Tandem nursing, or nursing two siblings of different ages, is actually quite common in many cultures around the world. Though it's much less common in Western cultures, more mothers are finding themselves in this situation as breastfeeding is on the rise. Perhaps you never planned to nurse two children at the same time—most moms don’t! But if they've had a great nursing relationship with their older child, mothers may see no reason to wean when they become pregnant—and nine months later they are tandem nursing.
Tandem nursing can be done, and there are benefits for the mom and both nursing children. After giving birth, a mother’s milk changes and becomes the rich, thick, lower-volume colostrum milk. It's important to ensure that the new baby receives as much of the colostrum as he needs. So in the first few days before the “milk comes in,” make sure to always nurse your new baby first. Once your milk comes in, typically between days 3-5, who nurses first becomes much less important. In fact, milk volume is based on milk removal, which means that the more milk that's removed from the breasts, the more milk a woman’s body will make. If you experience engorgement as your milk is coming in, being able to nurse an older child is an easy way to relieve your breasts and keep them from developing clogged ducts and/or mastitis. And if for any reason your new little one isn’t latching well, pumping is recommended to build your milk supply—and tandem nursing is a great way to do this.
One of the biggest concerns with tandem nursing is wondering if there will be enough milk for both babies. The simple answer to this is "yes," assuming you nurse on demand and aren't supplementing with formula; a woman’s body is fully capable of making enough milk for both babies. Research has shown that the main detriments to tandem nursing include a lack of time, physical and emotional hardships in caring for more than one child, and a lack of support. Having an adequate supply of milk for both children should not be an issue as milk supply is governed by supply and demand: the more milk that's removed, the more milk your body will make. An empty breast makes more milk than a full breast, so nursing multiple children will cause your body to make more milk as more is removed.
Not only does nursing your older child allow you an easy comforting/mothering mechanism and a way to relieve engorgement for your breasts, but breast milk also continues to provide nutrition and living antibodies for all children regardless of age. And the longer a woman nurses, the greater the protection she has from developing breast cancer.
If you decide you want to wean your older child, doing so slowly and lovingly can help to grow and nurture your already strong bond. You may want to begin by limiting when your toddler nurses—perhaps in the morning, before nap time, and at bedtime. This may be enough to help you feel that you're not spending your entire day breastfeeding, while at the same time helping your toddler still feel connected to you in this way. Since your toddler is older, being able to talk and explain when he can/can’t nurse will help the situation. Try to avoid making your older child feel as if the reason he can no longer nurse is because of his younger sibling, since you don’t want him to resent the new baby.
Ultimately, whether you choose to tandem nurse or not is a very personal decision. How often you nurse your older child, whether or not you nurse them together, and whether you decide to nurse in public are all choices you will make. Whatever you decide, you can rest assured that you have worked hard to give your children a wonderful gift that has health benefits that truly last over the course of a lifetime.
Gromada KK (1992) Breastfeeding more than one: multiples and tandem breastfeeding.
Layde, PM et al (1989) The independent associations of parity, age at first full term pregnancy, and duration of breastfeeding with the rise of breast cancer.
Krista Gray is a La Leche League Leader and mother of four exclusively breastfed children, including twins. She is currently studying to take the IBCLC exam in 2013. Krista authors her website: http://www.nursingnurture.com