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The Emotions of Weaning

The Emotions of Weaning

By Amalah

Hi Amy-

I am hoping you or your readers can provide some words of wisdom to help me. I have an amazing 7 month daughter. She has been (almost) exclusively breastfed, nursed when I’m there and given a bottle when I’m not (I work full time). Breastfeeding started out easily – better than I could have imagined. She latched well, I had little to no discomfort (other than when my breasts turned into concrete blocks when my milk came in) and I had an abundant supply. Everything was great, until the green, mucousy, bloody poop showed up around 5 weeks.

Thus began an extremely emotional journey of elimination diets and ultimately a stint on hypoallergenic formula before figuring out that our dear girl is allergic to dairy and soy. In the end, she spent a month on formula while I pumped to keep my supply. I cut out dairy and soy and we put her on probiotics and we resumed nursing. She tolerated my milk well (she was never extra fussy or anything, so all we had to go on were the quality of the diapers. Never did I think I would so much time examining my child’s poop! My phone is full of pictures of dirty diapers!). It took a while to get back into nursing – she clearly preferred the ease of a bottle for a while, and we’ve had a couple of week-long nursing strikes that come out of nowhere and are always emotional, but we’ve been able to get back on track.

My goal for nursing was always a year, at least until the uncertainty about whether my milk was even the best choice for our little girl, and the struggle of my restricted diet. The diet is not really that big of a deal. I miss cheese (A Wisconsin girl deprived of her cheese!) and yogurt, but I survive, and it gets easier with time. The hardest thing to deal with is eating out/socializing, and the stress of constantly worrying about if what I’m eating is harming my daughter (this was especially troublesome while we were sorting everything out). I sometimes think of those 1-2 months as our “lost months” I was so stressed it dominated my thoughts often – and juggling pumping with formula feeding was sort of a nightmare in itself. Most of all, I just ached to nurse my baby. Every bone in my body was sad that I wasn’t nursing her. Even though I was still expressing milk with the pump, I had some serious hormonal swings going on and it gave me a glimpse into what weaning will be like for me. And now I’m terrified to wean, while at the same time sort of fantasizing about how great it would be to eat whatever I want without the worry in the back of my mind that it will somehow hurt my daughter.

The nursing strikes have also brought to focus that she is strong willed and may not want to nurse forever. And although right now, this isn’t even something I need to be thinking about (she’s nursing well, and I have found good substitutes for ice cream, which is really the important thing here – haha), I find myself thinking about what it will be like to wean. Sometimes I think I’m almost ready and think that it would be SO MUCH EASIER (no more reading labels!) and maybe less emotional if it’s MY choice and not hers (I know, I know, I need to get used to the idea that I will have to let go of so many things in my daughter’s life). And then I start to think about the logistics of weaning, and which feed to drop first. And I think about what the last nursing session will be like. And I think about how depressed and sad I’ll be when it’s over (see above being an emotional wreck during our nursing hiatus). And then I start crying. And I DREAD weaning.

How do I stop obsessing about this so I can just enjoy the breastfeeding relationship we have for as long as it lasts? How do people know when it’s time to be done, especially if it’s mother-led? I love breastfeeding, but it has been one of the most emotional rollercoasters of my life. I want to enjoy it without having this fear of weaning looming over me.

Thanks for your advice!
Worried about weaning

This is one of those situations that doesn’t really call for “advice.” It’s too personal, it’s too loaded.

What I can do is commiserate, and share some experience. And also very gently point out that at seven months postpartum, you are still in the Bulls-eye Zone of postpartum depression and anxiety. So read everything I say below, but then…talk to your doctor about how all-consuming this worry and fear is right now. You’ve had a seriously rough go of it. You’ve asked for advice here, I think it’s entirely reasonable and realistic that you ask for actual help navigating your emotions as well, via doctor or specialized postpartum therapist.

That said. The important thing to remember is that — no matter how difficult OR easy your breastfeeding experience is/was — weaning is an inevitable part of it. And sometimes (actually, loads of times) it doesn’t happen on whatever set timetable you had in your head, under or over. But it happens. And even at it’s most ideal, it’s a bittersweet process.

And when I say “most ideal,” I’m really talking about a fantasy: This idea that at some point, right when your baby hits the milestone goal age you arbitrarily set in your head (one year, two years, etc.), you will be nursing and they’ll look up at you and you’ll both be like, YES, THIS IS THE END. And you’ll be able to treasure that final session forever and move forward with weaning as a perfect mutual decision.

In reality, weaning is messier. Is this a just a nursing strike or…? Babies don’t self-wean this early, right…? Ugh, I had to travel and pumped the whole time but now I’m home and he doesn’t seem interested anymore…? Ugh, I think I’m done with this but he still really wants it so am I a monster for wanting to stop…?  Ugh, I think nursing is interfering with my toddler sleeping through the night so am I monster for wanting to stop…?

I nursed three babies, and never once did I realize when the “last session” was until it was already past. It ended in fits and starts and half-hearted latches followed by zero actual nursing. It ended when I realized I was trying harder than my baby was, that a bottle was clearly every bit as acceptable to them as my breast. It ended when my supply realized this as well and chose to plummet, it ended when I realized life would just be easier for us both if I let it go.

Those “ends” I’m talking about refer to three different weanings of three different babies at three different ages. But each weaning involved most of those experiences. And I had three wildly difference breastfeeding experiences! My first was a damn near nightmare: Big baby, bad supply, failure to thrive, weak suck, nursing strikes, going back to work full time the SECOND things seemed to improve, etc. I threw in the towel before six months, far short of my 12-month goal on something that was SO SUPER INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT TO ME.

And it was fine. I look back on how ROUGH it was, like you already are, and feel a mixture of pride for every day I DID manage to nurse, and pity for my younger, frustrated self who was trying so hard and beating herself up instead of just FEEDING AND ENJOYING HER BABY.

My next baby was a great nurser (once we fixed his tongue tie and the incredibly pain/scabbing it caused me healed). I had a better supply, but was chill enough to accept occasional supplementing when he needed it, because the point is to FEED THE BABY. And then he abruptly started self-weaning around 10 months and I was like…whaaaat? That’s not supposed to happen! All the books and internets say that’s not suppose to happen! What am I doing wronggggggg?

Nothing. He weaned. And it was fine. And I look back, again, with a mixture of pride that I tried again and succeeded for longer, and pity because I still felt (at the time) like I was coming up short, and thus still a “failure.”

My last baby was a dream nurser. His first birthday came and went and we kept going, but then I started having days where I was like, “okay, this is starting to get less and less convenient, and man, I’d really like to be able to enjoy some wine without doing math about our nursing sessions.” And then I felt guilty for thinking that. And then I went away for a weekend and pumped the whole time, and the second I came home and whisked him away to our rocking chair I realized…oh. I think he’s done. Which means I’m done, forever, because he’s our last baby. Wow. I tried a couple more times after that, just to be sure, and…yep. He weaned.

AND IT WAS FINE. Bittersweet, but fine.

I’m proud of every day I fed my babies. By breast, by bottle, by whatever way they needed because they were hungry. If my milk wasn’t enough, it wasn’t enough. It was still something, though. And then the breast went away and so did the bottles and now it’s all far away in the rearview mirror. So it’s even easier for me to be gentle with myself about it. It’s no longer a Big Fraught Thing. It’s a memory, tinged with good and bad and hard-won victories mixed up with…not failures, but things that just didn’t go as planned. 

Which is like, 99% of motherhood, really.

So I can’t promise that weaning your daughter won’t be sad or that you’ll have alternating moments of “NO I TAKE IT BACK COME BACK BABY” or “I FEEL SO RELIEVED TO BE DONE BUT GUILTY FOR FEELING THAT WAY.” You’ve had a really, really hard time and had to make a lot of really hard sacrifices that not every nursing mother has to bother with, and it’s okay to recognize that maybe things just aren’t going to work out the way you planned. You didn’t plan for a baby with severe food allergies, but that’s what you got. (This is why I get irritated at the one-size-fits-all triteness of “Breast is Best.” Yeah, sure. But there are a lot of exceptions and unfortunately rather than accepting that yes, in fact, there ARE exceptions, people just heap guilt and judgement on the mothers of those exceptions.) You need to feed your particular baby in whatever particular way works best for her.

But please try to let go of the BIG CONSUMING FEAR of weaning. Accept it as the inevitability that is is, be it in the next month or  six months from now. (I can almost promise “making it to a year” won’t magically make you feel like you have mental/emotional permission to stop — you’ll probably still feel obligated to keep going as long as she’s latching on, while squashing down your feelings of diet stress and OMG I JUST WANT REAL CHEESE AGAIN.)  For mother-led weaning, the general advice is “don’t offer/don’t refuse.” Your daughter already goes on frequent nursing strikes (oh I know those so well), so the next time she seems to strike, accept that she might be telling you that she’s ready, that she’s fine with the formula. If she turns her head and indicates she wants to nurse, let her. If she pulls off in a grumpy huff, let her have a bottle. Fits and starts, ultimately coming to an end, as it would even without your particular breastfeeding history.

It won’t necessarily be like the awful early days when you pumping and desperately wishing you were nursing instead — I had that experience too, with my first!! I would pump and basically sob the whole time, terrified that I was never going to have any success at this and it felt oh so wrong because he was so young and losing weight and my hormones were going completely bonkers. A few months later, we’d had at least some success and good times and I was in a completely different place, emotionally. I simply did not have enough milk for him and he really, really preferred the bottle over the breast anyway. I was sick to death of pumping at work (and getting NOTHING from it) and finally gave myself permission to just…let it go. I stopped offering, he stopped requesting. We had a few wonderful weeks where he would “reunion nurse” as soon as we got home from work/daycare and I treasure those memories.

You’ll treasure your memories too, while also growing more and more aware of just how hard you had it, of just how hard you fought for those memories. And the sadness and fear will be replaced with pride, with forgiveness and the ability to be more gentle with yourself. You fed your baby. And that’s enough. That’ll do.

Photo source: Depositphotos/oksun70

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Myriam

    I breasfed for 15 and 25 months. Both were mom-led weanings. And I so hoped it would be child-led. It really sucks when you decide to wean, and the only think the kid want is boob! You talk about watching your diet, but your baby might grow out of the allergy before your wean. She can decide to keep going past her 2nd birthday! You don’t know, and you can’t really control it. So I would advice like Amy, and talk to someone about it…

  • IrishCream

    There’s a lot of bonding and snuggling that comes with nursing, and a sense of accomplishment that you’re providing for your baby with your own body. (There’s also a ton of work and frustration, and the bonding, snuggling, and pride aren’t unique to nursing…solidly in the Whatever Works Best for You Is Best So MYOB, World camp.)

    If it is scary thinking about bringing that to end, it might help to remember that all those good things don’t end when you wean. As your baby gets older, there will be so many more ways you can bond with her, from cuddling to playing games to hearing her say she loves you, and beyond. And as she grows and begins relying more on solid food, you can express your love by preparing homemade meals, or taking her to new restaurants, or kicking butt at your job so that you can pay for food…whatever gives you that sense of accomplishment that you might feel now from nursing.

    TL;DR Nursing is great, but it’s just one possible facet of the parenting experience, and more good things will take its place when it’s time for you and her to wean.

  • LMo

    Oh god, I could have written your post ten months ago. I, too, had a perfect start to my nursing relationship. My daughter latched perfectly, ate beautifully, grew like a weed… And then, at two-and-a-half months, she refused. She arched away, and simply refused to nurse when she was awake. I took a different approach, and built my life around her naps, when she would happily nurse. She slept, and I flipped her from side to side, silently and gently, and became obsessed with keeping her asleep as long as possible. It took a while to figure out that she had a milk intolerance (our pediatrician said that true “allergies” to milk are very unusual, but more likely an intolerance that she would outgrow between 6 and 12 months). I gave up dairy, but it didn’t help right away. So, my daughter’s sleep was my fixation, and she went from sleeping well through the night to sleeping horribly, waking every 2-3 hours because of my approach. I sobbed, was convinced I was starving her…it was awful. I’ve never been so broken. Then, when she was around 5 months, right when I went back to work, it stopped. The dairy was out of my system for sure, but I think she also started to outgrow the intolerance. She would nurse while awake again! But by then, she didn’t need to nurse the way that I needed to nurse her. She was older, and more independent, and curious, and those magical early days where she needed me were gone.
    My daughter is also a very independent personality, and she….just didn’t need the reassurance of nursing the way some other babies do. And boy was I jealous of the other moms in my nursing group, whose babies wanted to be on the boob all the time. Mine sure didn’t… And then I got pregnant again, when my daughter was around 9 months, and my supply plummeted, and I had to start supplementing, and I saw my dream of tandem nursing my babies slip away. It’s so hard, and I have so much sympathy for you, I really do.
    As Amy said, every baby is different, so maybe my experience won’t apply to you. But I can say that I chose to let my daughter decide. And, shockingly, she kept nursing (at least sporadically) until she was 14 months. I’m sure she wasn’t getting much nutrition, and she popped off as soon as the milk was gone, but it was enough for me. Amy’s exactly right–I don’t know what session was our last, because you just don’t know. I will say that I always offer, so it’s just not clear what time I pulled my boob out was the last that she latched. She still asks for them by pulling on my shirt collar. And I’ll unhook, she’ll latch on, then pop off immediately–she thinks its hilarious. Boobs are funny!
    I still miss nursing her. Our second is due in January, and I *can’t wait* to have a new baby to feed. I plan to give up dairy as soon as the baby arrives, in hopes of avoiding the agony again. But who knows. Like you, I worry a lot, so I want to focus on enjoying this baby while I can. But, letting the baby lead the way, and feeling like she made the choice helped alleviate my guilt, if not my sadness. Watching your baby grow up is always bittersweet, regardless of the stage…

    • Myriam

      Oh don’t! Babies are totally different! My first was polyallergic (dairy, soy, eggs, carmine, peanuts, as well as multiple environmental allergies) while my second doesn’t have a single one. Now, you’ll know the sign, be better prepared. It’s unnecessary to cut dairy out for the get-go… at least, talk to your ped before doing so…

      • LMo

        Thanks for the inspiration! I will consider it. You’re exactly right though–there were signs before things got bad, I just didn’t recognize them for what they were. Maybe we’ll have an easier road this time. But I wouldn’t trade it. My daughter is amazing, and I’m a better mother for having struggled with her.

  • Lauren

    I loved nursing all my babies (currently with my third, who is 9 months old) I set a goal of a year, and I mother led weaned both previous times. I just.. I loved EVERY bit of it, but when i felt I was done, I was DONE. I wasn’t going to let this wonderful thing I did with my babies become a burden. I made it 11 months with my oldest. 10 months with my second (had another month’s worth of milk in the fridge… I was a dairy that time, I know.) and this one… we may make it to a year. we may stop a little short. But I will say it was nice to know when the last nursing session was. To mentally and physically prepare for it… and to give a small fuzzy head a couple extra carresses during it. And to set my husband up to handle the night wakings over a long weekend. By three days later they always slept through the night better and had figured out how to cuddle me WITHOUT a mouth open. It was perfect… and it’s still really active, physically closemothering that goes on afterwards too- that part is just never going to stop, never fear!

  • SarahB

    Oh, man, you have had a rough go of it. I hope you give yourself credit for that. The first year, particularly the first year of the first baby, is such a learning curve and yours steeper than most. You might not realize until your life gets a bit easier just how much you’ve pulled off.

    Do consider that you might be having some PPD/A. As someone whose emotions are prone to being extra roller-coastery with hormonal shifts, I did find weaning to be hard, and then a few weeks after I was done, it was like a fog lifted. I also got PPD several months after my second was born. So, I recommend being extra kind to yourself. Food related treats are hard now, but a massage, a pedicure, some time to yourself, asking DH to help you find ways to get extra sleep…find little ways to do things that are restorative to you as you sort this all out.

    Best wishes.

  • Inmara

    From my (rather short) experience with nursing (we started combo-feeding at 3 weeks and switched to EFF at 5 months) – once you stop lactating, your hormones return to their more or less normal state, and you start to wonder what those struggles and anxieties were all about. Thinking about how you will tolerate weaning is rather pointless at this moment while you’re nursing because when you stop your feelings may be totally different! Amalah and people in comments already shared their view on approach to weaning but I wanted to point out this aspect in particular.

  • Alana

    Yes, please do talk to your doctor about your concerns. All mothers worry about their little ones, but it shouldn’t consume you. I made it a year with my first, and I weaned right before a business trip so I knew it was our last nursing session as it was happening. I have to say that was really hard for me. I sobbed the whole time, even though I was thoroughly, CONFIDENTLY ready to wean. Crap, I’m tearing up just thinking about it. But I have zero regrets about weaning then even though we could have nursed for many months more. I was ready, and that is 1000% enough justification. Happy mom = happy baby. Also, I *personally* found bottle feeding to be more of a “bonding” experience as I could actually look into her eyes and interact while feeding. As the other moms have stated, motherhood is filled SO MANY bonding experiences with your child. Just wait til she can talk! And walk! You’ve done a FABULOUS job feeding your baby! Your daughter is lucky to have such a thoughtful and concerned mama.

  • Lisa R

    I just weaned my 2nd baby. It was time, but I still sometimes catch myself guilting myself over it. I did want to say though– that actually weaning is much nicer than struggling. So you don’t need to assume that weaning will be as hard as the struggle. Good luck Mama!

  • TM

    I just wanted to add that it’s ok to feel “relief” at being able to eat again things that your baby is allergic to. We found out my daughter was allergic to dairy and nuts around 11 months old, and she self-weaned at 12 months — so I only had to do the truly dairy-free gig for around a month, and even then, I was glad to not have to watch that part of my diet anymore. You’re right that in a sense, it’s “not that big of a deal,” but it’s still hard! So kudos to you for doing that for your child.

  • OP

    Hi all-
    Original poster here. Thank you all for the advice and support! I’m still nursing 4 months later and am in such a better place emotionally about weaning. Turns out, I just needed to chill out and stop worrying! I’m sure when the time comes (which will be in the next few months I think), I’ll be sad to say goodbye to our nursing relationship, but it no longer fills me with dread. I clearly was NOT ready to wean 4 months ago. You all helped to put things in perspective, and it has helped that I’ve introduced dairy into my diet (and my daughters now) and she seems to be handling it well. Thanks again to Amy and the others who commented!