If you spend 10 minutes in a social media group where breastfeeding older children is the norm, you’ll come across the topic of toddler twiddling.
Toddlers enjoy fiddling generally: the little plastic figure in their hand, the toy car, your car keys, your glasses. It’s how they explore their world, develop their fine motor skills, calm themselves and occupy themselves.
And when they are breastfeeding, the other nipple often looks like another appealing button. Some stroke, some twist, some pull, some rub between a finger and thumb, some twiddle to get to sleep. And the nipple-owner is often struggling. If it doesn’t bother you, you can ignore this conversation. But too often, we are uber-bothered.
If your toddler enjoyed poking you in the eye during breastfeeding, how many times would you tolerate that?
I’m thinking perhaps once or twice.
Imagine if their favourite thing was fiddling with your eyelashes? Imagine the sticky little fingers and teeny fingernails. That’s going to happen for half a day MAX. We’d say things like, “I don’t like that. That hurts my eye. That makes me feel uncomfortable. Please don’t touch my eye.”
Too often, I’ve seen breastfeeding twiddling tolerated even when it bothers someone just as much.
I think because it’s the nipple, we somehow feel as though it’s part of breastfeeding. We might read something about how the nursling is stimulating a letdown reflex and think, ‘it’s natural so I’m stuck’. Or because you can see it gives them comfort and soothes them, you feel obliged to tolerate it. Of course, it often creeps up on you. Sometimes literally (with a hand suddenly thrust down your t-shirt) but I also mean figuratively. It starts when they are small when it doesn’t bother you that much and gradually becomes the norm without you ever having remembering consenting.
And consent is a relevant word here. I say this a lot when I talk about breastfeeding older children, this is their first intimate relationship. This is a model for how important relationships are going to go in their life and it’s about far more than milk delivery and about far more than their comfort. You are teaching them slowly and gradually, that you are a person too. Child-led weaning is not a scenario where empathy has been removed. Natural-term breastfeeding is not about teaching your child that your feelings don’t matter. What a waste of a vital life lesson.
When breastfeeding starts out, they don’t even realise you are a separate person. And often, we don’t feel like a separate person. But as the months and then the years go by, that changes and it should change. We have times when we have to do something else. We have times when we have to care for someone else. We have times when we have to care for ourselves. We have times when we don’t feel like breastfeeding.
Too often we think that the phrase often used in conjunction with natural-term breastfeeding, “Don’t offer, Don’t refuse” means that to ‘refuse’ is a betrayal of breastfeeding. But refusal (or let’s call it ‘negotiation’ instead) is a cherished opportunity to teach that humans in this world become better humans when they care about others.
An 18-month-old, or even a 3-year-old, is going to struggle with genuine empathy. They are often self-centred in a positive and wonderful way. But how does that phase end? Not by some magical delivery from fairies at around 5 or 6 or 8 or 9 years old. It happens slowly slowly. Even newborns react to a human face in distress. Day by day, piece by piece, a little brain changes and gets that others have feelings too.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful tool for teaching the skills that are at the heart of being a human. When you say, “I don’t like it when you fiddle with my other breast”, you are helping to make a person who will form healthy relationships decades from now.
There are some practical tips that might help: - You can tuck a piece of cloth or something textured into your clothing and encourage fiddling with that as an alternative. -Offer a knitted breast, or even a silicone one. -Move their hand to a different place with a gentle and repetitive phrase and be consistent. -Let them say one ‘hello’ and then give them a choice about where the fiddling will continue: Do you want my bra clip or your nose? Do you want red flannel or shirt button?
Motherhood and parenthood feel like the lands of sacrifice. We are constantly absorbing the message that our feelings come second (or further down the line). If we have made a choice to continue with breastfeeding, we sometimes feel as though we have signed up to some sort of deal where we have to pretend it’s all wonderful. We’re not supposed to want to make restrictions. We’re betraying the God of natural-term breastfeeding if we do.
This is not true. If the nipple twiddling is uncomfortable for you, end it today. On a practical note, this means more oxytocin and more milk flow and an improved breastfeeding experience for all. It also means your mental health and the ability to see a breastfeeding session as a positive experience is elevated. It could even extend your child’s opportunity for more days, weeks or months of feeding because you’ll be happier to continue.
If your toddler was poking you in the eye, you’d say ‘no thanks’. They might protest. They might get cross. You’d still say, ‘no thanks’. If they want to fiddle, there are infinite other options that give you agency over your other nipple. Toddler twiddling is not something you have to put up with because your feelings aren’t the priority.
Natural-term breastfeeding is about more than anti-bodies, protein, Vitamin A or even comfort. It’s a world where you have a fast-track way to create a little human filled with empathy and kindness. Use that opportunity.