Breastfeeding the distracted baby (6-12 months)

By LLLC Blog, 2 November, 2021

Distracted baby
Somewhere in the six to twelve month range many parents find their previously totally focused nursing baby has become a wiggler who can’t nurse in public, or if someone else is in the room, or the TV is on, or the cat walks by, or…!

What happened to the baby whose whole life revolved around breastfeeding and, more to the point, how do you keep breastfeeding through this stage? Those who are breastfeeding at six to nine months generally have a goal of continuing to nurse for a year or longer as recommended by the World Health Organization and the Canadian and American Pediatric Societies. Having a little one who suddenly seems to not be interested in nursing can be confusing. Many wonder if baby is weaning.

Weaning is a process not an event and it starts the day baby has their first bite of solid food and continues until nursing is no longer part of their life. So, yes the distracted nursing stage is a part of the weaning process but it isn’t necessarily the final stage of the breastfeeding relationship.

How do you survive the distracted nursing stage and continue your breastfeeding relationship?

First, it helps to understand what is going on in your baby’s brain:

  • When babies are making the big developmental leaps that come during this time period (crawling, standing and even walking, babbling turning into words etc.) they often need to go back to their base of safety (you and breastfeeding) for a few minutes to regroup before forging ahead again. This need for reconnection to the primary adult in the child’s life is biological and happens with all young children, breastfed or not. “ Drive by” nursing can be part of that reconnection and consolidation of new learning process for little ones who are breastfeeding.
  • Getting distracted by the things going on around her is a sign that her brain is developing. Now they are aware of the things happening beyond the little circle of them and you and they are tuning in the sounds of the world. They want and need to know what is going on. At this stage they have to look and see to understand what is happening. You will see the next step in brain development when you can tell that they hear what is going on in the room but they don’t have to let go of the breast and look to make sense of it.
  • Remember that your baby is a more efficient nurser now than they were as a newborn. They are getting lots of milk even during a short nursing. Babies at this stage may prefer more short nursing sessions during the day rather than the longer leisurely ones you had even a few weeks ago. Now longer nursing sessions usually revolve around sleeping and waking times.

Plan ahead:

  • If you are going to be out and about try to have a nursing session before you leave the house. That way you won’t be worrying that baby is really hungry if they only nurse for a couple of minutes while you are away from home.
  • If baby is eating solid foods bring some with you when you are going to be out of the house for a while. Baby may be more willing to have a solids snack than to breastfed in a busy distracting situation such as the mall, playgroup or community gathering.
  • You may find that you need to reduce the distractions around you so baby can have a concentrated nursing a couple of times a day, generally when waking up or going to sleep. This may mean keeping the TV off, not checking your phone, sitting in a darkened quiet room or lying on the bed. Decreasing the outside distractions is easier to do with a first baby than if you also have older children zooming around the house. Nursing with baby in a sling or soft carrier may help to provide the “distraction free zone” they need while you keep an eye on the older children. Babies at this age generally dislike being tucked under nursing covers and they tend to push them away.
  • Some babies in this age range will settle to breastfed better if they have a familiar toy or blanket that is part of the nursing routine. Having a familiar object can be a help when traveling with a baby of this age but you’ll want to keep close tabs on it. Losing the familiar object or leaving it behind can cause great upset! Breastfeed children often don’t have a favourite toy or blanket because you and your breasts are their “attachment object”. Don’t stress about them not having a favourite toy or blanket if they aren't interested.
  • Keep nursing at night. Night nursing is normal in babies in this age range. Because they are so busy during the day babies often get a good portion of their breastmilk intake during the night time hours when there are fewer distractions available.
  • Repeat frequently: “this is just a stage, this is just a stage”. It truly is “just a stage”. Breastfeeding little ones get through this distractible stage and go on to breastfeed for as long as they and mum want to.
  • Talk to parents with babies older than yours. A La Leche League Canada meeting is a great place to find others who are in the same stages as you are or who have passed through this stage. Sharing ideas and stories can be a big help. Knowing that you are not the only person going through this crazy stage can make it easier to wait it out.

On the other hand:

If you were thinking of encouraging partial weaning the “distracted nurser” stage is a time when you and baby may find it an easier to make some changes. Many have accidently weaned during this stage. With a busy baby who isn’t asking to nurse during the day you can just follow their lead and don’t offer but don’t refuse. Within a few weeks this approach will likely get you to only breastfeeding when baby is falling asleep and waking up.
For more support and information about distracted nursing, weaning or any other breastfeeding questions please contact a La Leche League Canada Leader.