Newborn babies often flail around when they are first getting the hang of breastfeeding. It seems like you need an extra hand just to keep their tiny hands and fingers out of the way. They’ll try to suck on the nipple and shove their hand in their mouths at the same time. Once the milk lets down and they settle down to nurse, they usually stay pretty still for the rest of the feeding. They tuck their hands in and focus on the matter at hand. That’s why swaddling often works to settle fussy newborns down, but older babies hate to have their hands restrained in any way.
For the first several months, babies don’t have much to do besides nursing, pooping, peeing, and sleeping. Nursing is the activity they enjoy more than anything else, and they are so into it that they are very hard to distract. There could be an earthquake, and they would keep nursing, blissfully unaware of what’s going on around them.
Once they begin to smile at you, they become more social and aware of their surroundings. They are easily distracted, and don’t want to miss anything that’s going on, whether it’s a sibling playing, or the noise of the TV, or a dog barking, or anything in their environment that they find interesting. They can’t look around the room and nurse at the same time, so they often pull off, and fidget, and nursing sessions can become a struggle.
Once they get older and become mobile (usually around six to nine months), they may continue to fuss and fidget at the breast, not wanting to wait for the milk to let down. They want to nurse as quickly as possible so they can get on with their busy day. Your milk lets down quickly by now, and they can get their fill in just a few minutes. They settle down to nurse more calmly and for longer periods when they get up in the morning and during the night, when there aren’t as many distractions .
Many babies also start to ‘twiddle’ at this age. They want to do something with their free hand, and that can take many forms. Twiddling may involve: pinching your other nipple or kneading your breast; twirling a lock of hair (yours or their own); putting their finger in your nose or mouth; tugging at your ear (or theirs); or clutching a security blanket or toy while they nurse.
Moms may find these behaviors cute (like twirling a lock of hair, or tugging gently on an ear); mildly annoying, (like sticking their tiny finger in your mouth or insisting on holding the same ratty blanket every time they nurse), painful and hard to ignore (like pinching and twisting the other nipple or biting); or embarassing (like pulling your shirt up in public to allow easier access to your other nipple).
Twiddling is a very common behavior in nursing toddlers. Kneading or pinching the other breast is similar to the way kittens and many other mammals encourage the let-down reflex in order to obtain more milk. However, knowing what role this behavior plays with other mammals doesn’t help much when your baby insists on reaching under your shirt to pinch your nipple while he’s nursing, or when he sticks his finger in your ear while you feed him.
There is an advantage to twiddling: it keeps the baby’s other hand occupied and moving while they have to keep the rest of their body still. This is often difficult for busy toddlers, so twiddling may help them settle down and focus more on nursing so feedings go more smoothly and last longer. It serves as a self soothing mechanism, which is why some babies tend to twiddle more when they are tired or fussy than at other times.
While there are some positive things about twiddling, there are times when it can be disruptive, embarrassing, or painful.
Here are some suggestions on how to handle a twiddling toddler:
- Start teaching nursing manners early. Nip undesirable behaviors in the bud. Teach your toddler that pulling your shirt up and demanding to nurse in public, or insisting on pinching your nipple when nursing, are behaviors that aren’t acceptable. Older babies can begin to understand limit setting very early. The longer you wait to teach your baby what it okay and not okay to do when nursing, the harder the behavior will be to correct. You may find yourself gritting your teeth while your baby pinches your nipple or tugs on your hair, or dealing with disapproving stares while he pitches a fit in the checkout aisle at Target because you won’t stop what you’re doing, whip your breast out and nurse him right then and there. You wouldn’t cave in if he was grabbing candy off the aisles as you check out, and you don’t have to stop right that second to nurse him if it’s inconvenient or embarrassing for you. Older babies can learn to wait if they need to.
- You can teach your baby nursing manners in several ways. You can remove his hand gently while saying “No. You can’t (pinch, or pull hair or stick your finger in my nose) because that hurts mommy.”) You can also say “Shhh…be still while you’re nursing.”
- After giving him a verbal suggestion, you can say “We’re going to stop nursing if you keep (pinching, pulling, etc)”
- If he persists with the behavior after a verbal reminder, you can stop the feeding. This may result in a temper tantrum of epic proportions. With all eyes upon you, you may feel that giving in ‘just this once’ and nursing him is less embarrassing than telling him no. However, this will just reinforce the behavior you are trying to eliminate.
- If your baby is a nipple twiddler (and this is the most common, and probably the most annoying form of twiddling), you can keep the other nipple covered. If you’re wearing a nursing bra, don’t lower the flap. If you’re wearing a sports bra, don’t lift it up. Older babies can be very insistent and tug at the bra, or even learn to release the flap, but that’s where you go back to steps one and two.
- Try the cross-cradle hold. If your baby is nursing on the right side, use your left forearm to tightly cover the left nipple. He may try to pull it away, but again, refer to steps one and two.
- Try offering him a nursing necklace (especially made with big beads and long enough for him to reach while nursing). Lots of baby companies make nursing necklaces, and they work well for some babies, especially if you introduce them early on before the twiddling behavior becomes disruptive.
- Try different toys and textures. Sometimes babies will accept a blanket or fuzzy toy to hold better than they will something hard like necklace beads. Babies who like to twirl hair or gently stroke your face may accept a blanket or soft stuffed animal, and babies who pinch the nipple or fiddle with buttons are more likely to accept nursing beads or plastic toys.
- Try to redirect his attention. Reading books, singing songs, or playing finger games may distract him from twiddling.
- Teach him alternate behaviors to substitute for twiddling. For example, if he pinches your arm while nursing, show him how to rub it softly instead. If he twirls hair, show him how to twirl it gently, or twirl his own hair instead.
- Some moms who have really large breasts are actually able to tuck one breast under their armpit while nursing on the other, but this isn’t an option for those of us who aren’t as amply endowed.
If your baby is older and has been twiddling for some time, it will be difficult to convince him to accept a substitute like a bracelet or toy. He will usually toss them aside and keep right on twiddling
Out of my six babies, three were thumb suckers and had security blankets. They held their blankets in one hand while they nursed, but didn’t have to have it at every feeding – only when they were sleepy.
With the other three, only one was a serious twiddler, and she was a nipple pincher. It got worse as she got older, and she responded pretty well to verbal reminders when we were in public, but she still wanted to do it at home when she was nursing to sleep. It wasn’t until I got pregnant with her little sister that it became a real problem. My nipples were sore, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore. She learned pretty quickly that if she twiddled, she had to stop nursing because it made mommy’s nipple sore. She was 2 ½ and able to understand this concept. By then she was well on her way to weaning and was only nursing a couple of times a day, so it wasn’t a huge issue.
My youngest daughter was never a serious twiddler, but she did like to put her finger in my mouth at times while she nursing, and she also did a lot of ‘aerobic’ nursing – another behavior we had to limit while nursing in public. The toddler in the picture is now twenty-five years old, and she would pitch a fit if she knew I posted this, so shhhh….don’t tell her.
My youngest son seldom if ever twiddled. Maybe it was because he had five older siblings who kept him so entertained that he never felt the need.
If your baby turns out to be a twiddler, you are the only one who can decide what behaviors are acceptable, and how much of them you are able to tolerate.
It’s perfectly okay to set limits on nursing behaviors, and to teach your older babies nursing etiquette from early on.
Twiddling is a very common and very normal behavior, and all babies outgrow it, I promise.
For more information on what it’s like to have a twiddling toddler, read Abby’s aka The Badass Breastfeeder) blog post
Anne Smith, IBCLC