I first came across the terms “tandem nursing” and “tandem breastfeeding” when I was pregnant with my second child. I was still breastfeeding my firstborn when I discovered I was expecting another baby, and I dreamed of being able to tandem nurse both kids once I gave birth.
I gave up on the idea after a few months though, when I could no longer bear the pain I would experience whenever my eldest child would breastfeed. He was around 2 years and 4 months old when my husband and I decided to wean him. We had a similar experience with our third child — I hoped to be able to do tandem nursing with her and her older sister, but was not able to do so.
Now that I am pregnant with our fourth child — and still breastfeeding our third — I find myself aiming for tandem nursing again. Sometimes, when I tell people about this “lofty” goal of mine, I get strange looks or even weird comments. I realize that tandem nursing/breastfeeding may not be considered a common thing nowadays but it is certainly a feasible thing to do. Let’s take a closer look at it, and see how some moms make it work.
What is tandem nursing or breastfeeding? The terms “tandem nursing” and “tandem breastfeeding” can mean different things to different people but for the sake of this article, we will go by the definition given by Salli Gamez, a longtime La Leche League leader based in the U.S. who also tandem nursed different pairings of her four children for 8 years. Salli writes:
“Tandem nursing is when you nurse two (or more) children of different ages. This doesn’t need to include physically nursing both children at the same time, although some women do.”
Reasons for tandem breastfeeding Each tandem breastfeeding mother has her own reasons for choosing to tandem nurse her kids. Here are a few of them:
1. Easier childcare, better sibling relationships, and continued breastfeeding benefits “It makes caring for both kids easier, lessens sibling rivalry, and all the benefits of breastfeeding are still extended to the older child.”
— Abbie Yabot, PGH-Certified Breastfeeding Counselor, La Leche League Leader, and mother of 5 kids aged 21, 19, 11, 9, and a newborn
2. To be “fair” to the older breastfed child “I've always been the type of person who wanted to be fair. I nursed my first child for only 3 months (I was young and didn't know any better) and my second for 2.5 years. When I found out I was pregnant with child #4 with an 18-month age gap between my third and fourth child, I felt a bit sad for child #3. I wouldn't get to focus on him like I did with the first two. So I decided to nurse him while I was pregnant and tandem nurse for as long as he wanted.”
— Charmaine Benitez, stay-at-home mom to 4 kids ages 16, 9, 21 months and 3 months
3. “Natural” turn of events “It was a natural choice. Nature and God intended for me to tandem feed. When I was still pregnant with my youngest, my third child was still breastfeeding. Despite the challenges — i.e. very, very sore nipples, awkward position, sleepless nights — we survived breastfeeding while pregnant and now here we are on our 11th month of tandem nursing.”
— Rona Basallaje, education and administrative manager, mom to Amber, 14, Red, 4, Slate, 33 months, and Matte, 11 months
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The challenges of tandem nursing Of course, like most things related to parenting — breastfeeding, in particular — nursing more than one child poses its own set of challenges.
Abbie shares, “My eldest stopped eating solids. He preferred the much richer colostrum turned transitional milk turned newborn milk. He was feeding much more than my newborn, which sometimes made me worry about my milk supply.”
Charmaine, on the other hand, discloses, “The main challenge was the adjustment period during the first couple of months. Child #3 had to adjust to the fact that he wasn't the baby anymore — that he had to share time and milk with his baby sister.
“I tried nursing them at the same time, but it wasn't for me. It was difficult when he wanted to nurse while his sister was feeding.”
As for Rona, “sleepless nights” were, and still are, her main tandem feeding challenge. “It’s ok to tandem feed during the day, when I can sit down and bond with both of them,” she shares.
“But during bedtime, even if I can find the most comfortable tandem feeding position, it’s still hard for me to get enough sleep — mainly because of my almost three-year-old's latch. It gets a bit uncomfortable, especially when he falls asleep and when he clenches his teeth while latching, which can be quite painful.”
The rewards of tandem breastfeeding Although there are challenges, tandem nursing also has its advantages.
For starters, Abbie says that tandem breastfeeding has “lots of health benefits.” “My kids who tandem nursed both have never gotten sick over three days, nor had any vitamins or any over-the-counter drugs,” she expounds. “They were also both calm and easy to appease with breastfeeding.”
Meanwhile, Charmaine considers “knowing that I'm providing the best I possibly can for both of them while my older child learns how to share and wait his turn” as her main tandem nursing “reward.”
As for Rona, “the special bonding time” between her and her children is what makes tandem breastfeeding worthwhile.
“As previously mentioned, besides my tandem nursing kids, I also have a teenager and a preschooler,” she shares. “I’m also a full-time working mom, so as soon as I get home from work, I gather my kids together, and they’ll line up to give me their hugs and kisses.
“Amber, my eldest, prepares our ‘seat’, then my tandem nursers will come to me while I ask how Red (my preschooler) and Amber's day went. There will be singing or dancing or storytelling while the two youngest are latching.”
9 tips for tandem nursing your kids If you’re considering tandem breastfeeding, or are struggling to tandem nurse your kids, here are some tried-and-tested tips:
1. Practice alternate feeding. “Do alternate feeding of your newborn and toddler/older child with both breasts,” Abbie explains. “This is for both health and aesthetic reasons — health: so that your newborn gets both foremilk and hindmilk, feed him or her with the fuller breast first; aesthetic: your toddler/older child can draw milk out faster, which will make your milk ‘refill’ faster as well.
“If you stick to just one side for each child, the toddler side tends to be much bigger than the newborn side,” Abbie adds.
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2. Take it easy and treasure each moment. Charmaine encourages moms who want to tandem nurse their kids: “Take one day at a time. Some days, you’ll feel as though everything is in sync; other days, you’ll feel overwhelmed.
“Just breathe in, breathe out, and remember that your kids are only babies for a short while. Cherish every moment with them.”
3. Take care of yourself. Speaking from personal experience and as a breastfeeding counselor, Abbie emphasizes the need for tandem nursing moms to take care of themselves:
“Hydrate and nourish yourself well. Now is not the time to diet. With just one child breastfeeding, you will be always hungry — what more with two children? Have water and healthy snacks always within reach.”
4. Find your “comfort zone.” Charmaine advises, “Find out what you're comfortable with. What works for me is getting the baby to nurse then nap/sleep first so I can focus on her big brother.”
“He only nurses 2-3 times a day: when he wakes up, before bedtime, and sometimes at naptime,” she continues. “So the one-on-one time we have while he nurses, and the cuddle time afterwards are moments I treasure.”
5. Manage your expectations. “Your newborn and toddler will have different nursing behavior,” Abbie explains. “When you decide to tandem feed, throw away all expectations and embrace your reasons for breastfeeding. This will keep you sane during moments when you feel like giving up.”
6. Ask the people around you to support you. Rona shares how important it is to be surrounded by supportive people. “I get support from my husband, my other kids, and our househelp,” she shares.
“While I tandem feed the two youngest kids, my husband plays with our preschooler or they do something together. Our helpers always offer me water or light snacks while breastfeeding.”
7. Find other ways to bond with your toddler/older child. Abbie expounds, “Don't offer but don't refuse a toddler from nursing. If the toddler is over 2 years old and breastmilk is not his/her main source of nutrition, look for other activities that you can do to bond with him/her. But if he/she asks for it, always be ready to give it.”
8. Share mealtimes with your older child. “For older children/toddlers who have already transitioned to solids, eat with him during mealtimes so he knows that breastfeeding is not the only way that he can be with you,” Abbie advises. “Children learn best through modeling. If they have separate mealtimes or feeding times, they will lose interest in solids and clamor for more attention through breastfeeding.”
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Ultimately, it is up to the mother if she will tandem nurse or breastfeed her children. Whatever her decision is though, her success will depend a lot on her confidence, knowledge, and commitment — and the support of those around her. In the words of Hilary Flower, author of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond:
"... there is no one 'best' approach to the challenges of breastfeeding during pregnancy and tandem nursing; each mother must follow her own inner voice as she balances her needs and her children's needs. Trust yourself."
Let us do our best as a society then to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding mothers everywhere, and empower them to trust themselves and their bodies’ capabilities.
Are you or someone you know tandem nursing your children? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
Reference: Gamez, S. (1997, May-June) Tandem Nursing — What Is It? Is It For You? Retrieved from http://bmsg.tripod.com/tandem.htm.