Even for those who are practicing gentle parenting and very much aiming to be child-led, I’m not sure it’s an ideal goal we should be endorsing as infant feeding support professionals. I suspect it was not created by someone who is currently feeding a 23-month-old who asks approximately every 30-40 minutes during a day including in the supermarket queue, from the back of the car, while you are stir-frying noodles, while you are caring for a newborn. I’m not sure it was created by someone who is struggling with aversion or who is working full-time (or even part-time). Or someone who would like to stop breastfeeding.
It's a weaning technique if standing in the rain is a ‘washing clothes technique’. You may get there one day, after a long time, but it may not be the most efficient method nor the most practical.
Parents that breastfeed and chestfeed often lose sight of their own needs. Too often I have supported mothers, especially those who began their mothering experience at the start of the pandemic, who slid from babyhood into toddlerhood and have ended up in a situation where they don’t feel confident setting boundaries or feeling they have a right to sometimes say no. Parents are supported to begin with responsive feeding and to respond to their baby’s cues but that doesn’t have to continue throughout a breastfeeding experience and we need to sometimes give parents permission to centre themselves. That could mean deciding to end breastfeeding and practice parent-led weaning. It could also mean being firmer around nursing manners or shaping the day’s breastfeeding in a way that works for everyone.
Don’t offer? Why not? Why can’t someone offer when they are about to go out or they are going to have a bath. Or when they are in the middle of weaning and they say something like, “We can have a short feed now but after that the next feed will be at bedtime.” Modelling body autonomy and demonstrating that these are your breasts and you sometimes get to decide when feeds happen is a powerful lesson for both members of the partnership. You might want to offer because you know that the next hour will be harder or you prefer to feed in a particular location or it just feels like the right time. I don’t believe that sometimes offering is incompatible with bringing breastfeeding to an end. You are taking control of the timing of feeds when it works for you.
Don’t refuse? I dislike the use of that word ‘refuse’. It’s not a word that suggests love and kindness. It implies selfishness and even a bit of brutality. When a parent is simply too touched out to face another feed and suggests a cuddle or reading a book instead, I don’t want that to be termed ‘refusal’. Every parent, even the ones who don’t intend to lead the end of breastfeeding, has a right to decline a breastfeed. What messages are we sending about someone having agency over their own body if every single feed request must be complied with? What opportunities for valuable parenting conversations are we missing? I believe that even the mother who doesn’t intend to take any lead over the end of breastfeeding can benefit from sometimes explaining they don’t feel like doing a breastfeed and that’s OK. Even if that is met with frustration and annoyance, that is part of honest and healthy parenting. Being a gentle parent means encouraging your child to begin to develop a sense of empathy and to start them on the journey of being a caring and emotionally intelligent little person. How can we do that if we are never allowed to show that our feelings and needs matter too?
If you want to end breastfeeding and you are really struggling with your child’s current breastfeeding patterns, please reach out for help. If all you find is the phrase, “Don’t offer, don’t refuse,” keep looking.
If you are happy to continue, remember that your needs matter too and declining to sometimes feed an older nursling is healthy and important. It’s important for your mental health and also important for your child to develop an understanding that other people’s feelings matter and their needs can be met in different ways. This is a two-way relationship. It always has been. Now your child doesn’t depend on your 100% for their nutrition, even more so. Putting boundaries in place and being honest about how you feel is how relationships work. We shouldn’t be endorsing the idea that mothers and parents must always stay silent and compliant.