc.

Jacqueline W:  My guess would be it is that she is feeling your stresses and she craves the comfort of your closeness and is probably “addicted” (for lack of a better word) to the high fat and sugar content in your newborn style breastmilk. The same way adults get caught in the cycle of eating high sugar/fat/carb foods and just crave it all the time. My 3 year old is the same way, complete melt downs with the “no” word if she is fixated on something. I would try having high protein and iron food on hand and when she asks to nurse have a heaping bite ready and pull the “ok, take a biiiig bite and then we will nurse!” it’s worth a shot. I have a great pediatrician who is VERY supportive of extended breastfeeding, minimal medical interventions etc but I can’t always count on her to tell me the truth if something I’m doing is not good for my kids in a big way. She said “unless there is some other medical issue, a picky child WILL not starve”. They are evolved little people and they will eat what they need or their bodies will make do. I know that’s not ideal at all, but if nothing else changes- you know she’s fine.

Isabel W:  I’ve got a bunch of points for you. It’s way too early in the morning, and I’m 38wks pg and generally incoherent, so my apologies if this sounds random…. 🙂
First I’m not a big fan of food rewards. The idea of you can only nurse if you’ve eaten real food is an excellent one, I just would be careful of how you word it, and not label it as a reward or as dessert. Especially with a nursing sibling around.
Second, and most importantly. Two is around the time when many kids (weaned or otherwise) stop being interested in food. Seriously, this is the number 1 complaint at doctor’s offices for this age group. Keep in mind that toddler portion sizes are tiny compared to what is expected (and less than what they may have been eating previously!). It is not uncommon for example for a toddler to eat nothing one day, then eat well the next. Or eat only apples on Tuesday, and want nothing but turkey the next day. Children this age, left to their own devices, will typically balance their own diet over a TWO WEEK period… not daily as us parents would like! 🙂 Many toddlers, when given the option of easy calories like breastmilk, cow’s milk or juice, will eat even less.
My suggestions….
– no breastmilk at least 1 1/2 hrs before mealtimes or snacktimes.
– reducing nursing to certain times of day (naptime, bedtime). At other times of day when requested, offer water, favorite fruits, healthy snacks, or story-time. You don’t have to say “no”, try terms like, “not right now” or “in a few minutes” (toddlers have no sense of time, if you can distract or delay long enough, she’ll likely move on to different things!)
– avoid the temptation to always make her favorite foods at meals, but for the first few days of this, it might be a good plan. Stick to water to drink.
– if she doesn’t eat, or doesn’t eat much, don’t nurse her. She’ll be okay skipping a couple meals. Really. Even if she’s already ‘small’ for her age, or whatever, she will be fine. This is the hardest one for parents!!!!!! Malnutrition and starvation take more than one meal, or even one day! Paying too much attention to what she’s eating (or not eating as the case may be) and constantly fretting over it in her presence, sets food and mealtimes up to be a battle and control time. This is a bad precedent for later years, and for the right-now, who needs another battle with a two year old. Food on plate, if she eats, great, if she doesn’t, oh well. (ie. don’t draw attention) Avoid coaxing, or making mealtimes all about what she’s eating. Just have your conversations, and when meals are over, she can clear her own plate.
– If she’s old enough to care about being a “big girl” use that term to your advantage. Give her a new job or responsibility around the house (dusting or cleaning windows is always popular, as long as you’re not picky about how it’s done!).
– Have her help you cook/prepare meals. She can, at two, dump ingredients, smell and touch certain foods, open the fridge to get stuff etc. It can be a pain having a toddler in the kitchen, but if she excited and interested in helping you cook, she’s not asking you to nurse before dinner, and she might (maybe!!!!) be more likely to eat food she’s helped prepare. Two year olds can even help set the table!!
—— The cooking and helping clean something things are about instilling pride and responsibility. Toddlers are at the age where they really want to feel important. You need to find ways to replace feeling important by nursing with more ‘big girl’ things.

Rachelle B:  Minus the tandum nursing I went through what you did when my son was little, that combined with him being sick all the time and frequent hospital visits, I was a wreck but I found something that worked.

I saw that he liked food with no effort, so I fed him warm oatmeal as often as I could for the first little while, and I either gave him the flavored kind or added things that would be good for him, its amazing what you can sneak into other foods! and for AGES, it seemed like forever that he just ate bites here at there of things but I used to tell him, “If you finish half of this oatmeal you can have boob” then it progressed to “if you can eat this bowl of oatmeal you can have boob” and sure there was crying at times but it worked. We still have eating issues at 5yrs old (he was 2 at the time) but its not so much a struggle anymore. He lost weight during the episode and now he’s gaining it back in strides, same with me, I was 98Lbs and 5’5″ for ages because of it all and now that it’s settled down I’m hitting 130Lbs. He went from losing 10% of his body mass and was 22Lbs FOREVER! Now he’s catching up and is 40Lbs and 48″. I know it’s hard and you’re stressing out big time but having a support system of family,friends, LC’s, and doctors help’s big time! Hope things look up soon! 🙂 ♥

Terra D:  As well as letting her help you cook also let her help you pick food out at the grocery store. Talk to her about it and ask her if there is something SHE wants you to get.At home get out a muffin tin and fill each cup with something different. Crackers, cereal, cheese, grapes, etc. and just leave it out in the open in a place she can reach. Let her help you fill the cups and pick out what goes into them. Then just let her graze and don’t watch her or she’ll likely not touch it. Just ignore it and see which (if any) of the food disappear and make sure you keep those bins filled up!

Don’t offer food at only meal times. Give her access to it all day long. The pressure of having to sit and eat may be bothering her. If the food is just as easy and available as the breast it may entice her back to it.
GET OUT OF THE HOUSE! Take her to places to play and bring quick easy snacks with you. When she asks to nurse offer the other food instead and tell her that it’ll be quicker to just eat this instead so she can get back to playing more quickly. If you have an carrier wear the baby so that your daughter doesn’t have access to the boobs at all. Out of sight out of mind. You may need to find something to do out of the house every, single, day for a little while to help her break the habits she’s formed at home. You’re goal is to change her routine and make access to the breast really inconvenient for her.
When you do have to be at home, wear the baby then as well. Keeping access to breast for her really inconvenient while her tray of food (that she picked out herself) is just so easy and available when ever she wants it.
Make all this all about her. Her decision on what she eats, when and where. If a tiny piece of chocolate is enough to distract her from the breast occasionally it won’t hurt her one bit! As long as she’s not eating it constantly then there isn’t a problem. Don’t offer it as a reward just an occasional option.
Oh, and one more thing have you tried offering her pumped breastmilk in a cup? If you let her know that it’s your milk she may be willing to take as her drink while she’s eating other foods.

Epilogue

It’s now been 7 months since I wrote that cry for help.  I used a LOT of the suggestions: we went shopping together that night and we had the first 2 hour segment of no whining in two months,  we created a snack tray in the fridge for her,  she started helping cook meals,  we used counting (which didn’t work at the time),  and I tried to worry less.

My daughter is currently 2 1/2…and is still nursing. 🙂  We’ve started a solid push for weaning in the past month, and she’s currently down to once a day 98% of the time.  For a long while we were doing alright on the eating and no screaming front, although lately it’s seeming to crop back up again.  Maybe I’m more settled or maybe it’s really not as much as it was before, but it definitely doesn’t wear me out as much as it used to.

It’s all about a changing relationship that benefits both of us.  For me, that means the nursing aspect of our relationship needs to be nearing an end, and for her that means the ‘nearing an end’ needs to be gradual.  It also means that I have to remember to replace that time we would have spent nursing with other activities and times that are just us, and it means she has to learn about consequences for whining.

Some day I’m going to write a post (or two) about my adventures in tandem nursing, but for now I leave you with some suggestions for getting a nursing toddler to eat, and hope that even a period of time like that is just that…a period of time.

Now it’s your turn, parents.  Have you ever had a child refuse to eat (whether they were also breastfeeding or not)?  What did you do?

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Responses

  1. i am in a similar boat! not tandem nursing (julia weaned when i was 4 mos pg with josiah) but josiah just turned 2 and still loves to nurse. i don’t really have much milk left so i think it’s more a comfort thing. which is fine except for the middle of the night, when i’d rather be sleeping! i wish we could just do morning, nap and bedtime, which we were getting in the habit of, but after coming back from vacation he’s been waking up in the wee hours again and it takes HOURS to get him back to sleep. my husband doesn’t feel right about me refusing to nurse in the middle of the night, but the sleep deprivation is definitely affecting my attitude during the day! josiah eats enough, but is pretty picky. he prefers fruit over anything, sometimes he’ll eat meat, cheese and bread but 99% refuses veggies (have to juice or hide in meatloaf to get them in his tummy). my dilemma is hanging in there convinced that he’ll stop on his own, or taking serious measures to make things change!

    • Emma started sleeping “through” the night right after she turned 2. Up until 14 months, it was 6-8 times a night, and then up to 2 years it was 2-4 times a night. She now sleeps on a pallet in the playroom, with Logan, although typically she wanders up to our room sometime in the night.

      If hubby isn’t comfortable with you declining to nurse at night, then what we do won’t help… but Emma always asks to nurse and I have been able to simply tell her no. Sometimes it goes along with ‘it’s time to sleep’ or “stack is sleeping” (stack is what she calls nursing…long story). Most times she does whine at me, but she responds well to telling her to stop whining, and then will roll over and snuggle up against me to sleep.

      Keep me posted on how it all goes! 🙂

  2. Thank you, this post is such a relief!!! I’m nursing my fifth baby and I have eight years nursing experience, but I’m so exhausted by the 23mo old who nurses like a newborn that I couldn’t think of the answer on my own. All wonderful suggestions organized in one post. Thank you soooo much. I think Rachele B’s answer resembles me best. My baby won’t eat anything that requires biting or chewing except maybe chocolate. I realize that it is a problem, and one that might take years to resolve, but I will give myself permission for now to just offer lots of oatmeal, cottage cheese, applesauce and easy to eat food in order to decrease nursing and help him sleep through the night–I guess feeding regular food can be a much more gradual long-term step.


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