The Early Years

How To Have A Respectful Breastfeeding Relationship

When my daughter was first born, she was a little angel while breastfeeding.

She just laid there contentedly and then dozed off and slept peacefully in my arms.

But as she got older, well… things got  a little wilder.

She started flopping around, nursing upside down, sideways, you name it. The breastfeeding community has dubbed it “gymnurstics”, which is a totally appropriate term if you ask me!

When it first started happening, I posted in a mommy group and asked what to do about it. The answers varied but the general consensus was ” Oh, its just a part of toddler nursing. You get used to it after awhile.”

Initially I accepted this answer, but the gymnurstics soon got to me. Not only this, but there were other issues like “demanding” to nurse and even pulling at my shirt. In a way in felt, well, violating. Like my body was no longer my own, it now belonged to my child. I wondered if there was another way. Many Moms shared that they simply weaned at this stage , but that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to continue breastfeeding. I just wanted it done in a way that respected my body and still provided for my daughter’s needs.

Fortunately, I ran across an article that gave me some clarity. At first, it didn’t seem connected with my breastfeeding frustrations but the connection came soon. The article talked about how the only way to teach our daughters to respect their bodies is for us to respect ours. If we want our children to understand bodily autonomy and respect, we have to start with ours. So I had to ask myself a hard question…

What am I teaching my daughter about bodily autonomy by allowing her to dominate my body?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a firm believer in teaching children bodily autonomy.

In our house, we allow my daughter to make her own (reasonable) choices in clothing, do not make her kiss/hug/touch people, stop tickling her when she says to stop, etc. I have worked hard to teach her that her body is her own and nobody – not Mom, not Dad, not the doctor, not anyone – has a right to do things to her body that make her uncomfortable (with the exception of certain medical emergencies.) So then what example am I giving when I cringe every time we nurse because I hate the way it makes my body feel? Because it feels like my body is no longer mine, but hers.

What I am silently telling her is that its ok for my body to feel violated just because someone I love wants to do it.

Read that again. 

I am telling her that its ok for my body to be violated just because someone I love wants to do it. I know this may sound extreme and I’m not trying to imply that a mom that allows these types of behaviors to continue is setting a child up for failure.  But these things add up, children are perceptive. And the stronger we can equip our children, the better.

Establishing Boundaries

I do want to clear one thing up. This post is NOT talking about infants. Infants have many needs and part of being a mom is meeting those needs. As a breastfeeding mom, you do have to “give up your body” in a way for a few months, or even a year, just as you had to while pregnant. Tiny babies have no way to self regulate, nor do they have any kind of motives or agendas. They are not consciously doing anything more than asking for their basic needs to be met. They cluster feed, there are often latch issues that leave sore nipples, they wake up all hours of the night, they need snuggles, etc. That’s all very normal.

Toddlers on the other hand… Its their job to push limits and test boundaries. Its their job to see whats acceptable and whats not. And its our  job to guide them. They are learning. Its not our job to just let them get away with whatever they want, especially when it makes us uncomfortable in our own bodies, all in the name of breastfeeding.

But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You don’t have to wean to put a stop to these behaviors. It IS possible to have a successful toddler breastfeeding relationship AND maintain your own bodily autonomy. My daughter and I are proof!

We continued our breastfeeding relationship until she was 3 1/2. And after we got over these hurdles, we had a successful respectful breastfeeding relationship the entire time.

Breastfeeding is a two way street. Teamwork. Breastfeeding has benefits and rewards for both mom and baby and both mom and baby should be satisfied with the relationship. If they are not, then its time to re-evaluate.

So lets talk about what we can do address and correct these behaviors and leave you and your child feeling like teammates in this breastfeeding journey!

1. Identify The Behaviors

There are a variety of frustrating behaviors toddlers engage in while breastfeeding. Gymnurstics is one, but there is also twiddling, biting, pulling at Mom’s shirt, throwing fits when unable to nurse immediately and many more I’m sure.  We struggled through several of those and we successfully pulled through. Its very important that you identify the behaviors and determine if they are bothering you. If they don’t bother you, you don’t have to put an end to them. The goal here is to create a mutually respectful relationship for both you and the child. If these behaviors don’t bother you, then don’t worry about them. If there is something else your child does do that bothers you, then you can use this information to fix that.

2. Communicate with your child.

Once you identify the problem, then you need to share this information with your child. Children are smart. Children understand. Even if they can’t speak and even if they don’t seem to comprehend what you are saying, talking to them as you would an adult (with age appropriate wording) goes farther than you may think. Once you have decided what behaviors need to stop, pick one and the next time you sit down to nurse, have a little chat with your child. It should go something like this: “OK Susie, we aren’t going to be climbing around on Mommy anymore while we get milk. Lets try really hard to sit still and respectfully. I really love our sweet snuggles.” And then start your nursing session.

3. Be consistent and firm.

When you start nursing and your child starts up the behavior, simply say “Oh Susie, Mommy really needs you to sit down and nurse a little nicer, please.” and then physically encourage (not force) your child into proper position. If the child fights you, then unlatch and say something like “It looks like you would rather play than nurse right now. That’s ok! Would you like Mommy to play a game with you?” Most likely the child will get upset and you can ask if she would like to try again. If she says yes, then relatch and try again. Repeat as many times as you want to. Personally I wouldn’t go past 3 or 4 attempts before shutting it down and offering the child something else. But you can determine that.

Important note: Do not allow yourself to fall into a lecture. Children are smart but they won’t understand a 20 minute explanation on why this is a problem. Keep to short sentences and even just reminder words like “Gentle, please”. One or two word phrases are received well and make the connection quickly.

If your child has been doing these behaviors for awhile then I advise a little grace. It can be hard for a child who has been allowed to do something for, lets say, 6 months to just stop after one session. If the behavior is advanced, then your first step should be to just minimize the behavior. So for example, instead of asking the child to sit perfectly still while nursing, start by just asking for the child to not climb upside down. Allow the child to wiggle around a bit but not up over your shoulder. After a few days or weeks of the new modified behavior then you can taper it down again.

The most important key here is to BE CONSISTENT. Once you set a boundary, you have to stick with it. If you are firm one day and not the next, the child will not only be confused but it will undermine your authority on the matter (the matter being YOUR body), lessen your results, and extend the amount of time it takes to accomplish this.

4. Positive Reinforcement

I know praising a child is a controversial topic but in my opinion if you set a goal for your child and the child meets the goal, then that should be pointed out. Once you finish a nursing session where the child did what was asked of her, you can simply say “Susie, thank you so much for being so nice while nursing. Mommy really appreciates that!” Even during the session if you remind “gentle” and the child calms down, I would immediately say “Thank you so much!”

Positive feedback lets the child know that the nursing session was success for both of you. Then the next time you breastfeed, you can remind the child “Ok, Susie, lets be gentle while you get milk, just like last time!” You want the child to know that this is something you are doing together. This isn’t something you are trying to force on the child, its something you can work through together – respectfully.

By following these four steps and having a little bit of patience and determination, you can extend your breastfeeding relationship until you are comfortable with weaning. For us, the goal was allowing my daughter to self wean. Your goals may be different, but extended/full term breastfeeding has many benefits for both mom and child, and I don’t want any mom to wean their child purely out of frustration! It should be a peaceful and confident decision.

I truly hope that if you are a mom that has landed here while battling these behaviors, or behaviors like these, that this post has been helpful! If you are a new mom and aren’t there yet, I would recommend bookmarking or pinning this post to save for when you reach the toddler years. And of course, sharing it with other breastfeeding friends can help others who may be, or become, in a similar situation.

Have you been in a similar situation? How did you work through it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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