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Setting Healthy Boundaries Through Breastfeeding

Holistic Parenting Magazine

 

My breastfeeding years are long behind me, so while the teenagers were out, my husband and I snuggled up on the couch to watch the latest Game of Thrones DVD that had come in the mail. It was the episode where we first see the castle known as the Eyrie in the Vale of Arryn.

It is beautiful, almost a fairytale kingdom, but somehow slightly odd and foreboding. In the throne room sits a regal woman, Lysa Tully Arryn, and, sucking from her breast, a child aged around 6, the Lord Robert Arryn. It is not often that we see breastfeeding portrayed in the media, and much more unusual to see an older child at the breast, so I was interested in how it would be portrayed in this fantasy world. In the book, Lord Robert Arryn, an only child and heir to the throne, is described as “a painfully thin child, small for his age and sickly all his days, and from time to time he trembled. The shaking sickness the maesters called it.” Others note he’s “prone to weep if you take his dolls away.” His mother dotes on him, calls him “baby,” and defends his “delicate temper.”

In the book, Lord Robert Arryn, an only child and heir to the throne, is described as “a painfully thin child, small for his age and sickly all his days, and from time to time he trembled. The shaking sickness the maesters called it.” Others note he’s “prone to weep if you take his dolls away.” His mother dotes on him, calls him “baby,” and defends his “delicate temper.” In the TV series, the boy looks sickly and sour and it soon becomes apparent that he is very immature and spoiled. This of course reinforces common, wellworn stereotypes of breastfeeding: that breastfeeding past infancy is somehow unhealthy and that children will never stop breastfeeding if given their way. How disappointing.

Of course, if a child is sick, breastmilk is the best thing for them, and children with any sort of delay, in this case “the shaking sickness,” can benefit from breastfeeding. So instead of being the cause of delays, breastfeeding might be extended because it is so beneficial to children who are not well. So yes, this boy is breastfeeding because something is wrong with him. But how great that he can breastfeed!

And as we know, in real life, most breastfed children are wildly healthy and thriving. But of course the media would focus on the anomaly: the sick, breastfeeding child. Unfortunately it seems the thing that is wrong with him somehow gets conflated in this picture with the idea that breastfeeding an older child is wrong.

And then there is the spoiled rotten part of the stereotype. And I have to admit to being confused about this myself, both before I had children and even as a young mother. If babies like mother’s milk so much, how is it that they stop breastfeeding? At what point does breastfeeding become an indulgence rather than a necessity?

The answer is probably different for everyone, but I was surprised to find that as my babies grew, breastfeeding was less a dependency and more of a relationship and a great place to set boundaries. Breastfeeding changed from being an obligation to being a wonderful tool in my mothering toolkit.  I found breastfeeding a great resource for teaching my kids that they are not the center of the universe. And I also found it a wonderful cure-all for the rough and tumble toddler years. It was both something they were working to outgrow, and a wonderful source of comfort when they’d gone too far. All in one package!

With a talking child I could discuss what breastfeeding meant to them.

Why did they like it? When did they need it? This all became very useful information in helping them understand how they worked best and what they needed when. Were they hungry or were they tired? Was the situation really that dire or would a quick snack and a snooze smooth is all over? There is just so much to experience and learn. And most things are learned much better in a calm state of mind. Often the quickest way to calm an upset toddler is with a cuddle and a feed. What a great teaching tool breastfeeding became!

There were so many fun games to play. Yes, we can nurse after I make myself a cup of tea. Yes, we can nurse if you help me quickly tidy this corner. Yes, we can nurse after we lie still and sing this song for a minute (or, more realistically, 10 seconds). Yes, we can nurse while I sing the ABC’s and we stop at the end. Yes, we can nurse while you keep your hands to yourself. Yes, we can nurse if you pat me three times (demonstrate pat, pat, pat) instead of pulling up my shirt.

And breastfeeding doesn’t always have to be conditional, often the response is just, yes. Especially when there is an injury or a crisis. Breastfeeding is a great comfort, but one they are learning to outgrow. With an older child, it fits in better and better into the daily routine and needs of others.

I gleaned many wonderful tips and ideas from other mothers and from the books Mothering your Nursing Toddler (a book not so much about nursing your nursing toddler—toddlers usually have that part down—but more importantly mothering) and How Weaning Happens.

Here are some helpful ideas I remember fondly:

One friend suggested “always do something nice for yourself before you sit down to nurse.” What a great idea! This shows the toddler that you are important too, that you have needs, and also, that a happy mom makes it much nicer to breastfeed! It’s a win-win.

In fact, my second child learned to anticipate my response to his request to breastfeed, which usually involved me saying I needed a glass of water and my book. If he wanted to nurse, he would first go get whatever novel I was reading, bring it to me, take my hand, and pull me towards the breastfeeding chair. How nice is that? My toddler saying, “Mom, it’s time to take a break, read a little bit, and have a cuddle.”

And that brings up the nursing chair. As the children got older, I tired of being asked to breastfeed anytime, anywhere, so I started to make it a habit to always move to a specific, very comfortable chair whenever my child wanted to breastfeed. I always breastfed in that chair and I only sat in that chair if I was prepared to breastfeed. Over time, breastfeeding became associated with that chair and more and more, breastfeeding was forgotten when we were not near the chair.

If time was short and we were rushing to get somewhere, sometimes we would agree to do what we called an “alphabet nurse” where we nursed for as long as the alphabet song. Often that was enough.

I also was not comfortable with my walking, talking child lifting my shirt in public or loudly announcing it was time to nurse. Instead, I taught them a code. For me, it was to pat me three times. Lift my shirt? No, here is how we ask to nurse, pat, pat, pat, then nurse. And if my child gave me the pat, pat, pat in public, I would remind them that we could nurse as long as they kept my shirt down and held still. Lift my shirt, squirm around? Nursing is done. We would move on then if needed, try again.

Sometimes I could say, “oh yes, let’s go home and sit in the nursing chair and we can relax and nurse,” and sometimes they would agree that that was a good idea and happily wait until we got home.

And sometimes they couldn’t wait, and that was okay too. I did find that saying no almost never worked, but saying yes with conditions became easier and easier. The more they grew, the more they could wait and understand.

And it was better to find a way to anticipate and avoid the request in the first place than to deny them once they’d asked. For example, better to anticipate hunger and offer food before they become so hungry they can’t think straight. And if they do become so hungry they can’t think straight, be glad you are nursing! It almost always works to bring a toddler back to equilibrium. It is such a perfect antidote to nearly every kind of upset.

If you find yourself in a rut with a habitual request to nurse and a stale routine (often at bedtime) try shaking it up: read a story first, sing a song first, count to 20, have a snack, change location, until you find a new pattern that is mutually beneficial.

As they grow and learn new skills and leave lots of baby behaviors behind, they are open to lots of variety and experimentation. But when they’d had too much of growing up and independence, breastfeeding brings them back to comfort and confidence, ready to forge ahead again.

There are so many options to find what works for both mom and toddler, and the great part is, as your children get older, they can help you find these ways.

Breastfeeding can keep your growing child healthy and thriving and smooth the way to greater independence. Now if only the media could get on board and see the possibilities…

 

Holistic Parenting Magazine

About the Author
Jenny Knuth
Author: Jenny KnuthWebsite: http://truejune.com
Jenny Knuth is an artist and designer who lives in Boulder, CO, with her geologist husband, two teenage sons, and two cats. She writes about her family’s adventures at http://jeninco.blogspot.com and her jewelry can be found at True June

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