Have you ever watched cats or kittens appear delighted as they purposefully knead your lap? You can imagine how they stimulate the milk-ejection reflex doing a similar action against their mother’s chest at the same time as nursing.
Your baby will get the same outcome when he strokes or brush the nipple with his hand while breastfeeding.
Your body will respond to the gentle touch with a surge of the hormone oxytocin, which not only releases the milk when you’re nursing, but makes you feel warm and fuzzy about your baby.
It can also help make more milk during nursing, by encouraging more letdowns due to the stimulation, and maintain breast milk production.
When babies are still doing this a year later, though, and gentle brushing has become pulling, tugging, biting, twisting, pinching or grabbing, it stops feeling warm and fuzzy. It can lead a mother to want to stop nursing altogether.
Not all babies do this when breastfeeding and not all mothers find it annoying.
It can be a hard habit to change once it sets in, so if you have especially sensitive nipples or you really find it mildly annoying, the sooner you take action, the easier it might be.
Here are 5 steps you can take now to help you and your baby make breastfeeding a more enjoyable experience, minus the twiddling:
#1: Stop breastfeeding behaviors from the beginning
Those learning from past experience or taking advice from other mothers often set a ‘zero tolerance’ approach from the outset.
Many breastfeeding behaviors are learned and babies can easily be taught right from the start.
As a new mum there’s so much for you to learn, and if you educate yourself by reading articles like these, you can help your baby stop twiddling as soon as it starts.
At the first sign of your baby taking interest in the other breast during feed times, gently redirect or provide an alternative.
You can offer your young baby your finger or hand to grasp, or simply move his hand away from the second breast.
You can show him what’s ok for him to do when breastfeeding, and what you can tolerate.
I had a hair twister, who used to love twirling his finger in my hair when breastfeeding, and would sometimes pull and hurt.
I showed him he had his very own hair, and he still twiddles it to this very day when he’s tired, although he has now stopped nursing.
#2: Redirect with words and actions
If your baby begins to reach for the breast or other nipple while nursing, verbally remind him, ‘Pinching hurts mama’, or ‘Necklaces are for playing with’, while also physically redirecting him.
Choose a phrase that is simple and one you’re happy to repeat in front of others when feeding.
Keep it positive or neutral in tone.
Be consistent about redirection. If you allow the behaviour sometimes but prevent it at other times, your child will become unsure and confused about your message.
In extreme cases, you might need to cover your other nipple with your hand for the length of the feed, or abruptly end the feed, showing him boobies are finished because of the behavior or by giving your child a strong message.
Be gentle with your words and actions, even when you must be firm and set limits with your child.
Creating a negative association with the breast could lead to your baby refusing to feed or weaning before you both are ready.
#3: Offer an alternative for older babies
A breastfeeding or nursing necklace has long been used by mothers to distract babies and keep little toddlers’ hands busy while breastfeeding.
They’re a fantastic idea and can also help your baby stay focused on breastfeeding when they hit the age of distraction, as discussed in Baby Distracted While Breastfeeding? Tips To Help.
You can now choose from a wide range of purpose-made nursing necklaces made from silicone or wooden beads, and designed to resist breaking apart or becoming a choking hazard.
By wearing one at every breastfeed, it soon becomes a focus for your baby’s eyes and hands and you can encourage wandering fingers to play with the beads instead, and stop twiddling.
Many babies love playing finger games with their free hand while breastfeeding, and if you play ‘this little piggy’ with their toes it can help stop older children nipple twiddling.
You can also introduce a small soft toy or blanket, which can be cuddled while baby nurses, to keep the hand and arm occupied.
Later, this might become a helpful transition item for your child during weaning.
Check out more about that in our article Weaning From Breastfeeding.
#4: Cover up the other breast
Prevent nipple twiddling by reducing access to the opposite breast when nursing by choosing bras and clothing which expose only one breast.
Prevent wandering twiddling fingers from finding the free nipple with multiple layers, higher necklines and maximum skin coverage.
Night nursing, especially if you co-sleep with your child, can be more challenging.
Most breastfeeding mothers wear loose-fitting garments to sleep in, and some sleep topless, giving their babies easier access.
You might need to sacrifice some convenience for control by wearing close-fitting tops with higher necklines, at least until the novelty wears off and your baby stops twiddling while nursing.
#5: Focus on your baby
Sometimes your baby just needs to connect with you, especially if you’re chatting, reading or otherwise occupied during breastfeeds.
By simply taking the time to stroke, speak to and focus on your child, you can minimize his need to tweak and twiddle during a nursing session.
It can also allow you to release oxytocin again (it is the love hormone after all) and deliver more milk to your little nursling, speeding up the breastfeeding session and boosting milk supply.
Older babies and toddlers usually have much shorter breastfeeding sessions than when they were younger. The few minutes when you give your baby your full attention might be all that’s needed to reduce the behavior.
These strategies will also help prevent hair pulling, mouth exploring and fingers up your nose! Let us know how they work for you and your baby.
Remember that breastfeeding is a relationship between mother and child. It’s not only your child’s journey, it’s also yours.
Some moms found it so difficult they even stopped breastfeeding when twiddling started. From personal experience, I know it can really be an overwhelming feeling.
Many mothers also continue nursing though all the painful pinches and nipple twiddling as their baby grows.
Only you know what your limits are and what you can tolerate, and it’s important to find balance between both your needs.
You might like to read BellyBelly’s article Breastfeeding Toddlers – Why Are You Still Breastfeeding?