It may be hard at the moment to picture exactly how Christmas might go this year. Usually, it seems obvious: certain family members, expected recipes, that board game, probably that film. They’ll be staying with them. They’ll come over for that meal. You’ll go to them for that meal. Now there’s a breastfeeding baby or toddler in the mix and, for the second year in a row, some uncertainty when it comes to travel plans.
Even just a few months ago, Christmas 2021 looked like it was going to be easier to predict. But now we have a new variant and travel plans are changing again. Not all members of your family may feel the same way about getting together at the moment. It’s a combination that makes it hard to predict what Christmas will be like. It may be that again families don't get to celebrate Christmas in the way they might hope to.
If everyone does get together, you might be in a situation where your baby will spend time with close family in a way they never have before. This may be the first time you’ve all slept in the same house together for an extended period. It could be the first time they’ve been around as you put your baby down for a nap. It may also be a time when the alcohol comes out, and whether or not you are having any, it might loosen a few lips. Maybe people will behave unpredictably. There’s a lot to think about.
There may be other family members who have thoughts running around their head too. They have had some insight into your parenting and your life with new baby but, how are you really coping? You might be practicing responsive feeding and that’s not something they may entirely understand if they parented in the 20th century. These weren’t conversations they wanted to have over the phone or if you were only together briefly, but perhaps during a longer visit, they'll want to ask some questions. For them, breastfeeding was about timing and routines and avoiding ‘spoiling’ a baby or the breast being for comfort. Now we understand much more about the emotional aspect of breastfeeding and the value in the breast being about more than nutrition. We understand that babies can’t be spoiled and responsive feeding helps to develop the right milk supply for your baby, gives them the ability to respond to their own appetite and may help them to calm or even to fall asleep. For many of our older relatives, a baby falling asleep on the breast was a parental failure. For many of us, it’s a useful tool taking advantage of the natural sedatives and relaxants found in breastmilk.
You might be introducing solids to your baby using baby-led weaning and for some older relatives, that all seems a bit odd. How can your baby negotiate a broccoli floret? Surely, that needs boiling and mashing and can only be delivered through the medium of a spoon. Of course, your family aren’t daft. They understand how things change and recommendations change and they are capable of learning and reading but that takes effort. You may not be in the mood to be a one-person early years education tool right now.
Or with co-sleeping (which we know up to 80% of new parents do), you may not fancy explaining lack of risk. Or explaining why you don’t use a cot. Or that, ‘yes, your baby can sleep in a sling and they will be able to breathe’ or, ‘it is OK to have a glass of wine if I breastfeed based on the current evidence’. Or, ‘I have no intention in stopping breastfeeding just because my baby is 10 months old.’
During the last eighteen months, with more parents working from home, a lot of people have continued breastfeeding in a way that perhaps they weren't expecting to. I've also met families who have chosen to continue to give their babies the benefit of the antibodies from the vaccine or to give extra protection to their immune system over the next few months. You may not have expected to be breastfeeding a toddler but now you are and with the holidays approaching, you may be meeting family members who aren't even aware that you are.
All these conversations that normally would have been spread out over months could now potentially be squashed into a few days. It doesn’t feel very Christmassy.
You can take control. If you are spending a moment worrying about the negatives of having family around, there is action you can take. They may be worried too. Not all families are up for the honest and frank discussion option but there are subtler versions.
You might send them an email that says, ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing you but I just wanted to give you an idea of our day at the moment so you know what to expect.’ When you mention meal-times, add in a link about baby-led weaning so they can ‘learn more about it’. Talk about the food your baby has and politely ask that no one else offers other food. Explain that you might pop off around nap time because your baby still breastfeeds before they fall asleep. In the evenings, you may lie down with them and may not be around for a while. Some parents with babies go to bed WITH their baby at the same time and that’s OK too. You do not have to drag yourself back downstairs to have an ‘adult evening’ if that’s not what you want to do and you know you’ll be woken up several times in the night to come. You don’t have to try and fit some imagined version of what your parenting life will be like. Nobody who cares about you would want you to do that.
In that email, you can talk about the ways they can help. It’s a pain in the neck if a guest constantly asks, ‘what can I do?’ The best guests are the ones that never need to ask. You can help by providing a list now: ‘If you are ever stuck for ways you can help, each day there will be a few kitchen jobs written out on a note on the fridge. Folding laundry is always welcome. Wiping surfaces and bathrooms. No one ever needs to ask to empty the dishwasher or empty a sink’.
If you are going to stay at someone else’s house, you can write a note too that explains how your day will go. Just because you are the guest and someone else is the host, it doesn’t mean your role as a parent and your ability to have control over how you parent is changed in the slightest. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. If your baby finds it unsettling to be held by lots of people (and many have very little experience of being held by strangers), make it clear that once baby is in the sling that’s a sign to everyone that he’s sticking with you.
If you are worried about getting comments about still breastfeeding an older child, remember that you have no obligation to educate others. You don't have to be an advocate for all breastfeeding. It is not your duty to provide links and reading. You don't even have to talk about it at all. It is perfectly possible to politely explain that this works for you and your child and you'd appreciate their support. If that's not forthcoming, you'd appreciate not discussing it. People who love you will get that, even if it takes them a moment. You might be worried that your child will ask to feed in front of everyone. It's this fear that can often be worse than the reality. First off, even if you are the world's most passionate breastfeeding supporter, it doesn't mean you automatically feel comfortable breastfeeding in front of everyone. You are allowed to feel nervous. Secondly, it may be preferable to give your visitors a heads up that your nursling might ask (and this is the word they use) and this is how you'll handle it. It won't remove all the nerves but it will remove the fear of the fear. You can write an email or WhatsApp message and explain what you need from people.
It all sounds really bossy, doesn’t it? Why not? You are the boss when it comes to your own parenting. The guidelines you lay down now about your ability to call the shots will be with you for the next two decades. If you open a conversation now as to, ‘why you are still feeding him’ you can expect a dozen more conversations about other parenting decisions down the line. You don’t have to have conversations about anything that you don’t feel the need to justify. Simply opening some debates implies there are two equally valid points of view and you have to make your case and that’s not true for many things. Even the loveliest, kindest, most supportive family member in the world may think that they are helping by trying to challenge you on a parenting decision you really don’t welcome a challenge on. Of course, we may fear comments and challenges that may never come. Just as we sometimes find the fear of breastfeeding in public is worse than the reality, where no one bats an eyelid and all you get are warm smiles. It might be that the fear of comments is what hangs over you – in the weeks prior to getting together and even in the actual days themselves. Taking control may help you nip it all in the bud.
If you won’t be with family, the video call may be your only contact. It doesn’t have to be an intense long ‘trying to squeeze the whole of Christmas into the slot allowed by your free Zoom account’. Is it really fun to open presents ‘with’ someone over a video call? What can work well is looking at photos and video clips together. Babies aren’t always in the mood when the video call comes around. Just as you sometimes spend Christmas sitting next to someone and looking through photos together, you can reproduce that experience with some video footage. Perhaps show a previously recorded clip of a present being opened rather than try to capture it live. Make a little montage or slide show and talk it through. It can help structure a conversation and babies are notoriously bad at family quizzes.
I hope your Christmas is filled with people bringing you food, cleaning up after themselves and showing kindness. This has been another weird year and Christmas needs to be about rest and togetherness, in the best way we can. It doesn’t have to meet all our dreams. We don’t have to cram in all the conversations. It doesn’t have to be everything to everybody. You don’t have to present a vision of the perfect new family who copes with everything and has all the answers. Be the parent you want to be and encourage the people who love you to come along for the ride.
This article is adapted from an article that first appeared in 2020.