Saturday 18 November 2017

Dear David Coleman: 'My four-year-old son still touches my breasts'

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My youngest son is now four and I breastfed him until he was two. While feeding from one breast, he used hold the other breast. I guess it was a comfort thing for him. When I had to stop feeding - quite suddenly for medical reasons - I didn't want to cut him off from the breast holding. Two years on, he still holds my breasts when he wants to soothe, like at bedtime. I have tried to talk about him giving up but he protests. I am concerned that he will remember his behaviour when he is older and will be really embarrassed. Have you any advice?

David replies: If you'd like him to stop, then the best approach is to just repeatedly tell him "no" then lift his hand gently away from your breast.

If needs be, position yourself so that your breasts are out of reach. Be warm and soothing in your tone if he is upset, but hold firm about physically preventing him from touching your breast.

Getting him to stop is that easy. Getting yourself into an emotional and psychological place where you are happy to get him stop might be a bit harder.

Perhaps, in order for you to be able to be firm with him about stopping the breast-holding, you need to consider what it means for you too. It is quite possible that the breast-holding meets some of your needs as well as some of his.

For example, the fact that you have the power and the capacity to soothe your son, with your body, might be really important to you. It might be very emotionally rewarding for you to be able to help your son when he is fretful or distressed.

It may feel like a quite central part of your mothering to be able to offer this comfort to him.

Perhaps you also acknowledge the comfort that you can offer him is important for him and you're reluctant to remove that from him because he protests and tells you he wants it.

Perhaps you fear that he won't be able to soothe himself, or settle himself, at those keys times like bedtime. This anxiety that he won't cope without your physical presence may be holding you back.

So if you were to be analytical about why this breast-holding has drifted on for two years you have to ask yourself whose needs are you really meeting and are those needs still relevant for you or for him?

I hear your concern that your son might be embarrassed in years to come, but I don't think that your son will be too bothered about the fact that he used to breastfeed and that he used to touch your breasts for comfort subsequently.

The only way he might become embarrassed is if he associated his own behaviour with something sexual, which it clearly isn't. There is no sexual energy present in the current interaction. All the energy is about soothing and calming. That is what he will remember.

Stopping it now is probably quite appropriate as in the next few years of preschool and school, he will hear an increasing amount of toilet humour from his peers and that may give him a more negative perspective on his current comfort seeking behaviour.

In my view, his behaviour is much more about his wants than his needs. He might want your breasts for comfort and soothing, but he doesn't need them. There are lots of other ways, through other loving touch, like strokes, back rubs, foot rubs and so on, that we can offer physical comfort to children.

So, in truth, the decision about whether to stop the behaviour is not his. It is entirely your decision. They are your breasts and it is your body. If you don't want your son to touch you on your breasts, then you just need to decide that enough is enough.

It isn't a process of discussing it with him and canvassing his views with a view to making a shared decision. This is not a democracy. It is just about you deciding what you want, while holding onto your awareness of his needs.

If you decide to stop, then, indeed, he might protest. All you need do is meet his protests with empathy and understanding, but firmness, about the fact that touching your breasts is no longer allowed.

If you follow the process that I described at the start of this response he will continue to get the message that you love him to bits, but you are no longer happy for him to touch your breasts.

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