Updated: Apr 30, 2022
Here was your question...
"When my 16 month old is upset or frustrated she will pull at my top and sign for milk. I know that if I feed her she will calm down and it is almost like the tantrum never happened. I am interested to know your perspective whether in the long term this is hindering her development as I'm not allowing her space to feel these uncomfortable feelings. I hate to withhold comfort when she's feeling like that but am I teaching her those feelings are uncomfortable for me?"
Here is my perspective...
Tantrums and meltdowns are common in early childhood as little one's brains are architecturally very different than an adult brain. Tantrums and meltdowns are often the outward expression of a dysregulated nervous system, and an inability to regulate the intensity of their emotions. Young children are physiologically incapable of regulating themselves independently. They need to know that they can turn to caring adults who will lovingly guide them back to calm and balance in their bodies.
The scenario you describe is not one of a parent who using breastfeeding to avoid upset, but of a parent who is responding to a bid for connection from a child who is distressed. That is exactly what "responsive parenting" is all about - being emotionally available to co-regulate your child at times when they are experiencing tricky feelings. I think the confusion here is when we think of breast/chestfeeding simply as "feeding" or as a child eating/drinking. I always say... it is about so much more than the milk. When you nurse your child, and particularly when you nurse your older child, it is about their connection TO YOU.
Breast/chestfeeding is the most sensory nourishing experience you can give to your nursling. When you nurse, your child is wrapped up in your arms and in the warmth of your body. They are taking in the smell of your skin, the smell of your milk, your favourite shampoo. They are listening to the sound of your heartbeat, your voice. They are feeling the movements of your breathing bobbing them up and down as their little body weighs down against yours. This sensory-rich interpersonal experience releases oxytocin and triggers feelings of relaxation for your little one. This is so regulating and is a beautiful act of co-regulation.
What is Co-Regulation?
Co-regulation is underpinned by empathy. It involves noticing our child's emotional distress (and perhaps in the moment separating that from their behaviour) Coregulation is about meeting our child with our warm, emotional presence, and modulating their distress through regulating our own emotional state.
If a 16 month old was feeling overwhelmed, sad or frustrated and asked for a hug, a loving parent is unlikely to refuse. Co-regulating our children often feels very natural. The only difference is a 16 month old who is nursing will likely prefer to be co-regulated by connecting to you by nursing, and actually choosing not to nurse at this time is likely to cause further upset.
To address your question, yes, there is a difference between offering your toddler the breast to avoid tantrums as your go-to parenting method, vs responding to your toddler's request to nurse when she is distressed. Our role isn't to distract our child from their emotional experience, but to gently guide them through their emotional experience. You're right that it is important that our child feels confident in our ability to handle their big feelings, secure in the knowledge that we can hold all of it. So as often as we can we want to allow our child to work through their feelings when they do show up, rather than working to avoid their upset. What do I mean by that? Well, breastfeeding can certainly be a useful tool to avoid a meltdown if you are somewhere where melting down might not be safe (or convenient), but if a parent repeatedly uses breastfeeding (or anything really) as a means of preventing their child from experiencing big feelings then that might suggest a parent who is uncomfortable with their child's emotional world.
Whether you are nursing during big feelings or not, what matters most is being emotionally available to your child. Noticing their distress, empathising with their experience, and giving them space to ride out their emotions safe in the knowledge of your emotional presence. Get comfortable with your child's emotional experiences and recognise that the early years are supposed to be explosive and messy. Tantrums and meltdowns are actually important for your child's development.
If you are interested in learning more about regulation and dysregulation in your child check out my upcoming Masterclass which is linked below.
Love, Kimberley xo