Setting Limits when Breastfeeding

Hilary Flower, Ph.D, Florida, USA

Originally published Oct 2016, republished with the express permission of the author.

Hilary Flower wrote Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond in 2003, since then it has become a classic in La Leche League group libraries. The idea for the book was born out of her own experience, which led her to research the safety of continuing to breastfeed a child while pregnant and carrying on nursing two after the birth. The book provides support for mothers who have the same questions Hilary asked herself. It addresses with honesty the physical and emotional issues unique to mothers in this position and provides tips for practical strategies, which include setting limits when breastfeeding.

Here is an adapted excerpt from the book about setting limits.

If pregnancy hormones don’t disrupt breastfeeding too much, it can be a special way for you and your older child to stay connected while you contemplate the changes to come.

“I probably felt more warm and fuzzy about nursing my “baby” because he would soon be the second priority, so I cherished the time I had with him and tried to use it wisely by holding him even more.” Mary B., Ohio

Similarly, breastfeeding your toddler alongside your newborn can be a special way for you to stay connected with your older child during this exciting—and somewhat disorienting—time in your family life.

But if your breastfeeding relationship comes under strain for whatever reason, adjustments may be necessary. Be aware of some red flags that may indicate your breastfeeding relationship needs your help:

  • You feel yourself withdrawing from your nursing child.
  • You hear an irritated tone in your voice when you say “Yes.”
  • You feel you have no choice when it comes to nursing.
  • You are prone to snapping at your child while breastfeeding.
  • You are getting exasperated enough to consider weaning on the spot.

If you see these signs, re-visit your decision about weaning or continuing to nurse. If the answer is weaning, it will be a good decision for both of you. If the answer is that continued nursing is definitely worth it, you may find that your attitude becomes more positive.

“My nipples were incredibly sore, and I had very strong urges to push my son away. I was prepared to continue nursing Tommy, but I found myself being very short with him and not doing a good job of hiding my aversion to nursing him. One day my husband witnessed me struggling to nurse Tommy, and told me that if I couldn’t be nice to Tommy, I shouldn’t nurse him at all. I thought that was the meanest thing he could possibly say to me, but he was right! I realized that I just needed to make a decision to nurse or not to nurse. Anything else was hurting us both. I decided that our nursing relationship had been so wonderful that I did not want it to end on such a negative note. I would nurse him as long as he needed. Firming up this decision made it easier to keep our nursing sessions positive. The good news was that he was beginning to accept some limits from me.” Sanya D., Georgia.

A renewed conviction that continued nursing is for the best, combined with a little self-care, may go a long way toward soothing a frazzled soul and body. Setting limits that take your own feelings into account is a big part of self-care, and self-care is the key to enjoying mothering!

Setting limits can help in other ways as well. Breastfeeding is an exchange between two hearts. A gentle “no” when nursing feels wrong creates the possibility of a clear “yes” for a session when you are truly up for it. Taking your own feelings seriously and allowing yourself to freely choose when to offer breastfeeding can maintain the openness and joy of breastfeeding for both you and your nursling.

Remember that more is not always better. Your child needs you to honor your bottom-line limits. If nursing is for comfort, the emotional quality of the exchange is of great importance. It is hard to disappoint your child, especially during a difficult family transition. But as the mother you understand something that your child does not—you are protecting your child from the mixed messages and resentment that can build up when you say “yes” but really mean “no.” In this way, loving limits serve your child as much as you, even when your distress is the initial catalyst.

An increase of maternal voice in the breastfeeding relationship can evolve gradually and naturally. It is important to show your child that you take care of yourself and that your needs are important, too. This can be a meaningful way for a child to begin to learn to respect the needs of others. One mother tandem nursing her older daughter said:

“I am very careful not to lose myself in this process, because then what would I be teaching her? I cannot be a good mother if I’m resenting her all the time. So as gently as I can, I do let her know when I need space. We try to compromise how “close” we are during those times. For instance, if she wants to nurse but I just can’t handle it right then, we’ll sit closely and quietly for a little bit. Or we talk about how sometimes she feels grumpy and wants to be alone, and so do I.” Bianca K., Ohio.

Necessary boundaries around nursing can provide a rich learning experience for your child. You can support your child in coming to terms with a reality that is not exactly as he wishes but one that is still “safe.” After all, there is no limit on your love.

Once you begin experimenting, you will find a limit that works best for you and your child, even if it’s not ideal for either of you. Two-way compassion is the key. Ask yourself what level will allow you to:

  • Genuinely enjoy nursing your child?
  • Feel glad you’re still nursing?
  • Open your heart most fully to your child?

When you consider your child’s desire to continue nursing, what level of nursing can you live with? What is going on for your child emotionally right now? Is this a relatively tranquil and settled time for your child, or will there soon be a better time to institute changes? If you feel your child is mature enough, engage him or her in problem solving this with you. Your child may surprise you with a generous offer or an innovative solution. Giving your child some voice in the nature, the level, or the pattern of reductions can help him feel empowered and valued in his relationship with you. Age-appropriate limits allow the breastfeeding relationship to remain workable for both parties.

Considering and validating children’s feelings does not always mean that they should do everything their own way. In my case, setting limits saved the nursing relationship with my older child when we were tandem nursing. If I had not taken time setting limits, I probably would have weaned him. It does not have to be an all or nothing situation. As it was, by setting limiting on breastfeeding, we were able to enjoy it more, and our nursing relationship lasted much longer.

Generous but realistic boundaries are a balance between respecting your own needs and those of your child, on behalf of your fundamental relationship.

“Recently, I’ve talked with Sarah, my three-year-old, about preferring to nurse only one of them at a time. I’ve explained that this feels better for me. I’ve explained to Sarah that I want to continue to nurse her as long as she needs it. In order to do this, we need to make sure that both of our bodies feel good about it. This means nursing for a shorter time (to avoid the ring of teeth marks around my nipples) with lots of snuggling or doing other things that we enjoy together. Sometimes this also means waiting until seven-month-old Malcolm is happy playing while we nurse. I feel that Sarah is learning healthy boundaries about our bodies and that she is capable of choosing to feel relaxed and happy. She is also learning that she is able to do this by means other than nursing.” Wendy M., Ontario, Canada

Good communication is essential. Many mothers find a low-key but direct way to let the child in on what’s happening for them.

“I think my nurslings understand my feelings in an intuitive way, and they are more cooperative when I am honest, but clear and firm.” Cheri S., Minnesota


Many mothers take great pains to keep the baby and their pregnancy out of their explanations, not wanting the child to blame the problem on the baby. Some explain that it has to do with the pregnancy. And similarly, many mothers take extra care to help the toddler know it wasn’t his fault, either. Pregnant mothers often say, “Mama’s nee-nee’s are sore, tired, or hurting,” or “Too ouchy, nursey all done.” You may even put Band-Aids on your breasts and explain that you have “owies.”

“I tried very hard not to tell Jake that he hurt me, or that nursing hurt me, rather that certain actions hurt. I didn’t want Jake to be afraid of nursing. I would tell him that Mommy wasn’t in the mood to nurse, and we could nurse again in a little while. Or that he could nurse only if he was very still, and didn’t wriggle or kick, because being wriggly hurt Mommy’s tummy.” Sarah G., Texas.

Nursing two

“Newborn babies can only eat ‘nursie,’ and they need it in order to grow.”Meanwhile, the tandem nursling’s mother may be faced with the question, “Why does the baby get to nurse all the time but not me?” Such a question can really tug at your heart, since you want to provide your child every possible reassurance that he or she has not been displaced from your heart. And a mother can’t help but worry that saying “no” will fuel resentment of the baby or feelings of rejection. And yet, communicating openly and non-defensively with your toddler around the “double standard” of nursing your newborn can be a rich opportunity for you to process the shifting realities of your relationship with the older child. Mothers may say:

  • “Big boys and girls get to eat special foods, such as apricots and toast, that babies can’t eat because they don’t have teeth. In fact, babies aren’t allowed to eat things like that at all!”
  • “You used to nurse all the time when you were a baby, too.”
  • “Someday the baby will be able to eat other foods and will be nursing less.”

Your child may benefit from the opportunity to understand better what is happeningchances are he has noticed that something was different. The main thing your child probably wants to know is that it he is not at fault. Children do not want to cause their mothers’ pain.

“My two-year-old did not know about nausea, so I told her I was sore, which she understood. At first, she became distraught when I told her I was too sore to allow her to nurse, so I “gave in.” I then realized why she was distraught—she thought it was her fault that I was sore. I explained to her that I was sick and that my breasts were sick and would get better if she did not nurse. From then on, she was contented to cuddle with me instead of nursing, and to fall asleep like that. She would ask to go on the breast just once in the evening, but she would simply put her mouth around each nipple once for a few seconds. She simply needed to know that I would not stop her.” A.E., Scotland.

Remember to acknowledge and praise your child when he does find a way to take your needs into account.

Short and sweet can be easier to manage when nursing is painful or hard to juggle. Some pregnant and tandem nursing mothers have reduced the duration of feeds by saying to their child:

    • “We’ll nurse for a count of 10. Shall we count butterflies or dinosaurs?”
    • “You may nurse for the length of the ABC song.”
    • “You can nurse for a few minutes and then you may have some water in this special cup.”
    • “You can nurse while I count to 10-who will finish first, me or you?”
    • “I am turning over the egg timer, and when the sands are all down, we’re done for now.”
    • “Just a few more sips.”

Give your child choices whenever possible, and don’t be surprised if your toddler finds unexpected ways to participate in reductions once he gets the idea. One toddler instituted “nursie for second,” in which she momentarily put her little mouth to the breast.

Saying, “Yes, but later” can be a gentle way to extend the interval between nursing sessions, and particularly helpful to the younger child for whom the word “no” may sound like “never.” As you reduce the number of sessions, you and your nursling may find that working toward a set policy works well.

“Gradually, we reduced nursing times to something Brennan could say and understand. Once in the morning, once at naptime, once at bedtime. It became our little song. If only I could count the times one of us recited this to the other! ” Crystal O., South Carolina.

With experimentation and some patience on both sides, mothers and children can often keep the breastfeeding relationship moving in a direction that is helpful for the larger mother-child relationship.

Hilary Flower is the author of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond, LLLI 2003, and Adventures in Gentle Discipline, LLLI 2005. She lives with her three children in Florida, USA.