Everyone warns a new mom that breastfeeding isn't easy. Advice abounds: take your time, give it your all, and consult the experts. Those first few weeks are technical and stressful.
What everyone forgets to tell that same mom is weaning isn't easy either, whether it happens six, 12 or 24 months down the road.
If you are both willing and able to breastfeed, it's likely you have put a lot of effort into the nursing relationship. Ending that special dynamic, no matter if both mom and baby are ready, is difficult. Those last few weeks are complicated and emotional. Those feelings intensify to the hundredth power when baby is so not on board, which I've experienced.
My daughter took to nursing like a champ. I had all the kinks worked out from my first hellish experience with breastfeeding her older brother. We were in sync from the start. During her first few weeks she wanted to nurse all the time, but that didn't set her apart from other newborns. When I went back to work after a generous amount of maternity leave, she reluctantly accepted only one bottle of expressed milk a day. Otherwise, I nursed her right before I left for work and the minute I came home.
Even when she started eating a diet of mostly solid food, she went insane at the sight of me walking in the door. I couldn't even change my clothes and say goodbye to the babysitter before she worked herself into a tizzy. There was no distracting her. Nursing was the only thing that would calm her down.
Since we had such an easy time, I had no problem nursing often. In fact it didn't even occur to me that her behavior wasn't typical until the babysitter reminded me that she went three to four hours in between meals while I was gone. A three-hour stretch! On the weekends she was feeding every hour, 90 minutes tops. Even at night she had a single four-hour stretch and then woke every two hours to nurse. Until someone pointed it out, it didn't faze me. She woke up, did her thing, and went back to sleep before I ever really knew what was happening.
The more people I told, the more this seemed unusual. Her doctor suggested keeping a log of when and what she ate with the babysitter. After looking at the detailed list of her eating habits, the doctor assured me that the night nursing was not necessary. At 15 months old, she was used to waking and looking for comfort. And I was looking to put an end to it.
Night weaning is generally the most acceptable version parent-mandated (vs. child-led) weaning, so that's where I started. Since no one's sleep was suffering either way, I wasn't in a rush. Every time she woke I let her latch on for a minute or two, but then she was done. I steeled myself for weeks of set-backs and hours of protesting. I encountered neither. It's true she wanted the comfort. When I was skimping on my efforts, she got tired of looking to me for soothing. Even though she didn't initiate the change, she quickly figured it out for herself with time and little struggle.
With her sleeping for 12 hour stretches at night sans nursing breaks, it was time to tackle our weekend schedule. She still wanted to nurse every two hours, but since she was walking and discovering new things at every turn it was easy to distract her during the day. After a few weeks we were down to three times a day - in the morning, before nap, and before bed.
Knowing how much effort - slow but firm coaxing - it took to get this far, I became more resolute in my need to cut her off from the breast. I was on board for providing the best nutrition possible, but this wasn't about nutrients anymore. At this point, she was barely latching on and she wasn't swallowing that often. Our nursing more closely resembled an encounter with a binky rather than a meal, and I wasn't interested in being a human pacifier to an almost 1-and-a-half-year-old. We had many setbacks - a new tooth, a cold, a bad day - and I let my strict weaning schedule slide sometimes. But most days I was aware she was using me for comfort and I was ready to pass the baton. Up to a point.
The last feeding was the hardest to think about ending. The one feeding we kept was when I got home from work. I hated being away from the kids all day and walking in to her little face and her desperation to nurse made me feel good. I felt loved and connected to her on an indescribable level. It was the high point of my day, being able to comfort her and having her comfort me. I started to make excuses and doubt my plan. I wasn't ready to close this chapter in our relationship.
I finally realized that no nursing mother is ever ready to let go of that last feeding, at any time in their child's life - I don't care if they are five months or five years old. If you make it to a point where your child is getting the majority of her calories from table food, instead of worrying "are they getting enough?" or "are they thriving?" you get to focus on how precious the time is while nursing. It's easy to get wrapped up in that, I know. Ultimately I felt it was my job as a parent to decide for my child when she was ready to achieve a new milestone, even though she never showed any interest whatsoever in moving on.
She has been fully weaned for months now and I know it was the right decision. By weaning, I wasn't telling her it is wrong to need comfort. I was telling her she has the ability to start finding it for herself. Now she gets a hug from her big brother or sucks her thumb. Just like that, she is more dependent on herself to soothe when she needs it, not just when the sight of mommy might trigger it.
(photo: vita khorzhevska / Shutterstock)