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Be a Mother Not a Martyr: When Gentle Parenting Seems to Bite You in the Butt

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Martyr: One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause or principle.

Ok, if you’ve read the title and you know me, you might be thinking, now wait a minute Kate, you ARE the craziest gentle attachment parent I know. Tandem breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing, elimination communication around the clock, gentle parenting extraordinaire. And, here I am saying not to be a martyr? Yup, I’m saying it!

What do you do, when after all your gentle parenting efforts, you end up with a biting, hitting, not listening, not cooperating, on the boob 24/7 and waking.up.all.damn.night child? Even though you, yourself, don’t hit, you don’t bite, you don’t yell (or try not to) and you try to explain things rationally. You don’t do cry it out, you don’t punish, you might co-sleep, breastfeed on demand or offer a dummy (pacifier) to sooth any cries. You’ve done everything you know how to be a gentle parent, but you’re at your wits end with how to deal with your child’s behavior. People tell you to that it will pass and you’re all like, “Yeah, but I’m going nuts NOW“.

Of course, there’s no way to spoil a baby or child through holding or keeping them close or giving them too much attention. You do as much of that as you can. This post post is not against gentle parenting, it’s about dealing with difficult behavior in young children.

Democratic Parenting
Democratic parenting acknowledges the needs of both the parent and the child. While gentle parenting is ‘gentle‘, it is by no means ‘permissive parenting‘. Gentle parenting does not mean that you let your kids walk all over you. Done over a long enough time, too much permissive parenting can result in some very resentful feelings on the parent’s end. It’s OK to give a firm “NO” to a baby who is biting. It’s OK to gently, but firmly grab a toddler hand that is about to hit their baby sibling’s head. It’s OK to tell a child that you need to go NOW otherwise you’re going to miss your appointment! It’s also ok to let a child play in the puddles and make messes if it’s time and place appropriate. Everyone has needs that need to be met, it’s all about finding a balance.

Loving Boundaries, Aggression in Children and Crying
No matter how perfect a family life you have, every child is bound to experience feelings of hurt and misunderstanding, so it’s not like you’re doing anything wrong if your child shows signs of being upset or is being difficult to handle! When a baby or toddler is acting aggressive, these are not acceptable behaviors. Diet, environment, too much TV, not enough meaningful connection from the parents and other sources of stress can all contribute to aggression.

A lot of people think that a baby toddler is too little to understand if you tell them that biting, hitting or pushing is not ok, but I have to disagree! A child who is not harboring stressful or pent up negative emotions will not act aggressively. Usually when a child is displaying these sorts of aggressive behaviors, it can be very beneficial to let them have a big loving cry. Emotional crying in children is not a bad thing! But, often, gentle parents are told to never let a baby or toddler cry, so we distract them from crying and having melt downs. An often overlooked reason for crying and fussing could simply mean that a baby or child has to poo or pee, yet we try to stop the crying even for that! Imagine if someone tried distracting you if you had to poo!? How frustrating would that be?!

When a child is prevented all the time from crying, a  lot of times, they will start becoming aggressive, hard to handle, fussy and not so resilient. They also may become addicted to the thing that stops them from crying (breastfeeding, a dummy/pacifier, rocking, patting, etc). I could write a whole post on the huge benefits of lovingly allowing a baby or child to cry, but you can read more words on it by Dr. Aletha Solter here.

Breastfeeding Martyrdom
But, doesn’t breastfeeding meets all needs of a child who is crying? A lot of attachment extremists think so… Even if the baby or toddler bites you, gives you niplash or hangs off of you upside down… you must persevere and feed feed feed till the baby falls asleep, or feed till you drop. *Sigh* I’m all about feeding on demand, don’t get me wrong ESPECIALLY for a young baby. And, I need to be careful saying this, because it is important to be in tune and know that our babies have their own feeding ‘schedule‘. Babies should NEVER be put on a feeding schedule. But, if a toddler has just had boobs… do they really need it again half an hour later?

Very often, what can happen with ‘breastfeed til you drop‘ is that you get a very boob addicted toddler and a mother with some VERY strong nursing aversion. I used to feed at every squawk, but, when my five month old started waking up every hour at night to feed, I started looking for the reason behind her feverish sleep. It was then that I discovered to allow babies to cry in arms to release stress rather than feed every hour, all through the night. Differentiating between when my babies needed a feed, as opposed to when they were crying for something else, has made our breastfeeding relationship last for so long (ahem, breastfeeding a four year old still?!) and has also helped them to sleep much better through the night.

But, isn’t it the biological norm to feed all night long? Mmm… a good question that gets asked frequently. Feeding a very young baby several times throughout the night, yes… but, I’ve practiced elimination communication (taking my kids to the toilet) and it goes without saying that the more you feed, the more a baby has to wake up to pee… The cave women, who didn’t use nappies, would not have been keen to wake up five times a night just to take their baby to the bushes. They too would have wanted to find ways to reduce the number of feeds throughout the night as the baby got older!

What To Do if You’re Feeling ‘Fed Up’ Over Breastfeeding
If you think your kid is addicted to boob and it’s driving you insane, BEFORE you consider weaning out of exasperation, considering dropping feeds first and really paying attention to the source of their wanting to nurse every twenty minutes. If you’re having strong nursing aversions, or think that your baby or toddler is a real boob addict, you might find that if you just drop a few feeds, your sanity could be restored and they will get that opportunity to release their emotions as needed (in the form of tears). Sometimes they can cry quite a lot, especially if their cries have been constantly ‘distracted‘ with boob since birth. You can read more about my nursing aversion journey here.

Laughing and Playing
Another remedy for any crazy behaviour or even of fears, is through laughter, play and connection. Parents often get so serious, that they forget to have any fun at all. I kid you not, just five or ten minutes of silly engaged playfullness a day, or even every other day, will make children (even babies) more willing to cooperate, less aggressive, more happy and easier to manage. For example, my kids always go crazy while I was cooking dinner. So last night, I asked my husband to play with them for a while. He asked me what he should do, so I told him to just go in the middle of the living room and hide under a blanket and see what they would come up with! They all laughed and played and I got to make dinner uninterrupted. I wrote a post on ways to play here.

Listen to Yourself and Your Child
Children are never out there to manipulate or deceive us. If they are acting out, they are searching for some sort of need to be met, either emotional or physical. Gentle parenting is an incredible journey and I really feel like it brings out the best in ourselves and in our children… But being a gentle parent doesn’t mean that you have to let your kids drive you bonkers! Take the time to listen to their true needs and to your own. Take time to nourish yourself. Be playful, Listen to their cries and tantrums with understanding and love and of course, I can’t end without saying, this too shall pass 🙂


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13 Responses »

  1. Agreed! Especially that gentle parenting is not permissive parenting. But right now I feel like I need to cut back on feeds before I chuck a massive adult tantrum and wean her completely. If she’d have a feed in the morning, a feed at night, and maybe even a feed at midday, I’d happy to feed her until she’s done. But she’s feeding more often, not less often, since turning 2 and that’s not cool. But I feel stuck, because there’s no “gentle” way to night wean her. She will NOT be impressed. And so I’m totally martyring it up at the moment. lol. I think I have just a bit more cope left in me, before I go “nope, all-night-booby-cafe is closed for business!!!”

    • Yeah, it’s very common for 2 year olds to want more and more boob! It’s actually not doing anyone a favor to keep it up at a pace where you are not happy. If she’s feeding that often, she probably does need a big massive release of tears.

  2. All children no matter how you parent, will go through the biting and hitting stage. They are learning to communicate and they can see what get gets a reaction. You need them to practice gentle hands, get them to show you how they very softly play with their sibling. If they bit while feeding take them off straight away. Then reattach, they will soon learn to get a drink they have to be soft. So what age do you think its right to stop breastfeeding? Just curious.

    • I don’t think ALL children bite and hit to see what reaction they will get… my older daughter never bit once! Stopping breastfeeding varies greatly with each child and mother. If left naturally, whenever the child or mother feels like it’s time to wean. Anywhere between 2 1/2 and 7 maybe?

      • Hi, can you help me on this one. My doc has given me a go-ahead for cow milk that she is 1 yr now. She is exclusively breastfed so far. Now I am being pestered by everyone to ensure baby gets cow milk in good quantity or she will not get enough calcium. That sort of means bf to stop. But does that make sense? If mommy cow’s milk has calcium then why not mommy human’s milk? I mean is it sensible to stop taking ur own mom’s feed and start from someone else’s? You are vegan, how ur babies get calcium. Does mommy milk changes and has less calcium when baby turns 1? My bf princess has many teeth, so I can’t understand the calcium deficiency fear theory. Can you please help me here?

      • You are absolutely right. There is no need to introduce cow’s milk to her diet… unless she were on formula, then that’s when doctor’s tell you to introduce them to cow’s milk. We’re not 100% vegan, we do eat dairy sometimes, maybe 2 or 3 times a week. As long as you are getting enough calcium, it will pass through the breastmilk, plus as long as she’s eating foods with lots of calciium, like leafy green vegetables, legumes, etc. she would be fine! Nothing magically happens to your breastmilk when she turns one! It’s still just as good 😉

  3. Pingback: Time to “Aware Parent” your kiddies?? | nella inspired

  4. How did you handle to arrive at 4 years of age still breastfeeding? Do you work at home? I breastfeed on demand my 9 month-old baby and I want to continue to breastfeed her as long as she wants. But sadly this coming August ( at her eleven months) I need to go back to work full-time. I will be out, away from her 9/10 Hours a day from Monday to Friday. Please give me some advices. Have you written an article about working and breastfeeding? Thanks!

    • Hi! You know, when they get older, it gets easier to be away. Just feed right before you drop her off and right when you pick her up and try to squeeze in a feed early in the morning and then before bed. You maybe even want to keep feeding at night longer rather than night weaning, so that your supply stays up and so that she gets enough 🙂 I wouldn’t worry about pumping at that age, although you may want to give her some goat’s milk or something while you’re away?

  5. Hi! Thanks a lot for your advices! While shopping some time ago, my worries got the best on me: I purchased an electric pump from Medela, ‘coz I really don’t want to give her other milk than mine. I’ ve read that milk is species-specific and for infants mama’s milk is the best. I didn’t consider the fact that she will be older when I get back to work. Talking to other moms, made me realise I can continue breastfeeding without a pump. But now I have it, so it might be usefull for some emergencies in the future.

    • You can still pump if you don’t mind it. I know that my daughter started going to daycare when she was almost 14 months and I didn’t need to pump… but that is a little bit older. I’m sure she’ll be fine either way!

  6. Thank you for this. I’m having a really hard time with my toddler right now. I’m exhausted…I only get a couple hours of sleep a night, I have to be alone with her all day, and she just seems to scream and scream if she’s not on my boob…I try not to yell at her but sometimes I do and then the reason for her upset is revealed (needing to pee or poo, as you mentioned), and then I’m wracked with guilt, until she starts screaming again and my exhausted, stressed-out, admittedly sort of depressed mind fizzles and I end up getting upset again. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster ride with no way off. I’m so exhausted I can’t even remember what helps in the moments I’m stressed. All I can think about in the moment is that it feels like my head is going to explode if she screams one more time. I was sobbing about it just this morning. I just don’t know what to do. I’m not able to leave her with anyone for very long, and it’s only going to get worse when I move in a couple of weeks to a town where I know no one and I won’t have a regular babysitter.
    This article feels helpful but at the same time I feel like I’m not going to be able to do any of it because I’m just so exhausted all the time. Do you have any advice at all? Any words of encouragement that isn’t the painfully annoying “it’ll get better”?

    • Read the book “Tears and Tantrums” to help understand the screaming and demands. Second, download the “Sattva” app and do the guided meditations every day when you get a chance. This will help you relax. Third, go do a Happiness Program by the Art of Living foundation. That will help enormously with the stress and the feeling tired.


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