Six Real Life Skills Breastfeeding Teaches Children
Chrissy Fleishman, Maryland
Before the birth of my first child I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I read the research on the various benefits for both parent and baby. I heard how it can help you bond with your child and how it can be an excellent parenting tool —which it was! My motto even became “When in doubt whip it out!” because breastfeeding was a cure-all from infancy through weaning for my child. What I didn’t realize was breastfeeding can actually teach and reinforce in a child real life skills that they will take far into the future.
Consent – Learning consent as an infant or toddler may sound unrealistic to some, but the dialogue can start very young. Breastfeeding is a relationship and both parties (parent and baby) have to support any interaction. Especially with an older infant or toddler, teaching manners such as asking to nurse (verbally or through sign language) is a form of consent and can be valuable. I had a toddler who found comfort in “twiddling.” I often found myself saying, “It’s my body and that doesn’t feel good.” Or, “I don’t like that. Please don’t do that.” Then I offered another option for comfort.
Be Gentle – Learning to be gentle with others is a standard lesson for all children. It is helpful to have a kind parent show you before a less understanding peer or sibling does. Any time my child would bite, pull, or scratch at my breasts or nipple I would take the opportunity to explain, “Ouch, that hurt Mommy. Please use gentle hands.” or “Teeth are for eating, not biting.” He quickly understood the terms I was using and would stop biting or bite less often.
Share – While I did not get to experience tandem nursing (nursing more than one child at the same time), I can see how beneficial it would be for a child to learn how to share. Breastfeeding is often cherished by children, sometimes even more than their favorite toy. Learning to share something so important to them would be an amazing skill for any child and have countless benefits for you and the other child.
Trust – Learning to trust others and forming attachment through breastfeeding often comes naturally when you read your child’s signals or cues and respond to their needs. A child’s emotional need for love and reassurance is just as strong as her physical need for milk. When those needs are met, children learn they can trust other people. Getting comfort from others instead of from objects is another form of trust. The origin of “pacifier” is “peace”, and being a “peace-bringer” for your child is an amazing tool that will set the foundation for a great relationship as they grow.
Patience – While patience is not something a child is born with or can truly master early on, learning patience through breastfeeding is a fantastic way to instill that virtue. One way is by setting boundaries. This is especially helpful with a toddler. If you are unable to nurse right at the moment they request it, you may say “in a few minutes” or “when we get home” and if you follow through later, they will gain patience knowing you will meet their needs.
Independence – Some may try to argue that breastfed children are less independent, since they can be literally attached to you for a portion of the day and night. I think breastfeeding can actually start a journey toward independence since they are in charge of how, when, and how much they eat. They learn to listen to their body’s cues and eventually can apply that to when they eat solids. In addition, breastfeeding forms an attachment that can help foster independence since they know they can trust that you will be there when they need you.
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Supporting Breastfeeding Families–Today, Tomorrow, Always
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