There are many reasons why women choose to breastfeed. For some, it just comes naturally and their body allows them the option and they are excited to bond with their baby via the act of breastfeeding. Some moms choose to breastfeed exclusively into toddlerhood, while others decide to stop or end sooner (for a multitude of reasons). This is totally okay, of course, because when a woman decides to stop breastfeeding is her choice (and only hers) to make. There are plenty of folks who might want to make this about them, and say totally insensitive things, but there’s really only one thing you should say to a woman when she’s done breastfeeding, and that's that you wholeheartedly support her decision, even and especially if it's not a decision you would personally make, and that she did a great job. Tell her she's a wonderful mother, because (you guessed it) she is.
See, many women have more than their fair share of trouble when it comes to breastfeeding. Some of us do all that we can to increase our milk supply, and those attempts don't always pan out like we'd hoped. I know because I tried several different methods to try and produce more milk for my baby, with no increased production whatsoever. Sometimes a baby will also have feeding difficulties, requiring them to receive supplemental formula. This happens frequently in premature and other NICU babies. Other mothers simply can't produce milk at all. And then some moms just seriously hate breastfeeding, and that is completely fine. All mothers are different, and we don’t all have to be in love with every aspect of parenthood in order to be the best parents possible.
When my son was born, he was diagnosed with persistent pulmonary hypertension and was rushed to a hospital more than 30 minutes away. I didn’t see him for the first two days of his life, which were the two most agonizing days of mine. I was depressed and anxious, still under the effects of PTSD from the loss of my first daughter and now riding the anxiety train at full speed, wondering if my son might die as well. It was not easy.
My milk came in the first day I went to visit him in the hospital. But when I got home, I didn’t feel up to pumping. I knew it was important, but I was incredibly exhausted, drained both physically and emotionally, and I wound up foregoing pumping a few more hours than I "should have", in exchange for some uninterrupted (not to mention, much needed) sleep. Sadly, when I tried to pump again, my breasts were no longer engorged and I was barely producing any milk.
I tried pumping in my son's hospital room. I tried looking at pictures of him and visualizing him when I pumped away from my son. The guilt took over and I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep more than 2 or 3 hours at a time, in order to continually pump. And when my son and I were finally allowed to attempt breastfeeding, it still didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
I had a number of lactation consultants come and visit me at the hospital. They suggested all the same things I was already doing. I also did some research and began taking fenugreek pills, red raspberry tea, and moringa tablets regularly. I ate oatmeal multiple times a day and I even had a beer to see if that might help. I did every single thing I could think of in the hopes of making just another half an ounce of milk. Sadly, nothing worked.
I pumped and nursed relentlessly for the first four months of my son’s life and by the end of those four months, I was just done. It broke my heart to give up on breastfeeding, but the fact was :I was making myself weak and sick and only supplementing him with less than an ounce per feed. Meanwhile, I had zero patience with anyone, I never slept, and I was just a complete mess. I couldn’t even enjoy having my son home (finally) because I was so stressed about breastfeeding. All I had read and heard prior to my son's arrival, was how every woman can do it and how you just have to try harder and it’ll happen for you and the worst thing you could possibly do is give up.
But guess what? That’s all completely and totally wrong. It’s not easy for all parents. It’s not easy for all babies. And for some of us, try as we might, it still doesn’t happen, which is why deciding to stop breastfeeding isn't the worst thing you could do as a mother. The worst thing you could do is beat yourself up and exhaust yourself and fail to take care of yourself, to the point that you're so unhappy and unable to enjoy being a mother.
When I finally decided to give back my hospital-grade pump and allow my milk to dry, I was an emotional mess. I had moments of wanting to go back to breastfeeding, and to try just a little harder, while simultaneously combating the very real, relentless thought that I was a bad mom if I just gave my son formula. Fortunately, my husband was incredibly supportive of my decision to stop breastfeeding. He’d actually suggested it earlier because he saw how stressed and tired I was all the time, but I nearly bit his head off at the thought (thank you sleep deprivation, you're a peach). But once I finally made my decision, he said the one thing we should all say to women once they’re done with breastfeeding:
“It’s okay. You did great. You are a wonderful mother.”
Three short, simple phrases. Not difficult at all to say. There’s absolutely no need to question the mother’s motives. No need to suggest ways that she can increase supply or reduce stress or whatever the hell else. Definitely no need for any sort of judgement or holier-than-thou commentary. And it’s certainly not the time to bring up how you breastfed your own kids till they were toddlers with no problem whatsoever and it's so strange that every other mom can't do the same. Instead, say what my husband said to me, which was exactly what I needed to hear, and why I’m sharing it with you all because you may eventually encounter a woman in a similar position; a woman who needs to hear that she's a great mom; a woman filled with self-doubt that just wants some support; a woman who could just as easily been you, if our collective cosmic cards had been switched around.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why a mother decided to quit nursing her child, because all parents eventually give it up at some point. Whether you gave up because breastfeeding was too painful, or you never felt comfortable because you are a survivor of sexual assault, or you had the kinds of challenges I did, or you breastfed for months and years and decided that was enough; every single one of us should feel supported in our decision. Let your fellow mama friends know that they did the best they could, that they are justified in making their choice, that their babies will still grow to be healthy and strong, and that they are great mothers, because it's the truth.