Learning to breastfeed a newborn can feel like the most difficult task in the world. When you're sleep deprived, with sore nipples, aching or traumatised by birth and have a crying baby in a world that erects breastfeeding hurdles in front of you faster than we can say, 'where's the Lansinoh?', breastfeeding can seem like an insurmountable task. Our less-than-optimal breastfeeding rates are illustration to that.
But once you get past the newborn bit, everything aches a bit less and things begin to click into place. You're off and running. Hooray!
And then the baby grows into a toddler. You notice the baby that once nursed curled in your arms now sprawls bodily across the couch.
Suddenly, you find yourself dealing with breastfeeding annoyances not encountered before. A two-year-old that insists on carrying out a dental exam whilst breastfeeding, fingers worming insistently into your mouth. Pinching or scratching at your neck, throat, other breast. An eighteen-month-old who simply won't breastfeed without fiddling with the other nipple. A three-year-old who wants to stand up and breastfeed, or roll around on the couch whilst latched to your boob in a kind of unstoppable breastfeeding gymnastics. A toddler whose voracious appetite to nurse rivals that of any eager newborn, constantly demanding a 'boobie' every time Mama looks even sideways at a chair.
And when you try and gently put a stop to any of it, or even dare saying 'not right now' to the umpteenth breast request that morning, you're met with deafening, rage-filled tantrums.
Enough! You find yourself screaming inwardly. Just get off me!
Without a doubt, the most common complaint from a mother breastfeeding a toddler are those above. Pinching, wriggling, constant, constant boobing, and just not taking 'no' for an answer.
But the minute we bemoan our boobalicious toddler, all we tend to hear is 'why don't you just wean her'? Or, 'you wanted to breastfeed – now you'll never stop.'
So you put up with it. And put up with it. Until one day, you never want to see that child ever again and you decide that breastfeeding is the single most horrendous thing you've ever done in your entire life. You worry that everything they warned you about as an infant has come true—did attending to your infant's every need really spoil this child?
While it's important to lovingly, promptly attend to an infant's needs to teach them that the world is a safe, loving place and that they are worthy of love and comfort, a toddler needs to learn a new kind of compassionate worldly lesson: boundaries.
Firstly, let me begin by saying it's completely normal for a toddler to want to breastfeed all the time. A toddler is going through immense physical and neurological growth as they are driven to move, explore, experience and conquer new sensory and motor challenges. Breastfeeding provides comfort, normalcy, and nutrients to get through this. While their understanding of the world grows at a rapid rate around them, Mama's breast stays the same – warm, loving, comforting, relaxing. Who wouldn't want that to return to every five minutes? (Conversely, it's also normal for a toddler to suddenly seem uninterested in breastfeeding for enormous chunks of the day, or even days at a time. Relax – this is normal, too, and will pass. But that's a topic for another day.)
Toddlers are driven to seek out boundaries, and to test what happens when they are pushed. Testing limits is a way to ascertain the parameters of social interaction. Humans are social animals, and our young are driven to fit with the herd – just as we are. They need to know how to behave, what is acceptable, and what isn't.
So we need to gently, firmly show them our boundaries. What is and is not okay with us.
Moreover, toddlers are inherent narcissists. Empathy doesn't develop until somewhere around their fourth year, so they simply cannot understand why they cannot have everything they want, and right now. So whilst it is unrealistic to expect a toddler to comply unquestioningly with your request to stop tweaking your goddamn nipple, it is additionally unfair (on both of you!) to simply put up with it when you hate it so much it makes you want to scream.
Welcome to the world of parenting a toddler, where the loving, firm assertion of boundaries is one of the most common things you will do all day. Over and over again. And often, to the ear-splitting tune of shrieks of rage.
It's okay to say no. It's important to say no. But do it with compassion.
Let's say you sit down to breastfeed your toddler. He goes to grapple with your other breast. Gently, you move his hand away and say 'Hands off. I don't like that.'.
He goes for the breast again, more insistently. Gently, firmly, you take his hand away and say 'No. I don't like that.'
Perhaps he gets cross. Perhaps he fusses, or screams, or gets angry.
It is perfectly okay to sit with him through any outburst, to acknowledge and even help him verabalise his feelings – but remain firm that the other breast is out of bounds.
He might scream and rage and tantrum for a few minutes, or maybe longer. Maybe a lot longer. Remember, he's learning to deal with overwhelming feelings, and strong emotions need an outlet. That's what you're there for – a safe space to let out his feelings. Even if you're the cause of those feelings!
Perhaps this happens many times a day (and night) for many days (and nights) until your toddler eventually gets the message: Mummy doesn't like me tweaking her other nipple. But he will get the message, eventually. I promise!
Or, let’s say your toddler asks you for a breastfeed that you're just not in the mood to give. Here's the big difference between breastfeeding a newborn and breastfeeding a toddler – while a newborn simply cannot wait for mama's breast, a toddler can – despite the fact they'll act like they can't!
Try and say 'yes' – but make it when you're ready. Perhaps, 'yes, when I've finished what I'm doing.' Or 'yes, before lunch.' Or 'yes, before bed tonight.'
Providing a safe, compassionate outlet for your toddler’s big emotions teaches him the skills to manage and handle those big emotions as he grows. Just as you comforted your baby when he cried – now you comfort your toddler.
Open, honest communication – owning our feelings – teaches children how to do so themselves. It shows them how to respect others’ feelings, too. And this is key: here, we are demonstrating a vital lesson to our children: respecting bodily autonomy. Our own, and that of others.
There really is no quick-fix 'way' to guide a toddler in this regard. It's inevitable that if we say 'not right now' to a breastfeed if we're not feeling like it, they might (or very likely will) have a lot of noisy things to say about it.
But as a mother of a now 9-year-old and 7-year-old – both of whom breastfed beyond their fourth year – I can tell you it does and will pass. And the result is a mutually satisfying, evolving and respectful breastfeeding relationship.
A tantrum over a breastfeed can feel incredibly confronting for a mother. Make sure your own needs are met – you need and deserve loving support from your partner, family, and friends.
In fact, allow me to tell you – this thing you're doing? Awesome. You're doing a beautiful thing.
(This is an updated version of an article first appearing on The Little Leaf blog. Reproduced with permission of the author.)