Before this whole lockdown business, breastfeeding was an important part of their life, sure, but you felt as though you were on top of the situation.
Now the situation very much feels as though it is on top of you. Very often literally on top of you. With a foot in your ear. Sometimes with a car in their hand. Sometimes twisted to try to see the television at the same time. Sometimes a nanosecond after the last breastfeed.
You’ve mastered the art of the Zoom call with the screen angled so you’re seen above the chin only. You can type at a laptop while breastfeeding and it doesn’t slow you down in the slightest. You can complete a supermarket online shop, peel a potato, colour in a rainbow – all with someone attached at your nipple.
Sometimes you are so grateful that you continued to breastfeed in these uncertain times. Your child is still getting access to the immunological benefits of breastfeeding at a time in history when that has never seemed more sensible. But this is hard. Touched-out is phrase that is sometimes used. Touched-out feels like a distant memory. You don’t feel you have control over your own body.
You are trying so hard to empathise with your child. This must be weird for them. They are stuck inside. No nursery. No wider family. Life feels different and they may not fully understand why. Grown-ups may have anxieties. Something is going on. Breastfeeding is the time when they feel safe and reassured. They can control this world that appears to be out of control. They request a breastfeed and it happens. They feel connected to you and feel they have some influence over their universe. They may also feel bored. Breastfeeding is something to do.
We can be empathic, and we can value natural-term breastfeeding and we can set limits all at the same time.
Breastfeeding an older child does not mean that YOUR feelings matter less. Breastfeeding an older child does not mean that YOU are not permitted to sometimes focus on yourself. You are allowed to feel fed-up. You are allowed to have had enough.
Your child does not want to be parented by a martyr to the cause of breastfeeding. They need a real human with feelings and desires and bodily autonomy.
This is their first intimate relationship. You are teaching them about kindness to others. You are teaching them that the feelings of others matter and sometimes we need to focus on other people ahead of ourselves. You are teaching them that sometimes people need to take a moment, have some space, have a breather. None of that is incompatible with being a good parent. It makes you a better parent.
We sometimes have conversations about ‘nursing manners’ with older children. If they pinch or hit us during feeding, we want to work hard to find strategies to change this. Parents do this because they don’t like getting pinched and hit. ‘Hey, this is not just a breast. This is ME!’ But we also work on this because we want our children to understand that pinching and hitting anyone isn’t kind. Kindness towards everyone begins with these small lessons and talking to a baby who is only a few months old about being gentle and having gentle hands.
Nursing manners extends beyond pinching hands. It means having kindness when the breasts are in the middle of an important meeting or the breasts are tired, or the breasts need to go and get a drink of water for themselves. Even from a young age, it’s OK to talk about the need to wait. Even when time is only beginning to be understood, it’s OK to say, “Do you mind if we just snuggle for a bit or read a book as my breasts/ milkies/ milk-milk need a bit of a rest?” You are teaching a vital lesson about being open with feelings and how those in loving relationships can express vulnerabilities and the need for give-and-take and compromise.
None of this is incompatible with being a breastfeeding advocate and a passionate supporter of natural-term breastfeeding. If you think child-led weaning means you are NEVER allowed to refuse EVER EVER, you may be dissuading others from continuing to breastfeed in the longer term.
Gentle parenting means trying to shape gentle kind people and that happens with modelling and empathy and communication. I was once asked to contribute to a compilation of articles on gentle parenting. I offered a version of my blog on weaning toddlers and pre-schoolers. The editorial team declined as they didn’t feel talking about weaning and restricting breastfeeding fitted with their ethos. Really? I’m not sure they ever got dressed in the morning and purposely chose the shirt with the tinier, more fiddly buttons as it might mean they get a bit more work done that day.
Every time we tell a parent that child-led breastfeeding means no restrictions from the parent at all and the parent must respond to every request for breastfeeding with no limits, we are potentially shutting down older babies breastfeeding for longer. We are perpetuating the myth that breastfeeding means you can’t be a normal person with frustrations and bad days and your own goals and desires.
What might help if you have a Guinness World Record Breaker older nursling at the moment:
1. Just talk to them. Be honest. Say you love breastfeeding, and milkies is special and helps to make them strong and clever but sometimes you need a rest. Just a short one. Milkies will be along again soon. You don’t have to stretch the truth and create some biological excuse. You don’t have to pretend they need time to make more milk. It’s just OK to say how you feel. I have met parents of 3- and 4-year olds who are struggling and will do everything (including putting band-aids on nipples) rather than just try and share how they feel. We can admit to being tired. We can admit to needing to concentrate on something else.
2. Some of this is about them looking to control their world but the world feels out of control. Their speech is developing and their understanding of communication. They ask for a breastfeed and it happens and that’s magic. What else may fulfill that desire? Can they ‘ask for a book’? It’s sometimes said that reading a book together is more like breastfeeding for a toddler than most other activities. If you can’t read at that moment, make a booking waiting room. They can pile up the books they want you to read next, in the order they want them. Or what about a toy waiting room? Or some cards with pictures on that show favourite activities and there is a board where they can stick up the next request?
3. They may be thirsty. Do they have a cup station they can reach and use independently?
4. If you are working from home, they are not used to it. They are not used to you being home and not getting more of your focus. This feels weird. What short activities give you 15-minute bursts of being able to work? In an office, we regularly take short breaks to grab tea, talk to a colleague, even just pick up your phone and scroll. It’s OK for focused work at home to only be in relatively short bursts. Use a timer to show them time passing. The app ‘Forest – stay focused’ allows you to plant a cyber-tree which then gradually grows over the time you have set in advance. The shoot appears, the leaves develop and the tree gradually gets bigger and bigger. At the end of whatever time you have set, you will have a fully grown tree to add to your virtual forest. They can come back and check on your device to see how the tree is growing. Is the tree fully-grown so now it’s time for a breastfeed? Or a chance to read a book? Plant a forest together made from patience.
5. Grant a breastfeed but on your own terms. It can only be ‘count to 10’ (Count slowly or quickly depending on how you are feeling). Or an older child can ‘buy’ a breastfeeding by trading a bracelet or a toy.
“Here are 5 plastic spoons/ coins/ dinosaurs. We’re going to play milkies shop. When you want a breastfeed, you can buy one. But you’ve only got 5 until lunchtime/ dinnertime/ I finish this piece of work.”
It’s amazing how long they will hang onto the last one. They feel in control knowing it’s in reserve. It’s still their choice when to ‘spend’ it.
If you have any other ideas that have worked for you, please feel free to share them in the comments below. You may have a strategy for dealing with a #stayathome nursling that will change someone else’s life.
This is not easy. And it’s OK to need some help. It’s OK to want to set some limits. Parenting a young child at the moment, when we are all stuck at home, is not easy for anyone and just because you are breastfeeding, it doesn’t mean you are immune from that. You don’t have to be the ‘perfect’ parent who constantly puts yourself second. Finding compromises, strategies and sometimes saying, ‘not right now’ is healthy for both of you.
If you are really struggling, you may find resources on breastfeeding aversion and agitation helpful. You can start here: https://www.breastfeedingaversion.com/
My article on weaning older children goes into further detail about setting limits: https://www.emmapickettbreastfeedingsupport.com/twitter-and-blog/weaning-toddler-bob-and-pre-schooler-billie-how-do-you-stop-breastfeeding-an-older-child