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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Breastfeeding boundaries: Why it's okay to say 'no' to your toddler

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Learning to breastfeed a newborn can feel like the most difficult task in the world. 

When you're sleep deprived, exhausted and aching or traumatised by birth with sore nipples, a crying baby and a world that erects breastfeeding hurdles in front of you faster than we can say, 'where's the Lansinoh?', breastfeeding can seem like an insurmountable task. Our far-less-than-optimal breastfeeding rates are illustration to that.

But once you get past the newborn bit, when you've grasped an understanding of supply and demand, why your baby needs to breastfeed around the clock and everything clicks into place, suddenly, you're off and running. Huzzah! Breastfeeding is easy!

And then the baby grows into a toddler. You battle the cultural roadblocks to term breastfeeding; you notice the baby that once nursed while curled in your arms now sprawls bodily across the couch.

Suddenly, you find yourself dealing with breastfeeding annoyances not encountered before. A two-year-old that insists on carrying out a dental exam whilst breastfeeding, fingers worming insistently into your mouth. Pinching, squeezing, scratching at your neck, throat, other breast. An eighteen-month-old who simply won't breastfeed without tweaking, twisting or pulling the other nipple. A three-year-old who wants to stand up and breastfeed, or roll around on the couch and breastfeed in a kind of unstoppable breastfeeding gymnastics. A toddler whose voracious appetite to nurse rivals that of any eager newborn, constantly demanding a 'boobie' every time Mama looks even sideways at a chair.

And when you try and gently put a stop to any of it, or even dare saying 'not right now' to the umpteenth breast request that morning, you're met with deafening, rage-filled tantrums.

Enough! You find yourself screaming inwardly. Just get off me!

Without a doubt, the most common complaint from a mother breastfeeding a toddler are those above. Pinching, wriggling, constant, constant boobing, and just not taking 'no' for an answer.

But the minute we bemoan our boobalicious toddler, all we tend to hear is 'why don't you just wean him'? Or, 'you wanted to breastfeed—now you'll never stop him.' (The kind of well-intentioned but completely misguided advice that you file alongside advice to bottle-feed or sleep-train when you were exhausted with the newborn.)

So you put up with it. And put up with it. Until one day, you never want to see that child ever again and you decide that breastfeeding is the single most horrendous thing you've ever done in your entire life. We worry that everything they warned us about as an infant has come true—did attending to our infant's every need really spoil this child?

While it's important to lovingly, promptly attend to all of an infant's needs (especially for breastfeeding or cuddles) to teach them that the world is a safe, loving place and that they are worthy of love and affection, a toddler needs to learn a new kind of compassionate worldly lesson: boundaries.

How can it be so hard to find a middle ground, where boundaries are respected, but breastfeeding can continue?

Firstly, let me begin by saying it's completely normal for a toddler to want to breastfeed all the time. Just as it's normal for a newborn, a toddler is going through immense physical and neurological growth. Toddlers are inherently driven to move, to explore, to experience and conquer new sensory and motor challenges, and breastfeeding provides comfort, normalcy, hugs, and nutrients to get through it. While their understanding of the world morphs and changes at a rapid rate around them, Mama's breast stays the same – warm, loving, comforting, relaxing. Who wouldn't want that to return to every five minutes?  (Conversely, it's also normal for a toddler to suddenly seem uninterested in breastfeeding for enormous chunks of the day, or even days at a time. Relax—this is normal, too, and will pass. But that's a topic for another blog post.)

But while it's important to respond promptly and gently to your newborn or infant's cues to breastfeed, it is equally important to respond to your toddler's cues with a new kind of gentle parenting – boundaries. As parenting author Pinky McKay says:
"Now is the time to guide and protect your toddler with a new kind of parenting that includes setting appropriate limits: just as absolute freedom is confusing... too many rules can make little ones feel so trapped that their only option is rebellion." (1)
Toddlers are driven to seek out boundaries, and to test what happens when they are pushed. Testing limits is the only way to ascertain what and where social limits are. How do they find these limits? By testing them. Humans are social animals, and our young are driven to fit with the herd—just as we are. They need to know how to behave, what is acceptable, and what isn't. So while we need to gently, firmly show them our boundaries, we also need to remember that flexibility and empathy are important, and remember that excessive rules, restrictions or punishments are unnecessary.

Moreover, toddlers are inherent narcissists. Empathy doesn't develop until somewhere around their fourth year, so they simply cannot understand why they cannot have everything they want, and right now. So whilst it is unrealistic to expect a toddler to comply unquestioningly with your request to stop tweaking your goddamn nipple, it is additionally unfair (on both of you!) to simply put up with it when you hate it so much you want to throw them across the room.

Welcome to the world of parenting a toddler, where the loving, firm assertion of boundaries is one of the most common things you will do all day. Over and over again. And often, to the ear-splitting tune of shrieks of rage.

It's okay to say no. It's important to say no. But do it gently, and with compassion.

Lets say you sit down to breastfeed your toddler:
  1. He goes to grapple with your other breast. Gently, you move his hand away, and say 'Hands off. I don't like that.'. 
  2. He goes for the breast again, more insistently. Gently, firmly, you take his hand away and say 'No. I don't like that.' 
  3. Perhaps he gets cross. Perhaps he fusses, or screams, or gets angry. 
  4. It is perfectly okay to sit with him through any outburst, to verbalise his feelings, but remain firm that the other breast is out of bounds. 
  5. He might scream and rage and tantrum for a few minutes, or maybe longer. Maybe a lot longer. Remember, he's learning to deal with overwhelming feelings, and strong emotions need an outlet. That's what you're there for—a safe space to let out his feelings. Even if you're the cause of those feelings! 
  6. Perhaps this happens many times a day (and night) for many days (and nights) until your toddler eventually gets the message: Mummy doesn't like me tweaking her other nipple. But he will get the message, eventually. I promise!
Or, lets say your toddler asks you for a breastfeed that you're just not in the mood to give. Here's the big difference between breastfeeding a newborn and breastfeeding a toddler—while a newborn simply cannot wait for mama's breast, a toddler can—despite the fact they'll act like they can't!
  1. Try and say 'yes'—but make it when you're ready. Perhaps, 'yes, when I've finished what I'm doing.' Or 'yes, before lunch.' Or 'yes, before bed tonight.'
  2. Repeat points 2 - 6 above.
Providing a safe, compassionate outlet for your toddlers big emotions, and providing comfort and security, teaches him the skills to manage and handle those big emotions as he grows. Just as you comforted your baby when he cried—now you comfort your toddler.

But this is so often easier said than done. Why is it so hard to say no?

Because more often than not, healthy boundaries were not modelled to us. What wasn't modelled to us as children (and what often isn't modelled to us as adults), can be darn hard to model to our own children.

I was raised by a classic martyr. My mother would give, and give, and give, and then snap and take away everything—and blame me for the fallout. Rather than saying 'no' when she'd had enough, she'd fear my big emotions and keep saying 'yes' until she just couldn't take it anymore. Then, it became my fault for pushing her too far. Of course, a child needs to understand that they've pushed someone too far, but we need to be careful with blame, or inducing shame. All I remember is being called 'naughty' or 'bad-tempered' or 'ruining everything' rather than hearing her say that she was uncomfortable with what I was doing.

Open, honest communication, owning our feelings, teaches children how to do so themselves. It shows them how to respect our own feelings enough to respect others, too.

It happens in adult relationships, too. We put up with things unnecessarily, we skirt around the real issues and we're passive aggressive instead of being open and honest.

When my first child was born, her needs absolutely floored me. I was so confronted by her constant need for me. But rather than feeling capable of taking brief moments of time to myself, my options seemed to be to become a slave to it, or disconnect altogether. Or worse.

This is why our personal boundaries are so important. They mark where our limits begin. And when our boundaries are pushed, or disrespected, we feel angry and resentful. So it's important for our health, for our relationships, to respect our boundaries – before we become so resentful and used-up that we snap altogether, and deny our toddlers their very real need for breastmilk and breast-comfort.

There really is no quick-fix 'way' to guide a toddler to respect our boundaries. It's inevitable that if we say 'not right now' to a breastfeed if we're not feeling like it, they might (or very likely will) have a tantrum. But try not to be discouraged by that. Try and see it as a learning opportunity—a parenting opportunity.

And remember to take some time for yourself, too. A tantrum over a breastfeed can feel incredibly confronting for a mother. Make sure your own cup is full—you need, and deserve, loving support from your partner, family, and friends. Make sure someone tells you what an awesome thing you are doing.

In fact, allow me to tell you—this thing you're doing? Awesome. You're doing a beautiful thing.

(1) McKay, Pinky. 2008. Toddler Tactics. Pg. 59. Penguin Books.


  1. This is such a fantastic article!!! And so relevant to myself, b/f my 19month old dd but due to having number 2 baby in June and therefore sore/sensitive nipplies, having to limit dd's feeds but still lovingly reassure her and care for her needs at the same time :)

  2. Thank you!!! I apload to every one of your sentences. It is my first time reading your blog, I truly enjoyed reading it. especialy.....since just 2 hours ago at the dinner table one plate stayed untouched and a very well coordinated 3 years old love of mine, perfecting his multitasking by finding my one nipple with his hand, while wiggling his way into most comfy position on my lap and grasping my other nipple with his mouth. to which i said: This is the time when mama eats her food and drinking milk is not now. my older daughter and our dinner guest had a chance to admire an amazing ability of the human vocal cords of our dearest boy streeming from the floor at this point. i invited him back onto my lap and repeated this mams time to eat food and you can drink mamas milk in bed. it was beautiful to see his way of leaning my new boundries and we had the sweetest time in bed all together. blessings and good wishes to all who is like me learning about the boundaries and joy of sharing them with the world around us. with love, Beata

  3. Toddlers are lucky to be "still" nursing in our society, so meeting societal expectations (not here, not now, not in front of Aunt Barb)is a healthy step toward manners.

    1. I could not disagree more. Breastfeeding a toddler is not any more rude than breastfeeding a newborn. Maybe Aunt Barb should get over herself.

  4. Thank you so much for this article! I literally cried my eyes out reading it. I'm a single mom, and am the only person I know that breastfed longer than 6 weeks. My LO is 21 months old, and she pinches my other nipple so hard while breastfeeding that it bleeds and it always bruised. I've had enough, but every time I tell her no, it's like I've broken her heart. It's nice to know I'm not the only one. I LOVE breastfeeding, just not the pinching on the other nipple!!!

    1. Hey Anonymous, what an amazing mama you are to continue to nurture your little one with breastmilk, even though you're not surrounded by other breastfeeding mothers! It can be hard to feel alone sometimes, huh? But OMG ouch for bruised and bleeding nipples! It is, most definitely, okay to stick firm on that and say no, despite how hard it might be for your toddler to hear it! Breastfeeding is just another place where gentle boundaries can come in, just as in other areas of life. Much love to you. Kim xo

  5. Just had a moment with toddler and found your article. My mom was similar and I try to be cognizant of setting boundaries for myself before I explode!

  6. I really needed this, I'm 20 months in and my kiddo loves her boob. I feel guilty when I say no, my mom says I am confusing when I say yes sometimes and no others and I should wean her. I won't wean until she us ready and I am more confident in creating boundaries instead of always giving in.

    1. It's most definitely okay to say yes sometimes, and no at other times. You're not a robot, and you're modelling bodily autonomy and human nuance to your child. <3 What matters is that when you say 'no' or 'not right now', you are consistent in meaning it. Much love! xo

  7. This article could not have popped up on my feed at a better time. I finally got a chance to read it after an epic crying fit followed by comfort nursing to fall asleep. I said he couldn't spill the water out of my cup. It's great when friends empathize but hearing it from a stranger is so much more validating. I think I can make it through the next week now. ��

    1. You absolutely can make it through! You already are doing it. xo