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Toddler Tips

Nursing Burn-out

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 10 No. 4, July-August 1993, pp. 121-2, 124

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


Help! I'm suffering from nursing burn-out! While I believe in LLL 's philosophy, after nursing three children in a row until the age of three-and-a-half (and tandem nursing two of them for more than two years), I have had enough. The trouble is, my three-and-a-half-year-old night nurser refuses to wean. She wakes up at least twice every night to nurse for two hour stints. I have tried all the tricks in the book, and even resorted to a weekend away. She accepted the fact that Grandma couldn't nurse her, but eagerly begged to nurse immediately upon my return. What else can I try?


There are problems with continuing to nurse when you don't want to. One of them is that you feel used (and easily burned out). Another is that your child may want to nurse more than ever.

Both of these situations seem to be happening to you.

A possible solution is one suggested by Norma Jane Bumgarner in MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER: you need to decide to be happy with weaning or happy with nursing. Try sorting out your feelings with an empathetic friend (your LLL Leader or someone she recommends who has been there before) and your family. Your husband, older children, and Grandma, too, may be able to give you some perspective on the situation.

It is certainly possible to wean your daughter by refusing to nurse her. What may not be possible is to convince her not to be upset with this situation. In other words, you can't make her be happy about weaning. She's made it clear that she would like to continue to nurse. As her mother, you need to decide if weaning is something you feel would be best for both of you or not. No one can decide for you.

Obviously weaning will not be easy. You'll probably need a substitute for nursing—singing, stories, backrubs, rocking, or something else to soothe your daughter. Be aware that most substitutes are more actual work than nursing: try back rubbing and singing for those two hour stints at night, and you'll see what I mean! Some form of reward for not nursing may help. Like many decisions you make as a parent, this one may lead to protests from your child. It will help if you can stay calm and not get angry in return. Be nice to yourself as well as to your daughter. Your daughter's objections may not last long—sometimes weaning is surprisingly simple once you are firm about saying "no." Then again, your daughter may have a strong desire to nurse that will persist for many weeks.

On the other hand, you can decide to continue nursing and be happy about it. It's okay to reach this decision after trying out weaning for a while. Mothers sometimes feel as though they are trapped in nursing--this is how you come across to me. Sometimes mothers feel they must always nurse whenever the child asks to—perhaps you have heard the phrase "never refuse." This is unrealistic advice for dealing with a child this age. Breastfeeding is a relationship. At this age it simply doesn't work well if one partner is uncomfortable. What you may be needing now is permission to say "no" to nursing. You can set time limits, place limits, etc., the same as you would with other activities. Nursing is your choice. Many mothers see it as a relatively easy way to calm a child and meet her needs.

You don't mention this, but I wonder if you have had any contact with other mothers who have nursed children past age three. You may be feeling unusual and isolated. Sometimes it helps to know that others have been there—and survived. I do know how you feel.

Esther Schiedel
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA


I have experienced different stages of nursing burn-out with each of my nursing experiences. I have found that my desire to wean my children has always coincided with the times when I am neglecting my own needs. With small children in the house, mother's needs often come last. I used to feel selfish when I took time for myself. I have finally realized that when I nurture myself, I have so much more to give to the other members of my family. There are many ways I have found to nurture myself, without shorting anyone in my family:

  • Long aromatherapy baths right after my husband comes home from work;
  • Taking a yoga class once a week;
  • Reading science fiction novels in the middle of the night;
  • Hiring a baby-sitter to take the children to the park one afternoon a week;
  • Riding my bicycle for a half hour;
  • Getting a massage as a special treat;
  • Arranging with my husband for a sleep-in morning on the weekend;
  • Napping when the baby naps.

In addition to nurturing myself, I found that setting limits on nursing and being prepared with other alternatives were important when I was initiating a decrease in nursing. With my two-year-old daughter, Eileen, I have begun to tell her that we don't nurse at the park, only at home. I always carry water and snacks with me so she has a substitute for nursing. When we return home, I always ask if she wants to nurse, but she usually is on to doing something else by that time. At night, I have a cup of water next to the bed and always offer the water before nursing her. About half the time she will choose the water and go back to sleep.

Mary Fleming
La Grange Park, Illinois, USA


"Burn-out" is often associated with stressful situations where a person feels that she has no control over what is happening. A half-asleep child who nurses for long periods in the middle of the night can certainly leave you feeling helpless. Still, it may seem that putting up with the nursing is the only choice you have considering the distress that is certain to follow a refusal to let your daughter nurse.

Perhaps finding a way to help yourself feel more in control of the situation will help you cope. Consider taking some steps to put you and your daughter on the road to eventual weaning. This won't solve your problem immediately, but seeing that goal up ahead and working on getting there can help you feel better about nursing for the time being.

Sometimes children who are sleeping with their mothers wake and nurse in the middle of the night simply because mother is there. Gradually weaning them into their own bed or into sleeping with a sibling may be the key to ending the nursing at night. With mother less available, it may be easier for your daughter to go back to sleep. Create a simple, back-to-sleep routine to cope with night-waking—a drink of water, a hug, a backrub, followed by a few minutes of nursing—after which your daughter is expected to go back to sleep. After a few weeks of this she may be asleep before you get to the nursing. Perhaps dad can step in and be the one who goes in and lies down with your daughter if she awakens in the middle of the night.

Are you talking to your daughter about weaning? If you are, try easing up for a while. With less pressure, continuing to nurse may become less important to her. If you haven't talked about it, discuss weaning with her. Perhaps in the daylight the two of you can agree on some limits and some substitutes that would be acceptable now that she's getting to be a "big girl."

There is no single "trick in the book" that's going to solve your night-nursing quandaries. Weaning is a process, and it's part of the whole dynamic relationship between mother and child. Your burned-out feelings are a sign that you need to give the situation some attention. Make a plan that will help you regain some sense of control. If your expectations are realistic, neither you nor your daughter will feel frustrated about working toward eliminating night-nursings.

Gwen Gotsch
Oak Park, Illinois, USA


I, too, am able to relate to nursing burn-out, especially in the past five-and-a-half months, as I am pregnant and my nipples are quite sore. Six months after the birth of my son, we adopted his cousin and I began nursing two children, knowing the benefits and bonding would be rewarding. After twelve months, I began episodes of burn-out, and more so when I became pregnant. I tried suggestions of cuddles, books, juice, water, and such, and was able to eliminate all daytime nursing. My youngest weaned easily at eighteen months, yet my twenty-three-month-old continues to nurse at nap and bedtimes.

I sometimes feel guilty encouraging my boys to wean, as I had planned to let them wean themselves at their own pace. Recently, I have found that my greatest encouragement comes from NEW BEGINNINGS and THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. The warm stories of breastfeeding experiences—often filled with struggles and a mother's determination to give her baby the best, remind me of the beautiful gift of love we give our children through breastfeeding. The love that flows often brings tears to my eyes. Those beautiful accounts put me back on the path to fight off burn-out and continue with what I know is best. Our babies will grow, wean, and break away one day. By defeating burn-out we can look back without regret or guilt. Hang in there!

Sandra Scanlan
Waialua, Hawaii, USA


I, too, nursed three children consecutively and felt at many times during the nine-year period that I couldn't take it any more.

Having a different perspective helped me. This could be accomplished in several different ways:

As you described, spend some time away from the child doing something for yourself (get away overnight with your husband or buy a new non-nursing dress, or even simpler, have your hair, your colours, or nails done). Even if she still needs you when you get back, that time away can be refreshing and it can remind you that you are a person with special needs, too.

Remember that eventually she will wean, and at some point in the future, you will remember fondly the nursing times you had with each of your children. "To every thing there is a season" (Ecclesiastes).

I attended a parenting conference when my children were small and one of the exercises we did was to close our eyes and imagine life without these challenging kids. Shortly after that, one of my neighbor's children was hit by a car and killed. It helped me then and continues to be a reminder of how fragile our lives are. Today is all we have.

Jeanne M. Lambert
Oxford Station, Ontario, Canada

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