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Toddler Tips

Disapproval Dilemmas

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 2, March-April 2000, pp. 57-59

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.

Situation

My husband and I attend worship services regularly with our three-and-a-half-year-old son and our one-year-old daughter. I have spent many mornings for the past few years with our children, playing quietly during services, or in the nursery playing and nursing as needed. On days I really wanted to attend services, my husband has stayed with our children. This arrangement has worked for us, but we sensed disapproval from others. Recently we have been told that we must leave our daughter in the nursery and if she needs to breastfeed, it should be in a private office upstairs. We have also been told that our son must attend the religious education program, which goes on at the same time as the service. He is very sensitive to change and we don't want to force him if he isn't ready. I don't want to stop attending services here and I am willing to negotiate. What have other families done to meet their spiritual needs and the needs of their children?

Response

I know what you are going through. It took us two years to finally find a church where nursing toddlers were welcome and where children weren't forced to be separated from their parents. When our oldest was an infant I planned to remain in church while nursing her, but instead we often stayed in the lobby for the entire service. I was frustrated because I couldn't get anything out of going to church. Thus we began searching to find an option that would meet our spiritual needs.

At first we stayed home and held our own church service, in part to guide our daughter toward more acceptable behavior (she is a high-need child) and also to meet our needs as a family. Then we began church hunting, which was very stressful. The church we finally found was very supportive of breastfeeding, children's noises, and our parenting style. We have since moved and are part of a home church. Presently there are four families and we meet together with our children. Interestingly three of the four families are members of La Leche League.

In some families, the mother and father attend services at different times so that someone can be home with the children. A very large church in our area has a parents' room where families can stay together and the service is displayed on a television screen in the room. One of my friends actually became the nursery coordinator at her church and was able to change the rules to a more breastfeeding-friendly environment. Sometimes the easiest option is to nurse discreetly in the sanctuary. Some tips to help make this work are sitting near the back, wearing clothes that are convenient for breastfeeding, leaving space between your family and others, or sitting next to someone you know will be supportive. Perhaps some of these suggestions may help you.

If leaving your church is not an option for you, perhaps you or your husband could attend the religious education class with your son until he feels comfortable. It may also be necessary to speak with someone in charge (not just the nursery coordinator) who may be more understanding of the needs of your family to be together. Don't stop at the first "no" response either. Work to find a compromise if at all possible.

When I have been a part of a church like yours, the disapproval from others left me feeling sad and lonely. Church should be a friendly environment where all are welcome to worship. I hope you'll be able to find a way to meet your spiritual needs.

Helga Sidor
Nora IL USA

Response

My family belongs to a synagogue in a southern Louisiana city where there is a tiny Jewish population, so we didn't have many choices regarding our place of worship. There are Friday night services at the two synagogues in town and only occasionally (such as on major holidays) is there a sitter provided. My husband and I brought our son, Asher, to services regularly as a baby, but now that he is a rambunctious toddler, we have been challenged as you are with attending to both our spiritual needs and our two-year-old's attention span! Luckily for us, our rabbi is very child-friendly (he says we hear God in the laughter of children), and he does his best to encourage those in our congregation accustomed to formal, childless worship services to be more understanding and accepting of young couples with small ones. One family attends every Friday service faithfully with a special needs child who regularly climbs over the pews, yelps, and fidgets. It took our congregation a while, but with our rabbi's support, there are fewer and fewer "looks" and a growing sense of awe for this family's dedication. Families with merely restless toddlers are learning from this patient family's example.

Still, whenever Asher wants to wander the halls instead of singing along with the Hebrew prayers, I find myself wondering why I came to synagogue in the first place, since I'm participating so little. But the answer invariably comes back to me that I am modeling the importance of being a regular active participant in our religious community, that I am demonstrating a loyalty to a place of worship, and that I am teaching Asher about his faith and heritage. And likewise, I'm helping to spread the word about my kind of gentle, attached parenting. I can't tell you how many people have asked me where they could buy a sling since my son (until very recently!) seemed so cozy and happy in his for the length of services. Many mothers have expressed a curiosity about nursing a toddler. I have yet to receive a disapproving comment.

All that said, I know how stuffy people can be sometimes. Some people don't want noisy children interfering with their prayer. Nursing a baby and chasing an active child, though beautiful, necessary parental tasks, are nonetheless not looked upon favorably during all worship services. I know of some synagogues in larger cities that have organized specific family services for exactly those who need shorter, livelier services with kid appeal. Maybe you can organize your own? Sometimes I myself call up congregates to get together for a Saturday morning minyan (a minyan is the quorum of 10 Jews necessary to have a service) where toddlers and babies are welcome to play under the tables and sing as loudly as they want with the prayers. Our congregation has also recently started a "tot Shabbat" program where families with young children get together for a potluck meal before a family service.

Talk with your religious leader about your needs and ask around to see if there are other families who share your concerns. I hope and pray that you find your "special place" for regular worship soon—with your children right there with you where they belong!

Deborah Salazar
Baton Rouge LA USA

Response

This was a big challenge for our family, too! We struggled and compromised for many years (and in two different churches) before finding a really good solution. The most difficult part was feeling as though we had to choose between the approval of our church family and the needs of our young children for breastfeeding and security. It was hard to reconcile our understanding of God as a loving parent with the requirement that we abandon our unhappy children in a nursery.

What has worked beautifully for us is choosing a church based on its commitment to children's spiritual development. We found a Montessori-based program called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (available at Protestant and Catholic churches) at a church that is very respectful of the child's developmental stages. We got to know many families in the church through the weekday Montessori preschool. The overall atmosphere of the church is more in line with our parenting style, and it turns out that our spiritual growth is being nurtured in a more profound way. Separating from our former church made us sad, but if we had known how wonderful church life could be for all of us, we would have done it earlier. Good luck, and don't give up on creating or finding a joyful church home.

Elaine Ziska
Madison MS USA

Response

It must be difficult to have your parenting style questioned by your religious support system. It sounds as if there are at least two problems you are facing: nursing discreetly and being told your toddler must be separated from you to attend the religious education program. If finding a more child-friendly church isn't an option, then educating the church you're in is an alternative.

Perhaps the church personnel are not aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding. LLL has some excellent publications (333-17, Breastfeeding Does Make a Difference) that might prove useful. It is hard to contradict research. You might ask if the problem was that you had been less than discreet in your nursing. Perhaps you could practice discreet nursing at home. Have your husband observe you to see what an outsider might see when you and your daughter nurse. Would it be possible to donate some children's books that show positive images of breastfeeding to your church nursery's library? That is another way to help make breastfeeding seem the norm.

Is there a rigid rule that states all three-year-olds must be in the religious education program? One way to confront others who feel they know what is best for your child is to tell them just what you told us. You don't think your son is ready for the formal religious education program. You and your husband know what is right for your family. Don't let others try to tell you differently.

Jane Tuttle
Lawrence KS USA

Response

My first response would be to calmly ask the person why? Sometimes when asked to justify a rule or opinion, people find there isn't a reason; it's just the way things have always been done. If the response is that children make too much noise or are too distracting, think about whether this is indeed true of your child. If it is, there may be little you can do.

But if your situation doesn't fit that complaint, explain (once again calmly) that you don't see it as that type of problem, and offer to work together to find a way for you to meet your child's needs while still respecting the needs of the larger community.

As for staying in the nursery with your child—maybe they feel others will want to do the same thing and your presence will start a trend. I'd ask them what would be wrong with that. Wouldn't it be wonderful modeling to show that parents truly care for the needs of their babies—not just the need to breastfeed, but also the need for a mother's presence?

The rule that breastfeeding can take place only in a private area surprises me. Why is it unacceptable to breastfeed in church? Ask why this policy has been implemented. If women can nurse in public in a restaurant, at work, and in the mall, they should also be able to do so in church.

Maggie Heeger
Madison AL USA

Response

When our children were old enough to go off to a school program, but weren't quite ready to, I found myself in the same situation of having to be an advocate for their needs. One way I got around the issue was to explain that if my child was separated from me, she would be extremely miserable, and would undoubtedly disrupt the class. I also thanked the other person for their concern for my child's well being and development, but stated that my husband and I agreed about what was best for our child at the moment. This was often enough, but if it didn't satisfy the other person, we would try to be a little more accommodating, like sitting at the end of a row and near a door for a quick exit if our children fussed at all.

I was never asked to nurse in a private place, but always nursed very discreetly so as not to offend anyone. A bottle-feeding mother and baby would not be asked to leave the room, nor should a breastfeeding couple. At one point, we did feel uncomfortable when we had a nursing toddler who would not leave mommy's side. We decided then to refrain from attending church services until she was ready for separation. We stopped going when our youngest was three (she's now six), and started back to church last year. She attends church school and loves the atmosphere of being with the other children.

One way to meet your spiritual needs and the needs of your children would be to attend only functions in which families participate together. Most churches have family activities on a regular basis. Another way would be to host a prayer group in your home with other families who would be comfortable around children.

Good luck on your journey and remember that it is just a short time in our mothering career. The church will still be there long after your children have moved on.

Cheryl Roberts
Sherwood Park, Alberta Canada

Last updated Tuesday, October 17, 2006 by njb.
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