The Emotions of Weaning
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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