Breast manners may seem like a funny concept, but for those who breastfeed beyond 6 months or so, it's an important issue. Extended breastfeeding can be a wonderful and healthy experience, and the recommendation that you'll often hear from breastfeeding advocates and experts is to nurse at least one year and then continue as long as it is mutually desired by mother and nursling. But for breastfeeding to remain a rewarding experience for the mother, it is sometimes necessary to negotiate what's acceptable behavior at the breast. Nursing frequency and schedules, as well as how babies ask for milk are a slightly separate issues, so I'll deal with them in separate articles (coming soon). For the purposes of this article, I'm going to deal with behavior while nursing.
• Position – Infants generally nurse in the sorts of positions you learn in childbirth or breastfeeding classes – crade, cross-crade, football and so on. But older babies and especially toddlers like to experiment a little or have a better view while nursing. Young babies may squirm and look around. Older babies like to try out different positions – lately my little one wants to straddle my waist and lean down to the breast. If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, then no problem! But for my part, it makes me a little claustrophobic and nutty after a minute or so. For small distracted babies you may need to find a quiet, private place to nurse if you want to avoid this, as they aren't really capable yet of learning to control themselves. But for older babies like mine, I gently let her know that if she wants to keep nursing, she needs to lay down (even babies who don't yet understand your words exactly can sense your tone and intention, when coupled with gently moving them into the position you desire). If she can't settle, I'll remove her from the breast and tell her she can continue nursing when she lies down.
• Wandering Hands and Feet – This is a really common complaint from nursing mothers. The biggest issue seems to be a natural instinct for babies to play with the other breast and nipple from the side they are on (often called twiddling). They also like to play with faces, pull hair, kick the opposite arm or nearby furniture, or for multitasking moms, play with the computer, grab the phone, or fiddle with the book you are trying to read. For smaller babies, remove their hands or settle their feet calmly and use gentle words that reinforce the action. Offering something to hold with the other hand can also work. Some mothers have great success with nursing necklaces (baby safe necklaces that can be worn while nursing for this purpose – see some examples at the end of the article). With older babies, you can add gentle removal from the breast if the words aren't working.
• Bossy Nursers – Once she started talking and signing my daughter took her shot at running the whole show. She wanted to choose which side ("no…that side first!"), when to switch ("other side!") and even where we would sit ("no…other couch"). Now some of this is fine, especially when to switch sites was kind of handy because I got to stop paying attention. But even in that case, sometimes asked to switch when being too lazy to nurse for the letdown, and I didn't want to be switching her back and forth like a ping pong ball rather than teach her to keep at it and be a little patient (see my article on "Stimulating a Letdown" through related links below if this is happening to you.). And the starting side was chosen by me based on which breast was fuller, and the couch thing was just more than I was willing to negotiate. Simply using words to respectfully answer back seemed to work for this one, since it's really an older baby issue. Again, it's really about your tolerance level. If it doesn't bother you…it's all good, but if it does, you can hold your ground…just do it respectfully. You can't blame 'em for trying!
• Biting – For this one, see my article "When Breastfed Babies Bite" through related links at the end of this article.
• Popping on and off – There is a stage where popping on and off is a bit normal…right around 4 months or so when they are becoming aware of the outside world and getting distracted. Your best bet is to nurse in a quiet, private spot for a few weeks, and not get too stressed about it. Popping on and off can also be an attempt to stimulate a letdown (again, see my article on "Stimulating a Letdown" through related links below). However, if this becomes a habit, it can become very inconvenient for nursing in public. Reinforcing "If you let go, it means you are all done" and closing up shop when it happens will eventually send the message. When they fuss, you can let them continue, but remind them "If you aren't done, keep nursing…if you let go, you are all done." Even if they are too young for the words, go ahead and use them along with the physical reinforcement.
Breast manners can be gently taught so that nursing mothers aren't left wondering whose breasts they are, anyway! If none of these things bother you, then you are more tolerant than I am. And it's not trivial -- it's important to recognize your tolerances, because all of a sudden finding yourself overly frustrated because of these issues may lead to early weaning. Instituting some simple breast manners may enable mothers to enjoy nursing for longer, to her benefit and the baby's.
Here is an example of two nursing necklaces (with further links to other related colors and styles) that your baby may enjoy:
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