It’s International Breastfeeding Week and I’ve just finished weaning my youngest child. It’s so bitter sweet – because nursing is so sweet, but so is freedom, and so is watching your little one grow. And I would be lying if I said that no tears were shed, but not if I told you that they were all mine. So, I thought I would try to type out how I weaned my children because, that’s the phase I am currently at in my breastfeeding journey, and because, for us, it really worked – so much so that I could say that, in many ways, they weaned themselves.
And I think (or I’d like to believe) that the spirit of International Breastfeeding Week (and the whole “normalize breastfeeding” movement) is not just about advocating for breastfeeding – in public, in general, through difficulty, short term, or extended, etc – but about creating an accepting space for our experience and conversation on the subject – whether you’re all about it, or you can’t do it, or you don’t want to, or you’re weaning. It can feel like such an independant experience, and it certainly is personal, but it is something we can share in – and sharing is good.
The way I see it, from the moment I gave birth to my children they began a journey to become their own people – as breastfed infants my children relied on me, quite completely – but I believe that part of my responsibility, as their mother, is to help them grow into themselves (and in many ways, apart from me (in the sense that they started inside me, next to my heart…)). So I don’t mean for this to sound cold, it comes from a place of deep love and admiration of who they are as individuals. Though I strive to help them grow into strong independent people it is of the utmost importance to me that they feel loved, supported, safe, nurtured, and never forced by me along the way. All this is to help frame my perspective on weaning – I see it as an important step in the development of their person, perhaps lovingly encouraged, but never forced. The last thing I would want is for my children to feel rejected, or like I am not there for them, so it is with pride that I say that I guided them through a process of self-weaning around their first birthday, after they had grown their first 12-teeth.
For the first 6-months of their lives they were strictly breastfed – they had their first solid foods at 6-months (but I will leave that for another post!). I nursed them on demand well beyond their infant stage and throughout the entire period that they were living off breast milk alone.
Once they started getting comfortable with solids (sometime after they turned 6-months) I began regimenting our nursing sessions. I started the gradual shift from “whenever you want” to “let’s wait at least 2.5-3-hours, between feedings”. This never needed to be an issue and I am not sure they ever even noticed the change in routine. They were starting to learn how to crawl and their attention was more often focused on exploration at this point in their lives. I made sure to offer lots of snacks and water in the intervals between nursings. And we keep such a busy schedule that our switch from on-demand to scheduled nursing sessions was well integrated.
Archer took to solids eagerly from the start so his throughout-the-day nursing decreased at 6-months naturally – he enjoyed food. Atlas’ nursing increased from 6-9-months – though I kept him on a schedule he took advantage of all nursing opportunities. Both my children had 6-teeth by this point, which is a lot for this age and they handled their early teeth differently. Archer enjoyed useing them to chew solid food while Atlas prefered the sore-gum comfort of nursing, which is all to say that each baby (however similar) will have their own preferences.
Around 10-months my children went through another big developmental leap. They were learning to walk and interact with the world in an all consuming sort of way that I took full advantage of. Aided by their distractions and the alternative comfort methods we had put in place I stopped nursing based on time intervals and started nursing them based on their sleep routine. At this point I was nursing them upon waking, before nap #1, before nap #2, and before bed.
Archer was sleeping through the night well before this point but Atlas still woke once per night so Atlas also got a middle-of-the-night feed, in addition.
A couple notes on things that played a role in our journey:
1. I personally don’t offer my children milk with meals – I do this for a few reasons but one of the unexpected benefits of it was that it helped to transition them into associating milk with comfort, settling down, and sleep, and separate it from meals and daily activities.
2. My children were never given a bottle until this point in their lives, which meant that before I could wean my children from breastmilk I needed to first work on weaning them off of the breast, and onto a bottle.
3. I pretty much always have healthy snacks and water around and because I am a stay/work from home mom I am always available to them. Perhaps it is easier to wean children when you are around to provide constant nurturing and sustenance or perhaps it is easier to wean when you are not around your children 24/7 – but I do think this plays a role in the journey.
4. Our sleep routine is involved and consistent. One of the key elements is their comfort object (Archer’s “banky” and Atlas’ “lovie”) that remain consistent regardless of whether they are nursed to sleep or not, which I think helps dampen the shock to a lack of breast involvement. We still say “night night” to Toronto, we still rock in the same chair, with the sound machine on… the only thing that changed was the method of milk delivery.
After we set our new feedings-around-sleep routine we started to gradually swap them out. The first to go was the middle-of-the-night feed and that was all Atlas’ doing. Atlas replaced feed #5 with sleep – yay! Once I moved him into his own room he started sleeping through the night. And yes, it totally took me over 10-months to get him out of my bedroom – I just so loved having him close, so much!
The next feed we replaced was the first feed of the day. Because their daddy’s around in the mornings he was able to offer Atlas a bottle of pumped breast milk (which is often something a transitioning baby will have trouble doing with mama because the milk delivery method of preference is so close by). This is a good feed to transition first because if your baby isn’t completely accustomed to taking a bottle, and isn’t getting a “full” feed in, a breakfast of solid food options comes right after. In a short amount of time the boys began to accept the bottle comfortably and 3-nursing-sessions-a-day (with daddy offering a bottle of pumped breastmilk first thing in the morning) became our new normal.
The next transition came in two parts. That morning bottle of breastmilk turned into a morning bottle of whole organic cows milk and, once that was going well, I started being able to offer them a bottle before their shortest nap. Our biggest nursing session became our before-bed-for-the-night feed. I held onto our nap #1 feed mainly to keep my supply up and to help ensure the transition wasn’t too extreme (on either of us).
When Archer was 11.5-months old I was 6-months pregnant with Atlas. He was down to 2-nursing sessions a day and comfortably taking a bottle (of the whole organic cow’s milk) and my milk started changing to colostrum for my growing baby. Nursing became uncomfortable for me and less enjoyable for him as he wasn’t able to get the same volume (or product). He fed eagerly every time I offered him a bottle, as if relieved actual milk came out of it. I tried to get him to keep the before-bed feed until he turned 1, but a few days shy of his first birthday he was done for good.
Atlas wasn’t completely weaned until 13.5-months because that’s just what happened naturally with the same process. Because I wasn’t pregnant through our weaning there wasn’t the added encouragement of changing milk/painful nursing’s. Once we were down to two breastfeeds a day I offered him a bottle mid-way through his morning nap nursing and when he unlatched and took it willingly we dropped the morning nurse. A week later I did the same thing with our before bed nursing session, each night I would offer him his bottle a bit into nursing him and he’d take it – happy to hold all the power in his own hands. After a few of nights in a row with him willfully accepting the bottle in exchange for the boob I felt confident that he was ready and said goodbye to my supply.
My children never looked back. Archer didn’t show any jealousy when Atlas arrived and I started nursing him. Once we dropped his final nursing he never asked for it again. Atlas, perhaps due to being slightly older and more communicative than his brother was, might still have, on rare occasion, tried to pull down my shirt but, as he didn’t have words, this was less to request to nurse and more a signal to show me that he was thirsty or hungry or tired and seemed satisfied as soon as I reached for his sippy cup or took him into his bedroom so he could sleep.
My experience was different weaning each of my children though I stuck to a similar process. I already discussed being pregnant at the time I weaned Archer. My breasts were so sensitive and my milk was changing but the transition felt really natural and, pain aside, comfortable. I remember being concerned that Archer was only weaning because his brother was on his way and I didn’t want him to be rushed, or to skip out on doing baby things, just because he was going to be a big brother. I have come to recognize these thoughts for what they are – the worries of a mother, that really start and end with me and evolve with time but never really go away. Sometimes things are harder on us than they are on our children and I think it’s important to try to not project too much onto them and their experience. Children are resilient and live in the moment – they aren’t concerned with what was or what will be or questions of why? At least not at 12-months.
It surprised me when weaning Atlas was more difficult – I should be an expert by now right?! By the time I got to weaning Atas I had been either pregnant or nursing for 3-years straight and I really felt the (slow and grueling) return to my regular hormone levels – to put it mildly. I think Atlas would have given up nursing comfortably a week before I let him on account of the fact that I didn’t want to go into shock. My milk production was too high and I felt uncomfortable and tired all the time. Perhaps I am being dramatic – but really, that only adds to my point. I was also feeling a mix of emotions over being “done” breastfeeding – maybe forever (if my husband gets his way). It was a mash of “yay! I get my body back!” and “oh my goodness I might not be able to use my body to do something it was MADE to do, again!” – drama, that really just sort of worked itself out with time. I try to take a note from my children and live in the moment because in the moment things are usually okay; and if they aren’t, they are fleeting.
At 2.5, Archer still enjoys warm milk before bed (sometimes with honey) and I am okay with that since he still doesn’t get any throughout the day or with meals. Atlas, at 14-months gets a bottle before his nap (he’s down to 1 now, on most days) and before bed.
And that’s that!
Happy nursing, happy nurturing, happy weaning – happy happy International Breastfeeding (awareness) Week.