5.20.2011

the end of our breastfeeding journey

The last time I nursed River was about three weeks ago. We were at a restaurant with some friends, it was late, and he was exhausted and cranky. So I nursed him. Something I hadn’t done in about five days. Then I let him fall asleep. Something I hadn’t let him do in about two months. I always loved nursing my baby to sleep. His sweet sleeping face, his loose jaw lazily nursing still. Even at 19 months, his chin still fluttered every now and then.

To be honest, I loved most everything about breastfeeding. I loved the milky smiles -- I think every breastfeeding mama can agree with that. What’s sweeter than giving your child the best nourishment, and have them gaze up at you and grin lovingly? I also loved how he only wanted to nurse if he was sad, or scared, or hurt. He would come to me. I was his comfort. It’s a mutual enjoyment. Something only you can give to your baby. Such a special bond.


I remember reading an article when River was about six months old about a mom and the last time she nursed her three year old. She said everything about nursing was bothering her. The things her daughter did when she nursed aggravated her -- how she played with a mole under her arm, the way her teeth felt while she nursed, the way she wiggled and squirmed and hummed. I didn’t get it. Breastfeeding is beautiful! I love everything my baby does when he nurses! I couldn’t imagine feeling that way toward my child as he nursed.

But that’s exactly how I felt when I got pregnant. I found out I was pregnant in February, when River was 18 months old. He was still waking 2-3 times during the night to nurse, but as soon as we went on our trip to Pittsburgh, he started waking up nearly every hour. Thanks to first-trimester, suddenly my boobs hurt, I was throwing up every morning, on the sleep schedule of an infant, and a teary, emotional, impatient mess the rest of the time. I knew I had to night-wean.

nursing an 18 months old at 11 weeks pregnant.


I was seriously considering night-weaning shortly after his first birthday, but I knew -- I just knew -- it wasn’t the right time. I started by not nursing him to sleep, which I had never done. He was not one to be carried, snuggled, or rocked to sleep. The first night was a surprise. He cried and fussed quite unconvincingly for about ten minutes before he found a comfortable position on my chest (ahem, quite uncomfortable for me) and eventually dozed to sleep after a considerable amount of squirming. I was elated. The second night was a different story. This time I only let him cry for about five minutes -- but he got so hysterical he almost threw up. I couldn’t do this to my baby. So I nursed him to sleep and accepted that it was not the right time. Luckily, that’s around the time he stopped waking up as often during the night, and that was good enough for me.

A friend told me about Dr. Jay Gordon’s method for gentle night-weaning, and I liked that he was very pro-attachment parenting and that his technique for night-weaning was in line with that philosophy. Since we had been “practicing” going to sleep without nursing, I decided to go straight into refusing to nurse in the middle of the night during a seven-hour stretch.

The first night was rough. I didn’t think morning would ever come. The first time he woke up to nurse, he cried off and on for forty-five minutes. We co-sleep, so I was with him the entire time and he was never left alone. The second time he woke that night was not memorable enough for me toremember exactly how it went, but it wasn’t nearly as long as the first time. The second night was much more promising. This time he only cried for fifteen minutes the first time, and the next few times he woke up were only minutes long. The third night, he woke up once, fussed for a bit, and snuggled to sleep. Each morning at around five o’clock, he would nurse once before finally getting up at around seven thirty.

Just as I was thinking things were going smoothly and I was luckiest person alive, we had a major setback on the fourth night. I was not expecting this, but apparently it's common when night-weaning to kind of take two steps forward, one (or three, or five) steps back. This time, he cried off and on for nearly two and a half hours. I was exhausted and grumpy and nauseous and I finally lost it. I yelled at him, I cried and gritted my teeth, and I think I even threw his sippy cup across the room. I had fallen over the edge. I felt like a failure as a mother for absolutely losing my patience with him, especially during a time that was as hard (or harder) for him as it was for me. It was more than I could handle. I called John, sobbing, and told him what a bad mom I was. He talked with me for a good while, assuring me I wasn't the worst mother on the planet (because in those moments, you truly believe you are). Then I snuggled and kissed River, told him over and over mommy was so sorry, and nursed him to sleep then and every time he woke up that night. I woke the next day, thankful the night was over, but wondering if I had ruined the entire thing by nursing him all night.

Not so; surprisingly, the next night went smoothly, and within a week he was waking only once or twice a night to ask to nurse, and readily snuggled to sleep instead. In a month, he was sleeping through the night completely, and stopped waking to nurse in the early morning. He was still nursing just as much during the day, but I quickly decided to start nursing less during the day. Because he wasn’t getting the calories during the night through my breastmilk, he was eating much more during the day, and was more willing to play or color or read books instead of nursing. Even though I still hadn’t planned on weaning completely, I realized that’s what I was doing. The idea of weaning him was so strange. Even as I was doing it, I could hardly believe it. Just the word -- weaning -- seemed out of place.

But it happened so gradually, so painlessly, that we both hardly noticed. I never felt guilty about weaning him before two years. There were a few times when I thought, I can’t believe we’re actually weaning. I can’t believe he’s done nursing. I can’t believe I’ll look back and say, our breastfeeding journey ended when he was 20 months old. It was bittersweet, and it was the right time. Maybe more for mama than for baby, but I was at the point where if I had continued to nurse him, I think it would have become harmful to our relationship. On top with the physical feelings of being in my first trimester, emotionally, I was feeling overwhelmed and over-touched, and in a way, felt that I had to get my body ready for the new child that would receive nourishment from my body -- now in my womb, and at my breast in five months. I also felt that I needed a break. I hadn’t worn a dress or a strapless top in almost two years!

River was an avid nurser and it was such a big part of our relationship, I won’t be surprised if he wants to start nursing again when the baby is born. At this point, I can assume that will be fine with me, but I really can’t say whether I will let him right away. I may need time to establish breastfeeding with the babe, or I may just feel too overwhelmed. I’ve always thought tandem nursing was a beautiful thing but never put it on myself as something I had to do. I think it’s important for a mama to take care of herself, too. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself first, in order for your child to have the healthiest childhood.

I’m glad the last time we nursed went the way it did. I remember being surprised he fell asleep, and I felt all of the sweet, positive emotions of nursing him before I was pregnant. I don’t think I’ll ever forget. In a way I'm very proud. I was nursing a toddler. A walking, talking, running, active, mischievous toddler. Until he was 18 months old, he was literally not only surviving, but thriving on my breastmilk alone (besides the occasional snack here and there). Twenty months... that's a long time. Not as long as I'd hoped, but a good, long while.

nursing at around sixteen months old.

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful & insightful, as always, Whitney!

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  2. Hats off to you Whitney... You did such a great thing for River -- and you should be super proud (especially for going as long as you did with your first sweetheart). I had my first baby at 25 and only nursed for 7 months. With the second one I made it to 15 months... and now with Ricky I'm up to 18 months (and each time it's been different). You inspire me to keep going. Great post as usual!

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  3. this is the best. you sound very wise.

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