Ever since I gave birth to my son a little over two years ago, breastfeeding has been a huge, and overwhelmingly positive, part of our relationship. Once we got over our initial latching struggles and new-to-nursing adjustments, we've had a really great experience. While I always left open the possibility that I might wean him if I felt I needed to, I long planned to let him self-wean whenever he was ready. However, one of the many things no one tells you about weaning is that breastfeeding aversions are totally a thing, and they can strike anyone, even confirmed nursaholics like myself, even if we're not pregnant. Now that they have, and don't seem to be going away (especially at night, shudder), I've made the tough choice to start gently nudging him along our previously unpaved path to weaning.
Technically speaking, we’ve been weaning since day one, particularly once he started eating solid foods, and slooooowly started letting solid food take the place of some of his nursing sessions. Now that he's getting bigger and I’m feeling some breastfeeding agitation, that doesn't seem to be going away, I know I need to move this process along a little faster than it might otherwise proceed.
While I'm really looking forward to moving on from this phase of life, I'm really sad about it, too. In addition to being a pretty big part of our relationship, breastfeeding has been a pretty useful tool in my parenting arsenal. I'm not gonna lie, I'm pretty bummed to be forfeiting my two "get out of tears/chores/awkward conversations with extended family members during the holidays free" cards. I, like, actually have to learn how to parent a mood-swingy toddler now, and that's really hard. I didn't realize it would be this hard; no one ever really told me anything about weaning, much less anything about weaning a toddler who still really loves to nurse. So in the interest of helping someone else feel way less in the dark than I have during this process, here are a few things I wish someone had told me about weaning before I got started.
Though the reverse is often true for many people, for me, weaning is much harder than starting nursing. Starting was mostly a matter of having a professional teach me tricks to help him learn how to latch, and learning his cues so I could nurse him before he got so hungry that he was freaking out. There’s no magic trick I can learn to make him not want to nurse anymore, even though my body is telling me that I need to be done, and there’s no magic trick I can learn to make it easier to deal with his hurt, anger, and disappointment when I hold the current limits that I’ve set. If only.
He’s not a baby anymore, and he has plenty of other things to eat, drink, and be comforted by (including me, just sans perpetually-open nursing bra). Yet every time he asks to nurse and I feel like I need to say no, it’s really hard for me. I’m not someone who normally struggles with “no” (anymore, anyway).
Normally, when I deeply don’t want to do something, it’s super easy for me to set a boundary and hold it. Not so much when it comes to breastfeeding my little one, even though I really, really want to be done with breastfeeding. Except for the part of me that doesn’t. Sigh. Ambivalence is the worst.
Researchers still aren’t totally sure what causes it, but nursing agitation or aversions are documented in many different mammals, so it’s as natural as having boobs. So no, developing them, even independently of a new pregnancy, does not mean you’re a bad mom, or not committed to breastfeeding, or anything else. It just makes you a normal mammal, like any other mammal.
Weaning is another reminder that my baby is not technically a baby anymore, which is something I sincerely grieve even as I also welcome him becoming the healthy growing boy he is. I’m going to miss the closeness and beauty of nursing him, even though nursing isn’t always beautiful to me right now.
If you’re taking the gentle weaning route, and have set certain boundaries (“don’t offer, don’t refuse,” only nursing at certain times, gradually removing nursing sessions throughout the day), there will be times when your child asks to nurse and it’s hard to hold those boundaries. It’s OK to give in if you want to, and pick back up where you left off the next time the decision presents itself. It’s OK to take each request as it comes.
Nursing less than you did before can affect your hormones, to say nothing of the emotional changes I’ve already mentioned. That means mood swings are definitely a looming threat. Not that they’ve ever been far off, ever since you decided to become a biological parent. Or “decided” to go through puberty.
It wasn’t long after I decided that I wanted to encourage weaning, that I decided it might be easier to just go back to my original plan to let him self-wean. Anything must be easier than dealing with his tears, and the guilt I occasionally feel about nudging him along this process. Then I’m reminded of how frustrating it is to nurse sometimes, and I remember why I started thinking of weaning in the first place.
Every parent and every child is different, and while major organizations have certain research-driven recommendations for breastfeeding or chestfeeding, only a parent and their child(ren) can truly know how long or short “as mutually desired by [parent] and child” really is for them.
Even though I know most kids I know haven’t nursed nearly as long as my son and they’re all healthy and happy, I can’t help but feel guilty every time I see how upset he is when I dissuade him from latching on, and when I worry about any possible implications for his immune system, or anything else. But regardless of whether and how long we breastfeed, guilt with a side of worry is the default state of motherhood, isn’t it?
I didn’t realize how much unrestricted comfort nursing was bothering me and infringing on the quality of my relationship with my son, until I finally resolved to limit it. I instantly felt my mood and my attitude toward him improve. It was such a relief to know that I could successfully say no, even if I didn’t always.
It is possible, and you can do this. That’s what all my friends and expert advice-givers have told me, anyway, so I’m assuming it’s true for you, too. Here’s hoping.