Toddler Breastfeeding, Frustration and What Keeps Me Going

For the last week I haven’t liked breastfeeding Smunchie.  Not just not enjoyed it but skin crawling, hair pulling, hiding in the bathroom couldn’t stand it.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve hesitated to admit this.

When Smunchie started walking I smiled and thought “wow, I’m now breastfeeding a real toddler again” and it was sweet, special and adorable.  It didn’t seem like a big deal either, just a natural transition easing the reality of my baby, more than likely my last baby, growing up.  I’ve breastfed toddlers before but this time I was more tuned in, intending to savor every moment, holding onto it because it was one of the last.  I told everyone I wasn’t going to try to convince them to breastfeed their toddler, just talked about breastfeeding mine.  Like a fairy tale marked only occasionally by moments that were just slightly less than fantasy, I rode the unicorns over the rainbows of my breastfeeding dreams once again into nursing toddlerhood.

Having breastfed toddlers before I know they can become little gymnasts at the breast, start drive-by nursing and attempt to help themselves if necessary.  They don’t hesitate to ask for it by name, loudly and repeatedly and they can become quite demanding.  I know all this, I’ve been there before so I knew what was most likely coming.  But Smunchie’s transition into toddlerhood and breastfeeding was sweet and full of sunshine kisses.  I was the freakin’ wood nymph breastfeeding a toddler while fairies fed me bites of ambrosia and sips of nectar as my cherub toddler caressed my cheek as she sweetly nursed while we gazed into each other’s eyes.  Rainbow farting unicorns.

And then last week Smunchie became that toddler.  Any time I sat down was clearly an invitation for her to breastfeed (really, what else could I have to do sitting down?) and she rejected any multitasking on my part.  She also solidly learned and established her word for breastfeeding, one created and handed down by a big sister, Smunchie now whispers, sweetly chirps or screeches “BOBBIE!” when she feels she needs to nurse.  Which, as it turns out, is all. the. time.  When she was a sleepy newborn with heart issues we could’t get her to wake long enough for a feed and if we let her she’d easily sleep 6-8 hour stretches from the get go causing much worry and alarm clock setting.  Now though she would be happy on the boob every hour, sometimes 3 or 4 times in an hour.  And sometimes she could be on the breast for 25 minutes, others she’s struggling to focus for 5 but if I close up shop she freaks as though I took her unfinished ambrosia meal away.  She’s also gotten jealous of the other girls giving me hugs, climbing up on my lap for a cuddle or even sitting next to me.  To be clear, it’s not really about me as much as someone else coming close to her precious bobbies.  Then there’s the standing nursing, the dancing nursing, the upside down nursing, the head flop nursing, the splits nursing, the humming nursing, the snacking nursing, the in and out of the pool nursing and the just-because-I-love-it-so-much-this-is-the-best-stuff-in-the-world-nursing.  There’s also the entertainment she creates while nursing, the pinching, the scratching, the tickling, the mole picking (Oh how I roar then), the smacking, the foot in the eye, the hand in the mouth and the random but oh-so-predictable raspberry blowing.  I’d love to say that I have a halo permantely over my head and the patience of a saint but the truth is this behavior is starting to make me a little crazy.  Or, a lot crazy.  The wood nymph is now chained to the couch with a screeching gremlin demanding the breast.  And the unicorn farts are not rainbows.

Now I’ve probably scared everyone away and you’re thinking “that’s what I’m in for?  I don’t want to be a wood-nymph!”  Before you go running for the least wood-nymphy outfit you can find that makes the boobies completely inaccessible to your nursling let me explain a few things.

This is normal. Not because my darling nymph baby has now morphed into a gremlin but rather because her toddler development is right on track.  She’s really come to understand that we’re not the same person which means her beloved “bobbies” can walk away.  Very scary when your favorite food source can freely move about.  Oh yes, she absolutely MUST capture it every chance she can!  CARPE DI LECHE!

Move it baby! Not only does she now realize the bobbies roam freely but she’s also discovered that she has a fairly decent amount of mobility all on her own now.  In fact, she’s exploring all the different way she can move and really, what could be better than having boobies around for the exploration?  It’s a good way to be sure she’s hydrated and keeps track of the boobies so they don’t get away.  I mean, really, can you blame her?

She needs more. As she grows her nutritional needs do too.  In Smunchie’s case she’s not a huge fan of solids, she’ll eat somethings really well and others not well at all.  We offer a variety of whole foods often and frequently but some days she just refuses to eat anything solid.  Except carrots, she’ll always eat carrots.  It shouldn’t really surprise me then when she wants to breastfeed more often because she needs something to fuel her.  And I know that breastmilk is still perfectly adjusted to her needs and her body can tell that too which is why she wants it so much.  Check out this info. from Kellymom.com on how mom’s milk meets so much of a toddler’s nutritional needs. (If you haven’t seen this yet you’ll really, really want to.  Hint: it’s pretty awesome!)  By the way, in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not concerned that she’ll never switch over to solids and give up breastfeeding all together and no, I don’t think breastfeeding past 1 year old has messed up how she eats. I’m completely confident that she’ll one day be quite happy to let the bobbies go.  In fact, have you ever met anyone that didn’t stop breastfeeding at some point? Have you ever met anyone that was still dependent on breastmilk as a teen or adult?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

(Also, this study is kind of interesting which is why I’m randomly sharing it here.  The Abstract basically says that the longer a child is breastfed the more they will talk and more words they will have.  Which makes me realize I’m really doomed and The Piano Man and I have almost no chance of getting a word in edgewise around here.)

It makes her feel better. Toddlers fall a lot, get hurt or become frustrated. (Or get pushed/hit by an older sister.)  So much change happening so quickly, what are they supposed to do?  Sit down and rationally talk about it?  A pat on the back?  As adults we think that eating to comfort ourselves is bad but it’s really because of WHAT we eat when we’re eating to comfort.  Smunchie wants more perfect food?  If I reached for spinach or a head of broccoli when I was upset instead of a tub of ice-cream I’d be in great shape.  Smunchie doesn’t always need to breastfeed when she falls down but sometimes she really wants to and the skin-to-skin, the familiar taste and smell of mom and the position of being cradled all combine to be way better than spinach or broccoli.  Or ice-cream for that matter.  I would go so far as to say that by responding quickly to comfort her with the breast if that’s what she wants I’m helping her develop the confidence she is going to need one day to figure out how to comfort herself in healthy ways.

She talks! New words happen daily and she’s clearly assimilating all the nuances of communication.  Everyone around her are fairly decent experts at communicating and she’s trying really hard to get there.  Learning how to tell me she wanted to nurse the same way she hears other people communicate is a big milestone for her because, let’s face it, up until now breastfeeding has really been the most important activity in her life.  Now not only can she sign for it but she can verbally communicate.  Verbally communicate that she wants it with a full spectrum of volume.  She really HAS to use it!

Our relationship is changing.  She doesn’t always want to be held or worn in a carrier.  These days she really likes to get down and do her own thing.  Sometimes she loses track of me.  Others she gets so busy exploring and playing that she forgot to see what I was up to.  And then there are the times where mommy finds her standing on top of the piano or scaling the book shelves (that are anchored) and she’s quickly and quite rudely snatched from the middle of her adventure by fun-ruining mommy.  In those moments she may need to remember our connection, a crucial element of who we are to each other is our breastfeeding and it reaffirms our bond quickly.  Specially if she’s hurt that I’ve ruined her fun.

Boundaries. Smunchie’s developing behavior serves as a reminder to me that she is indeed always growing.  My baby is, in fact, leaving babyhood.  As much as breastfeeding has helped ease this transition, these new behaviors from her help to make the transition real.  As our relationship changes so does my parenting.  In our breastfeeding relationship I’ve realized I need to set some boundaries for both of us, it’s time.  Breastfeeding is a mutual relationship, it has to work for both of us.  Part of Smunchie growing up means her seeing boundaries not only for herself but for others.  This week I’ve started putting some of those boundaries in place with our breastfeeding relationship just as I’ve had to do with her big sisters.

  • This is normal but I have other responsibilities and children that need me.  If I know she’s ok and fed I don’t hesitate to make her wait a few minutes to breastfeed if I’m busy with making dinner, tending the needs of one of her big sisters, or need to transfer the laundry before I can sit down to nurse.
  • I love my baby’s new moves, she’s quite talented.  Still, my nipple isn’t a rubber band and I really don’t care to have it yanked around as she attempts a 360 degree turn while latched.  Or a full back flip.  Just like when she was a new born, if it hurts, I stop it.  Like with biting, if she continues I end our session telling her “ouch, you’re hurting mommy” then put her down and offer a toy that can handle the acrobatics.  Sometimes she’s happy to move on, others she gets upset but I find that she is much more settled at the breast then.
  • Her nutritional needs have increased and I love that my milk is up for the challenge.  Not crazy about being a snack bar though, I limit the number of times at the breast if she’s crossing into 2-3 times in an hour and sometimes offer a healthy snack instead of the breast to get her to stretch to 2-3 hour intervals a couple of times a day.  She’s also recently discovered that she likes almond milk and will accept that in a sippy cup when I need a break.
  • Knowing I can comfort just about any hurt is an incredibly empowering knowledge as a mother.  Knowing that she can get hurt every 10 minutes makes me tired.  So we’re developing other comfort measures.  Smunchie has a lovey and a baby doll that she loves to cuddle with.  When she’s been hurt (feelings or otherwise) I help her locate these items and cuddle her with them.  I also make it a personal rule to never pull my breast out assuming it’s what she’s going to want, I wait for her to ask for it.  When she does, I take it situation by situation and either find alternative ways to comfort or go ahead and nurse.  Having a big family, Smunchie has the added benefit of lots of other pairs of arms that would love to give a cuddle so I build up The Piano Man and her biggest sisters as sources of comfort too.  We have discovered that they all excel in getting her calmed down and moving on much faster than I can.  This also helps when I’m feeling touched out and is a great preventative measure to keep resentment from building when I’m at that point.
  • With our relationship changing Smunchie has started to really communicate that she doesn’t like me multitasking while breastfeeding.  When she really needs me she will reject me holding anything, watching anything or talking to anyone while she’s at the breast and wants me to stare down at her, stroking her hair and talking to her.  To respect her boundaries I try to be sensitive to that need and give her that when it’s required.  In doing so I’ve noticed that she doesn’t come back as soon to nurse again.  That connection established she’s secure enough to move on and explore again.
  • When she screams “bobbies” at me I try to respond softly and gently, affirming that I understand what she wants.  Children learn most through modeling and Smunchie very often drops her voice to the same tone I’m using.  I try to respond very quickly when she does to affirm this positive behavior and thank her for asking so kindly.  Which may explain why “thank you” is one of her new words too.
  • Letting go.  She and I are both having to start letting go.  It’s a gradual process but one that happens none-the-less.  I don’t believe that Smunchie is doing this to manipulate me.  I really believe it’s a part of the developmental fast track she’s on as a toddler.  Recognizing that she is going through a lot right now reminds me to respond more gently when what I feel like doing is rolling my eyes and locking myself in the bathroom.

All these realizations are very helpful in keeping me going when the going gets tough and the boundaries give me hope that this won’t be forever.  My patience is growing, maybe, little by little.   We’re not going to stop breastfeeding any time soon, I know she’s not ready for that and truthfully neither am I.  That does’t mean I never feel like stopping, nope.  I still feel crazy sometimes and I am still a little irritated at the unicorns a few times a day but we’re going to be fine.

One of the most cathartic moves I made as I struggled this week was to admit how I felt.  One evening in a moment of frustration and fatigue and the 4th time Smunchie had nursed in an hour when I had planned on being very productive I hissed at her “I HATE nursing!”  Yep, I said that.  And, in that moment, I meant it.  Twenty minutes later, I didn’t.  Ok, maybe it was more like two hours later but whatever.  The point is it wasn’t what I believed even if I felt it.  More importantly, even if I did believe it for myself my belief that breastfeeding my toddler is important and worthwhile is stronger.  To be able to stick with it though I had to admit how I felt and find ways to keep going.  Admitting it on Twitter was even more cathartic.  Because there I found out I’m not alone.  I typed, deleted, retyped, deleted, retyped, waited 10 minutes before I finally tweeted : “Dear world, right now I’m so sick of #breastfeeding. My toddler is constantly wanting to nurse and I am starting to go crazy. It will pass.” I was scared, what would Twitter-verse think of The Leaky Boob admitting she was sick of breastfeeding?  I even went so far as to add my own “it will pass” to dismiss my feelings and hopefully preempt any replies of the same.  Though I had some, mostly I was surprised by the number of replies saying they were feeling the same way.  When Stylin_Momma replied with “@TheLeakyBoob I needed someone else to admit that. Thank you. I’m trying to tell my 2.5 DD that she has to wait at least 1 hr btwn sessions.” and “I’m trying to encourage night weaning. These things make me feel like #breastfeeding support phoney. So thank you.” I wanted to jump up and down.  In fact, I might have.  The rest of the day I tweeted with Stylin_Momma and a few others about how we and our nursing toddlers were doing, passed around ideas and strategies and shared funny stories.  By that afternoon I was feeling much better and encouraged.  We weren’t breastfeeding support phonies just because we admitted we weren’t enjoying breastfeeding at the moment.  If anything, we were as real as breastfeeding support comes and could offer support from the trenches, knowing that sometimes it really isn’t all rainbow farting unicorns.  That day I leaned on my fellow breastfeeding-a-toddler moms and we propped each other up giving each other a chance to commiserate, laugh and develop some new tools for this phase of breastfeeding.

There are many great and wonderful parts of breastfeeding a toddler too.  I look for them and savor them to try and have a more balanced perspective.  That afternoon I pulled out a basket of instruments for Smunchie to distract her from wanting the boob again.  She immediately forgot about breastfeeding, or so I thought, as she became engrossed in the instruments.  Playing chimes on a drum and wooden xlaphone, Smunchie started singing.  I returned to what I was doing, smiling at the banging and chiming filling the living room as her little voice soared.  Then I realized what she was singing, the first time I’ve ever heard her put words to her songs.  Over and over again in sweetly sustained notes she was singing “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOBBIEEEEEEEEEEE!  BOBBIE! BOBBIE! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOBBBIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

See, only a toddler could write a song about how much she loves her bobbies.