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Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Why African Toddlers Don’t Have Tantrums

Why African Toddlers Don't Have Tantrums © Promise Tangeman

We live in times that are increasingly out of synch with natural rhythms. More often than not we impose our own schedules onto a world that has been governed by natural laws since it began and then wonder at the devastating consequences. Children, especially young children, who are hardwired to follow their instincts illustrate this clash very well. Toddlerhood can be a challenging time. A baby is becoming a mobile, vocal child and discovering their own identity separate from their mother. It is not uncommon to hear modern mothers talking about the terrible twos. Yet African toddlers do not experience this phenomenon to quite the same degree. Why is there such a marked difference among children I have observed? It’s quite simple: breastfeeding.


In many African cultures it is normal to breastfeed until well into toddlerhood. It is also normal for older children under the age of six or seven to breastfeed again with their younger sibling, if the mother stopped breastfeeding because of another pregnancy. Having grown up in both Africa and Europe, I found it fascinating that what was considered to be standard practice in Africa was called “extended breastfeeding” in Europe.


Breastfeeding children who are walking and talking is much more subject to other people’s judgment than breastfeeding babies. Many societies have picked, often quite arbitrarily, ages when it is no longer considered acceptable for babies and young children to be doing certain things. From my own personal experience, it is precisely when toddlers are discovering themselves and the world around them that they feel most vulnerable. Breastfeeding provides the close comfort and reassurance they need.


As we cart children around in the whirlwind that is our day-to-day existence, breastfeeding provides a time and a space that allows us to reconnect with our children in a meaningful way. Breastfeeding also solves two of the most frequent reasons that parents cite for tantrums “s/he is hungry” or “s/he is tired.” If children are hungry, food is being provided. If they are tired then they are getting a break from whatever might be deeply troubling them at the time. It also gives the mother a chance to stop and dispel tension with her distressed toddler.


I remember asking my grandmother, who had given me so much sound advice on breastfeeding, for how long I should breastfeed my daughter. She told me that my daughter would stop when she was ready. I’m glad I listened as it made a world of difference in her early toddler days. In stressful situations, my daughter could stop to breastfeed when she had hurt herself or just needed to know that I was close by and there for support.


What I had not expected was the profound effect that breastfeeding also had on me. In moments where our wills were clashing, it gave us a gentle focal point that broke the tension. It was an alternative “time out” to the current disciplinary “time out” practice. In the middle of what could have turned into an ugly scene, I found myself looking at my daughter’s face as she suckled and didn’t see a screaming toddler but a still really young child struggling with life as we all do. Her feed would give me a chance to breathe and by the time she had finished, we would both have forgotten what the fuss was all about.

© 2011 – 2013, JC Niala. All rights reserved.

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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

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  1. CommentsKaren   |  Thursday, 24 February 2011 at 3:42 am

    I have been blessed with my own self confidence and a happy, confident child who I nurture, listen to, comfort and play with without the need for him to still breastfeed. In my opinion, mother and child should learn other ways to deal with emotions brought from life’s situations as the baby and toddler grows up. It is of course possible to provide the needed level of comfort with cuddles and massage etc. Breastfeeding’s sole purpose in my opinion is to provide nourishment and should be scaled back after 18 months or so once solid food takes precedence and other methods of nurturing should continue forthwith.

    A mother who continues to breastfeed in the western world where food is plentiful is in my opinion doing it for her own reasons and perhaps she is not ready to let go a little but for her child’s sake, she needs to let them grow up and not try to keep them as babies.

  2. Commentsclaire niala   |  Thursday, 24 February 2011 at 5:28 pm

    thanks for your comment karen. in traditional practices in kenya breastfeeding is seen as one tool in dealing with emotions amongst other tools. also every child is different what works for your child doesn’t necessarily fit for others. i am intrigued as to why you should feel that breastfeeding should be limited to one sole purpose instead of being multifunctional? if a child after 18 months (as is very common in kenya) continues to ask to be breastfed then is the mother not doing it to meet the child’s needs too?

  3. Commentsbarbara bs   |  Tuesday, 05 April 2011 at 6:31 am

    I would like for you to write something about the difference in sleeping habits of Africans and Europeans. In Europe the is an obsession sometimes about having the baby sleep in his/her own room, and people feel ashamed when they say that the kid still sleep in the room with them (parents). Is it so in Africa? what would your grandmother say?

  4. Commentsclaire niala   |  Tuesday, 05 April 2011 at 8:19 am

    especially in traditional societies in kenya it is considered safer for babies to sleep in the same room as their parents. in modern cities too there is less of a pressure to get children to sleep in their own rooms. i think this is partly because of quite different ideas about shared and private space in the different cultures. there is much less of an emphasis on individual private space in many african cultures. my grandmother would likely say that there is no reason to be ashamed of having your child in your room.

  5. CommentsZoe   |  Wednesday, 11 May 2011 at 3:06 am

    I really like what you have to say about breastfeeding meeting emotional needs-and also being handy when you’re out and about for those transition times of hungry, busy or upset toddlers. I fed my 1st daughter until 14 months and who knows how long I will feed my son for. I agree feeding once babies walk and talk is not as accepted in Australia also. Gorgeous article, thanks

  6. CommentsMaMammalia   |  Monday, 19 December 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Great article! I definitely agree that BF’ing helps reduce tension between toddler and mother. If only it really did prevent tantrums completely! I think another big difference could be the pace of life. If we run about all rushed and stressed, a toddler in tow is going to pick up on that energy. Recipe for tantrum! Taking a more “natural” human pace, along with BFing seems like a good approach to keeping a happy toddler.

  7. CommentsJo carpenter   |  Thursday, 23 February 2012 at 5:42 am

    Maybe breastfeeding is one reason, but I also think that the fact that most families in kenya have a nanny, not just wealthy families, has a lot to do with it. Having someone at home to look after your kid means you don’t have to take them out to run errands, I.e you don’t have to take them to the supermarket if they are not in the mood. I think having ‘help’ at home frees parents up to respond to kids needs, whereas in the UK, I certainly remember most tantrums arising from a clash between my need to go out and buy milk, for instance, and my daughters need to play at home.

  8. CommentsSarah Madden   |  Sunday, 18 March 2012 at 7:15 am

    J. Claire K. Niala I so love your writing. I read something you wrote for another website and enjoyed it so much that I searched your name to find other articles you’ve written. It is so reassuring to read real accounts from a mother for whom breast feeding has been a positive parenting tool, rather than an obligation. Although I appreciate the scientific evidence to support breast feeding it’s great to have the emotional aspect supported as well. I plan to breast feed my now 5 month old son (who eats hourly, if not more frequently) as long as he would like. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. In this moment, where I would like to have a perfectly kept house & take a shower, You’ve been an enormous support in my primary purpose, Motherhood. Thank You.

  9. CommentsInCultureParent | Why African Babies Don’t Cry   |  Sunday, 17 February 2013 at 6:43 pm

    [...] [...]

  10. CommentsEmma   |  Tuesday, 26 February 2013 at 4:00 am

    I commented on your “Why African Babies Don’t Cry” article in the early days of breastfeeding when I was learning what “on demand” really meant. 16 months on we are still going strong. I believe that weaning and dependence on solid foods are not reason enough to stop breastfeeding. We are, after all, mammals, other mammals will feed their young as long as the young need to feed (though with some encouragement not to do so all the time), why should we think we need to impose an artificial cut off date?
    I am glad that the WHO now promotes breastfeeding for 24 months, I only recently found that out, though I had already decided to try to get my daughter to wean in her own time.
    Now I have to find my way through breastfeeding during pregnancy and feeding a newborn. I would love to hear more about this aspect of life in Kenya, I learn a lot from your blogs.

  11. CommentsInCultureParent | Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan   |  Tuesday, 05 March 2013 at 9:29 pm

    [...] breastfeeding had been introduced with a video showing a particularly sporty-looking Swedish mother breastfeeding her toddler while out skiing. A shudder ran through the group: “Sure, it’s great for babies, but by [...]

  12. Commentspel-j   |  Friday, 03 May 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Pretty sure that you haven’t heard my neighbour, Manuella, here in Uganda. Yup, breastfeeding has many plus points but the title of this post is a considerable generalisation, in my experience.

  13. Commentsalexia   |  Saturday, 04 May 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for another beautiful truth. I am still breastfeeding my 18 month old daughter and it feels as natural as breathing. I do get odd looks and raised eyebrows but I couldn’t ever let that sway me: the benefits, both nutritional, immunity wise, and emotional are too obvious to ignore. I wish everyone would read your articles – the next generation would grow up feeling nurtured.
    Thank you for writing. I wish you all good things.

  14. CommentsElizabeth Seaberry   |  Sunday, 02 June 2013 at 5:38 pm


    I love your blog posts and can’t thank you enough for sharing your sharp insights in such warm and elegantly written posts. As a first-time mom, I read much about the benefits of African traditions for infants. I’m hope to learn more about techniques used by African parents for parenting toddlers. I was happy to find this post, but wanted to ask if you have other advice to share with moms who have already stopped breastfeeding, and now are dealing with typical toddler challenges.

    - Elizabeth

  15. CommentsPoorna   |  Monday, 17 June 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I just read this post since I was trying to see if someone had written something about breastfeeding an 18 month old. My son suddenly stopped drinking any other milk other than mine – feels like he is on a strike or something :-), I have instantly fallen in love with your writing Niala! I wish I can read all you have written soon. Do you write in any other place, more about the extended breastfeding ?

  16. CommentsJC Niala   |  Friday, 21 June 2013 at 11:51 am

    @elizabeth – thank you for your sweet message – another piece on just that topic coming up.

  17. Commentsmonique debose   |  Thursday, 11 July 2013 at 1:58 pm

    thank you so much for your enlightening article. i live in los angeles and my son is 22 months- he still breastfeeds. besides being tired sometimes from doing it, i have loved being able to be there for him in that way. i do also feel the social pressures to stop though. my older sister asked me point blank the other day, ‘when are you going to stop doing that?’ as if i am doing something wrong. i’ve noticed i am starting to struggle with keeping up the practice. i am also pregnant with our second child who is due in about 6 months time and wondering how to manage both of their needs. thank you so much for your article. it gave me a boost of confidence. i am going to send your article to my sister now. ;)

  18. CommentsEmma   |  Friday, 19 July 2013 at 3:16 am

    I am curious – how do mothers in Africa who never breastfed manage, ie ones who it never worked for? Do their toddlers behave in the same way?
    I am wondering if simply the close contact and time-out is simply enough to reassure a young child as the nutrition part of breastfeeding stops being relevant.

  19. Commentslaura   |  Friday, 06 September 2013 at 5:23 pm

    I agree with you entirely. I breast fed my eldest daughter until 2.5 years at which time I became pregnant again. It was extremely painful to continue breast feeding and I was quite sick. However, I went to the breast for everything. We also co slept with her. She is a thoughtful del ightful child. One of my dearest memories is her looking up at me around 2 years of age – safe and content in her mothers breasts. I had a lot of pressure from family and friends to wean her but I felt right about our relationship. I never used a stroller, soother or bottle. I’m just an urban Canadian mom.

  20. CommentsPascale Sztum   |  Wednesday, 16 October 2013 at 2:35 am

    Thanks for sharing but can we only base the conclusion on one single factor? Besides, does living in Kenya and in Côte d’Ivoire make you an expert to make a statement about all African babies? 20 years of life in numerous African countries made me come across a large number of crying babies….but let us stay focused on culture…If we only base our judgment on cultural norms, it is equally if not more important to state that African toddlers are never left alone…even some Africans experience being alone when going to study in Europe or in the USA. I even knew a Kenyan couple who had to wait until they were in their 50s to be alone in a house… so unless you have an hidden agenda (marking breastfeeding), your statement is rather shallow… This being said breastfeeding is a very good thing… but let us not mislead people with simplistic ideas…

  21. CommentsCordelia Newlin de Rojas   |  Sunday, 20 October 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Hmmm. I don’t know. I’ve known lots of people who breastfeed on demand, past the terrible twos and yet I’ve seen their kids pull some pretty awesome tantrums. I think this is a bit simplistic and believe there are more cultural aspects in play here.

  22. CommentsJules   |  Monday, 21 October 2013 at 5:09 am

    My kidlet is not quite a year old, sleeping through the night (all 12 hours) and totally weaned. I never really had a plan for any of this. All I really have done is pay attention to the kidlet, and let him set the pace for these things. There is a pervasive idea that kids have to be a certain way by a certain age, and the plethora of parenting books that purport to teach you how to get your kid to sleep through the night by two weeks old (exaggerating) and what-not make parenting seem like some kind of technically-challenging secret thing, rather than just paying attention to your kid.

  23. CommentsVanessa From America to Italy   |  Sunday, 10 November 2013 at 8:42 pm

    First of all, I love your articles. I am an American born, 33 year-old living in the Northern area of Italy and pregnant with my first baby. It’s very normal for women to breastfeed in public so thankfully, I will be comfortable doing so. I can confess here that I slept with my mother until I was 17!! Talk about a mother sharing space and nurturing her child !!! My Mexican mother never had a problem with it and since Dad was not in the picture, there was enough space for a skinny teenager. She would even rock me to sleep sometimes out of habit. I would not have changed it any other way. I’m a healthy professional woman and it did not affect me negatively. She passed away when I was one month shy of 18 so, I’m glad I spent quality nurturing time with her that hopefully, will last me a lifetime.
    Now, I am going to be mama and I didn’t even think about how long I would breastfeed.
    ____QUESTION____: Could you share some tips on perhaps how African women care for their nipples? If many like you, prolong the feedings, I would think your nipples would be chapped and sore. I’m getting horror stories from other ladies around me, describing how their breasts became deformed or would crack and bleed. Thank you for your time and for the fantastic articles !

  24. CommentsMollie Kristof   |  Saturday, 01 February 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Simply put…….thank god for women like you who share such insights. You cannot begin to imagine the difference you make in the lives of those of us who struggle with these issues. We want to trust our instincts but get such pressure from a well meaning but ignorant society, we begin second guessing ourselves. Thank you for writing the truth as you know it and helping to validate it for the rest of us. It’s not always easy to articulate in words to those who do not understand, but sharing your articles with others certainly helps to create a more enlightened world……one reader at a time. Forever grateful….

  25. CommentsInCultureParent | Why African Toddlers Don’t Have Tantrums | The InTune Mother Project   |  Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 10:09 am

    […] via InCultureParent | Why African Toddlers Don’t Have Tantrums. […]

  26. CommentsChristina Boothby   |  Friday, 21 March 2014 at 4:21 am

    Despite my whole hearted support of breast feeding, this article bothers me a little. I have a 2 1/2 yr old that I fully intended to breast feed until at least a year old. A severe case of tongue-tie that wasn’t diagnosed in time stopped me in my tracks. Despite drastic attempts to nurse and increase my milk (and trust me, I tried EVERYTHING!), my milk dried up before my daughter was even 3 months old. While she has certainly had several note worthy tantrums, overall my child’s behavior is nearly prefect. She is polite, thoughtful, compassionate, and even tempered. Since breast feeding wasn’t an option for us, I can only assume this is because I am an involved parent, one who takes their job very seriously. If my daughter cries, we work together to find out why and remedy the problem. We use deep breathing exercises to calm ourselves in stressful situations, and have a “no biggie” attitude when life throws us a curveball. I have to say from personal experience, that these are likely more about the relationship between mother and child versus strictly the relationship with breast feeding. But keep promoting breast feeding, it is an amazing, beautiful thing!

  27. CommentsMarie   |  Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 5:51 pm

    I breastfed my daughter until she was 3 1/2. We had to stop because I began taking a prescription and could no longer do it. I am a single mom and I work full time. In those early years I felt like all I did was go to work, come home and nurse my baby. It was so worth the effort. My daughter has a good strong immune system and we have a very strong bond. She is 10 now and when she gets upset the best medicine is still just cuddling together on the couch for a few minutes. I know some women can’t nurse because of various issues and I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to bond with your baby. I think it’s the bond that matters, not necessarily how you forge that bond. For me, nursing was just the perfect way for us to stay close. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the African parenting style. I remember my mom commenting that I would never let my baby cry. I just did what felt right to me. She is one of the brightest students in her class now and I think she’s a great kid. So worth every moment sacrificed over the years.

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