Body Boundaries After Breastfeeding

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

About a year and a half ago, my oldest son, now four, weaned from breastfeeding. I was pregnant and breastfeeding hurt too much, so I took the lead. I was comfortable with it because I felt he was nearly ready anyway. I wanted him to continue seeking comfort from my breasts for as long as he needed, so I have always let him hold them, snuggle on my chest, and so on. The problem now is not him, but me. Up until three or four months ago, none of this ever bothered me. Now suddenly it does.

I suddenly feel uncomfortable letting him hold my breasts. I think it is in part because he will walk up and just grab and squeeze more like he’s groping me (though I know he clearly has no idea what that is), or sometimes he will grab at them because his brother is nursing. Perhaps I feel like my body is being claimed by enough people and since he seems so big to me in so many ways, it doesn’t feel like he should be doing it. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to project ideas onto him and push him away, but I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.

Thanks for any advice or experience you have to share!

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Cynthia: I can appreciate your dilemma. Your commitment to providing your son with this familiar comfort is to be applauded. In allowing him to continue to seek comfort from your breasts, you have, in a sense, extended the nursing relationship into his fourth year.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child” (emphasis mine). As you are no longer comfortable with this extended nursing relationship, now would be an ideal opportunity to:

  • model healthy boundaries,
  • teach your son to respect others’ body boundaries, and
  • provide him with alternative methods of seeking comfort.

By acknowledging your discomfort and taking steps to implement change, you model healthy boundaries while building on previous work you have done in regards to teaching him to respect others’ body boundaries. This change can begin with a frank discussion. Tell him honestly that you feel uncomfortable with him touching your breasts. State your new boundary – you will not allow him to touch your breasts from now on – and enforce it gently but firmly from that point on.

This is a good opportunity to reinforce that, likewise, nobody should touch him without his permission or in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable, and that he too can say no when he doesn’t want to be touched. This should include his right to refuse hugs, kisses, cuddles, or tickles.

To ease the transition, suggest other ways he can meet his need for comfort from you. Instead of holding your breast, he can cuddle on your lap, have you sing a song to him, or have you rub his back or play with his hair. While his brother is nursing, he can snuggle beside you and have a book read to him. Ask him to help you brainstorm other ways he can seek comfort when he needs it.

Sheryl: First of all, I want to say great job for breastfeeding your son for such a long time. It takes a lot of perseverance and determination! It is also wonderful that you let your son take comfort from your breasts even after weaning, as you met his need to be close to you.

Nevertheless, it is also important that you honour your own feelings, too. It is okay that you felt comfortable with it in the past and okay that you no longer feel that way. It is quite common for moms to feel irritated or uncomfortable when an older child is nursing and it makes sense that you would feel the same way from your son touching your breast.

There are certainly gentle methods you can employ to have him stop touching your breasts. You can try redirecting. It is likely that your son touches your breast in an attempt to connect with you. Perhaps he can connect with you in another physical way that feels comfortable to you: perhaps by holding your hand, touching your hair, or touching your face. Each time he attempts to touch your breast, suggest another option. Be consistent and firm and with time the habit should change!

Perhaps you can also try to ensure that the two of you have special time together each day to connect. You can think of this as “pre-loading” attention in advance, before he needs it or asks for it. Maybe pick an activity that you both enjoy, such as reading, painting, or cooking together. Ask your partner or another family member or friend to watch your younger child so that you and your older child can have uninterrupted time together. This special time together may reassure your son and make him less likely to seek comfort through touching your breast.

I hope these ideas help. It sounds like you have been doing a great job, mama!

Kelly: First, I want to reassure you that the feelings you are having with regards to feeling uncomfortable with the grabbing, or feeling that your body is being claimed, are perfectly normal. I know you didn’t ask, but rest assured that these feelings aren’t strange, and they don’t reflect poorly either on you or your overall feelings about your son. I wanted to get that out of the way, because in many ways, the feelings we have towards nursing older children are so complicated and often guilt-motivated (whether due to societal pressures or personal issues). If you can release the guilt or feelings of strangeness, it helps immensely with being able to assess the situation more clearly, without needless “bad mom” feelings.

You love the closeness you share with your son, and you don’t want to lose that, but you also don’t want to feel uncomfortable every time your son comes to “nurse”; that is perfectly reasonable! Your son is likely feeling a desire to connect with and be closer to you in the times when he walks up to grope you; he may not understand why or be able to verbalize it, but his grabbiness could just be a way of saying, “Mom, I need you now!” As you mentioned, your son doesn’t know he’s “groping” you (in the way an adult might use that word), and you don’t need to convey the meaning of groping to get across to him that you’re uncomfortable. However, you can use appropriate words to tell him that you don’t particularly like the way grabbing feels to you, and gently guide him towards ways of touching that are more comfortable to you while still allowing him to fulfill his need for closeness.

Just as you might approach weaning in a slow and gentle way, guiding a child towards a different method of touching will take time and patience. But with gentle persistence, I’m sure you can teach him how to better express his need for closeness when your baby is nursing. At moments when he’s not looking to nurse, you can start talking to him about the difference between gentle touch and rough touch. Just drop it into a conversation while you’re reading stories or playing; for example, “wow, I really liked the way you hugged me just then; that was such a nice way to touch,” or “I see how you’re touching your baby brother’s tummy while we’re changing his diaper. I’m sure he appreciates how soft your touch is,” or “I noticed the cat runs away when we pinch or grab him, but he sure seems to enjoy it when we pat him softly.” Once the term “gentle touch” becomes more a part of your family’s vocabulary, you can start to apply it to nursing sessions. “I love how gently you snuggle against my arm when I’m nursing your brother.” Try to use your praise in an action-directed way, acknowledging or praising the action rather than praising him (for example, “that touch was just right” instead of “good boy!”).

Don’t be afraid to tell him what you don’t like either, and offer an alternative (it may help to think of this alternative beforehand!). For example, if he’s snuggling nicely and then goes to grab at you, move his hand into a flat “patting” position and tell him what you are doing: “It hurts my breasts when your hands are in a grabby position, but I really like a flat hand, the same way you pat the cat so nicely! Can you try that next time, please?”

Realize that he may not get it the first time, or second, or even fifth, and that after a couple of minutes, he may revert to grabby mode just because that has become habitual. But every time he does use a gentle touch, mention how much you recognize that he’s trying and how much you appreciate that kind of touch! Eventually the habits will change, and if you’ve done it in a gentle, encouraging way, he won’t feel like he’s being pushed away, and you’ll feel more comfortable and close with him as well.

I also wanted to mention that there is the possibility of allowing your son to nurse again. I’m not sure if you are open to this or if he has even asked, but it is perfectly okay if you wanted to offer. It doesn’t mean that he’ll be going back to breastfeeding full time, nor does it mean that you’re stepping backwards. Restarting breastfeeding may just be another way to meet his need for closeness, and once the need is fulfilled, he’ll move through to the end of the weaning process again. If it is something you’ve considered or want to think about, there is a good article written by Norma Jane Bumgarner on Natural Weaning, which has some information about toddlers who return to nursing after a period of being weaned.

I hope this helps you. I am sure you will be able to work through this little bump in the road with gentleness and love!

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