“It Isn’t Supposed to Hurt”: On Breastfeeding and Manners

One bit of advice I give to the mothers of newborns over and over is “Breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt!” Yes, there may be some feeling of “breaking in”, like your nipples have gotten new shoes, but they should be well-fitting new shoes! If you’re comfortable and baby’s gaining, we breastfeeding advisor types will tell you, then you’re doing it right!

But what of later on, if it gets uncomfortable again? Rachel wrote last month about breastfeeding and teething, but that is only one of the ways a bigger baby can traumatize his mother’s breast.

I’m currently sorting through old photos for long-term storage, and I ran across these two of my second child at six months. IMG_2613 IMG_2614

Yes, that line along the side of my breast in the first image is caused by her fingers – with their tiny, paper-thin, razor-sharp baby fingernails. After I moved her hands, she decided the best response was to tug her head back: viz, second picture.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her latch here. I mean, just look at that lovely upper and lower lip flare she’s rocking: it’s perfect! But as you may be able to guess, my overall comfort level in these photos was… well, less than perfect. Hence why I took the pictures: as ammunition when she’s bigger and tells me how cruel I am to her. “Just look what I went through for you, you ingrate!” ;-p

So what do you do when your darling uses her perfect latch for evil?

1) Redirect. Move her hands someplace more satisfactory. Sometimes just un-pinching baby’s fingers from your skin or sliding her hand away from the nipple she’s twiddling (a perennial nursling favorite!) will work. For the moment. Lots of nursing moms wind up carrying special nursing-time toys–or wearing chunky necklaces that serve double duty.

2) Teach empathy. Go ahead and yelp! Tell baby that he mustn’t hurt Mommy. Just don’t scream out in anger: the goal here is to give enough negative feedback that the nursling realizes something went wrong, but not so much that you frighten him and ruin the feeding. You only have to mis-calibrate this once (or, well, a few times) to realize that leaking milk down the front of a wailing baby is worse than the gymnurstics you’re combating. But I will confess: the startlement in baby’s eyes when he realizes that you felt that, it’s pretty darn rewarding.

3) Teach consequences. It is perfectly appropriate to unlatch a baby who isn’t using her manners and set her down. To unlatch her, bring her closer to the breast so your breast covers her nose, or slide a finger into her mouth alongside your nipple. How long she must wait before returning to breast will depend on her age and development. (And your emotional state. It’s okay to take a mommy time out until you are able to handle her kindly!) For a 4-6 month old, 5 minutes or so will suffice; when a toddler pulls this nonsense, she may have to wait till her next regular feed.

4) Persevere. You’re bigger, you’ve been around longer, and I’m quite sure that with gentleness and persistence, you will succeed in teaching your child manners. Even if not today.

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