How to be a weaner

How to be a weaner

Weaning from breastfeeding can happen in a couple of ways. Sometimes the child takes the lead by refusing feeds, losing interest in nursing and generally showing Mom that he/she is done with the boob. [LC note: it is uncommon for a child to self-wean before age one. For more information, check out self-weaning on Kellymom, my favorite breastfeeding website].

Sometimes, a mother is ready to stop breastfeeding before the child shows signs of stopping. And that is FINE. It takes two to tango and both partners are important in this dance. [LC note: I think it is helpful to clarify your reasons for weaning before going for it. some women wean because they have been mistakenly told there is no benefit to the child after one year. If the decision to wean is made using bad or false advice, that could be upsetting later. But if a mom is ready because she just. is. done., then full steam ahead!]

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That was my situation. I decided shortly after his 2nd birthday (14 Sept) that I was ready to be done, and we had our last nursing session on 5 Dec 2012. I didn’t want to abruptly stop nursing because 1) I went back and forth with my resolve to quit; 2) I wanted to make this as easy as possible on my son (since he would be losing a source of nutrition/comfort that he’d had since birth); and 3) I did NOT want to deal with engorgement. No ma’am.

Here are the steps I took to wean my son. I can’t remember how long each step took, but I didn’t move on to another step until my son was ready. This meant he had accepted the change, didn’t fuss/cry/complain about it anymore and had been that way for at least a few days (meaning I didn’t start a new change the minute I saw acceptance. Had to give the kid a little time to enjoy his new routine before I sprang another change on him!).

    1. First I eliminated any random day feeds so all we were doing was feeding right before bed. I had eliminated some random nighttime feeds months before (we started bed-sharing when he was 20 months old and he thought that meant all-night buffet. Nice try, buddy). We never nursed before nap, so I didn’t have to worry about that. Feeds before sleep are often the last to go, since most moms will do anything to avoid messing with their kid’s sleep. Those are the feeds that a child is often most resistant to losing, so best to give the child practice skipping other, less dear feeds before moving on to the big kahuna feeds
    2. Next I worked on not letting him fall asleep while nursing. This was the precursor to dropping the bedtime feed. If you get them in the habit of falling asleep after nursing vs. during nursing, it might make it easier for them to fall asleep when you take the nursing away. Some moms try to keep babies from falling asleep at the breast much earlier than I did, and awesome possum if that worked for them. I clung to anything that would make my boy sleep. what i did was let him nurse one side until he asked for the other. Then I’d let him nurse just until he was drowsy (fluttering eyes, slower/deeper breathing). Once I saw that, I’d unlatch him and cuddle a bit. He complained and fussed the first few several times, but I’d cuddle him close, rub his back, shush him, sing his calming songs (twinkle star and farmer in the dell) – basically any calming measure besides nursing. This step took the longest for me.
    3. Once he was a champ at falling asleep without the boob, I started restricting him to one side only. He could nurse all he wanted on one side (without falling asleep, of course!) but once he pulled off and said “Nursh other side!” he was done nursing for the night. We had some minor disagreements about this, but I’d calmly say “No other side” and do all the calming measures from step 2.
    4. After he was ok with only one side and it was getting closer to my chosen end-date, I started reducing his time at the breast until he was only nursing on one side for a few minutes each night. I didn’t watch the clock; I just let him nurse for a little bit and then I’d say, “Ok, all done! Time for night-night” and proceed with cuddling/comfort measures. I suppose a mother could use a watch to reduce the time by a minute each night, but that’s not how I roll.
    5. I had chosen 5 December to be our last night of nursing. I remember how bittersweet and conflicted I felt as we nursed (unbeknownst to my son) for the last time. The next night, 6 December, was my husband’s graduation from Airman Leadership School (ALS). I would be away at the ceremony at bedtime, so Colt would not be able to nurse. I had waited until my husband was done with ALS so that he could help at bedtime if Colt was very resistant to giving up his Nursh. Turns out he wasn’t as upset as I’d feared he’d be, because I never had to call in reinforcements at bedtime.

Reading through these steps, it sounds so easy, but I definitely struggled at times. Mostly with the emotional aspects of it and the guilt I felt for taking nursing away from my son. I went back and forth on if I was ready (which is part of the reason I took so long to wean) but realized I was starting to resent nursing, so knew it was time to stop! My son was probably 85% ready to wean. He wouldn’t have stopped on his own at that time, but he didn’t fuss much at the end.

He’s asked to nurse a handful of times since, but I just gently say no and try to distract him. A few times, he was having a massive cry and was screaming to nurse; that broke my heart to say no but I learned new ways to comfort him. Mostly he asked just to “check,” it seemed like. It’s been over 4 months, and I still get to cuddle him at bedtime as he falls asleep. That’s always been our special time and I’m glad it didn’t go away when breastfeeding did.

Weaning like that also helped me avoid any engorgement/discomfort <——— huge benefit for mom, as anyone who has experienced engorgement will tell you! I didn’t have any engorgement, which makes sense because by the end, each breast was only getting a few minutes of stimulation every 48 hours (one breast a night, switching breasts each night). Avoiding engorgement helped me reduce my risk of a clogged duct or mastitis. I think there would be nothing worse than having to deal with that while trying to stop nursing! Better to take it slow and just avoid that whole party.two of us

Overall, what worked for me was honoring my feelings while respecting my son’s feelings, taking it slow and choosing a time that was (relatively) free of stress and when my husband would be able to help if needed (partner support is so important at every stage of breastfeeding!). What was your experience with weaning like? Any tips that helped you?

Emotional aspects of weaning

I breastfed my son until he was about 27 months. Or 2 years and 3 months, or 2.25 years, depending on your preference for discussing toddler age (I generally think that after age 2, it should be in years but between 2 and 2.5 there is a bit of a gray area). But I digress.

When I first started breastfeeding, my goal was 2 years (go big or go home, right?). 2 years is the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, so I figured that was a good goal to adopt. Pretty ambitious for a first-time mom who had no idea what the hell she was doing. When the nurse said, “All right, let’s feed this baby!” about 30 minutes after he was born, my first thought was “Really? Already?” Nice work, self. He latched then, and after some ups and downs in the first few weeks, we settled into our breastfeeding groove.

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One of my few pictures of nursing

As time went on, I decided I wanted to go to at least 2 years and however long he wanted after that. However, as his second birthday drew nearer, I questioned whether I wanted to let him wean himself (also known as child-led weaning). That child loved to nurse. We had one nursing strike our entire relationship, and that only lasted about half a day. When he started signing, patting my chest was his nursing sign. Later he started saying “Neesh!” Then it became “Nursh!” As he grew verbally, he’d say “I wanna nursh” or “I wanna nursh other side” when he wanted to switch. He knew what he wanted, and it was to nurse.

Meanwhile, I was starting to figure out what I wanted, and it was becoming clear that it was to NOT nurse. I struggled with my decision, but shortly after his second birthday I decided it was time to stop. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore and it kind of felt like a chore. I was terrified that I was going to begin to resent nursing him. I did not want to end our relationship on a bad note, so I decided it was time.

So many emotions in play: Relief, that it was almost over; Sadness, because a big part of mothering (for me) was about to end; Fear, would I be able to comfort him without nursing and was I making a mistake; Worry, how was he going to take it and would I be scarring him for life; Guilt, how could I be so selfish in taking his beloved nursh from him.

Fast forward to weaning day [I’ll share the details of the physical part of weaning in another post; this is all about the emotional aspects]. I was so scared what would happen at bedtime when he asked to nurse and I said no. I expected a 4-alarm tantrum, hysterics, hell opening up and demons dragging me down (translate: I thought it would bad). I had my husband on stand-by, ready to tag in if the boy got too upset with me. he asked a few times, I gently said no, he got a little fussy, settled down after a few minutes and we cuddled until he fell asleep. Without nursing. What. The. Hell. While I was glad it went so easily, a small part of me was sad he seemed to give it up so easily.

Every night at bedtime, it was the same until a few weeks later, when he stopped asking. Only one time during that period did my resolve seriously falter. He was having an epic meltdown, and while sobbing in my arms begged to nurse. My heart broke, but my resolve did not. That was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a mother. I felt selfish and cruel for denying him something he loved so dearly at a time he thought he really needed it. I’m glad now that I stayed strong; being inconsistent with nursing would’ve only made things harder on him. But man did I feel like an asshole at the time.

My emotions were all over the place shortly after weaning (let’s hear it for fluctuating hormones!). I’d known to expect increased feelings of depression and sadness because of the hormones. I was already taking medication for depression and seeing a therapist for other reasons, so I leaned on those resources to help with the additional stress of weaning and weaning hormones. I reached out to friends who had already gone through the weaning process and sought support from my breastfeeding support group. The best support came from my husband. He never pushed me one way or the other and always leant an ear when I needed to purge my feelings. He also constantly reassured me that I was a good mom whether I decided to wean or keep going.

Team McCall
Team McCall

One thing I did to help temper my feelings of sadness was to have my own little weaning ceremony. I read through some ideas at The Leaky Boob and settled on two that worked for me: create a weaning bracelet (jewelry-making is a hobby) and write a letter to my boy, reminiscing about our nursing relationship. I shared the letter to my nursling on this blog in order to memorialize our experience and give it a permanent home. Sometimes I read through it when I feel nostalgic; I enjoy the memories and feel doubly glad that I stopped before those memories turned sour.

Weaning bracelet, with a C to represent my son, Colt
Weaning bracelet, with a C to represent my son, Colt

I’m satisfied with how it ended. Sometimes I do feel a tad guilty for being the one who ended it (so much talk about the importance of child-led weaning in the lactation works), I have to remind myself of what I always told my mamas: There are two people in a nursing relationship, and your feelings are just as valid as the child’s.

Me and my not-scarred-for-life toddler, post-weaning
Me and my not-scarred-for-life toddler, post-weaning