Extended Breastfeeding and Weaning – Pt. 1
In the beginning…
Like many expectant mothers, I learned all about the benefits of breastfeeding early in my first pregnancy and quickly decided that’s what I wanted to do. I read the books and the blog posts about what a proper latch looks like. I knew all about how a mother’s body is miraculously equipped to change and adjust to nourish her baby at each age and stage. I learned how it has many emotional and health benefits for the mother as well as the baby. It was the obvious choice for me.
I also learned a lot about what a challenge it can be. How despite being the natural way to do things it does not always come naturally. How a poor latch can make it agonizing and ineffective and it can sometimes only be fixed with the help of a lactation consultant. How some mothers, no matter how dedicated they are, may not be able to produce enough milk to breastfeed exclusively. While I felt committed to the idea of breastfeeding, I knew that I should be prepared to face some challenges.
And face some challenges we did. It took what felt like forever for my milk to come in (all while the doctors were telling me that’s what my baby needed to be cleared of his jaundice). We had some struggles with latch at the beginning. I experienced both thrush and mastitis, neither of which make breastfeed particularly pleasant. And then there was just the fatigue of being constantly on call to feed a baby. During growth spurts it felt like that was all I did all day long, and I don’t care what the experts say about how breastfeeding should be painless when you’re doing it right; when you’re doing it almost constantly, it can hurt.
But my struggles were fairly minor in the grand scheme of things and we eventually figured it out. Nursing breaks became a (mostly) restful time for me to bond with my baby and overall we had a very positive breastfeeding experience. I reached a point where breastfeeding felt easy and natural.
My goal when I started out was to try to make it to a year. Other than my own mother, I didn’t know anyone personally who had made it much past that point, so I figured that would be the best that I could do. And the statistics backed that up. While about 80% of mother’s are breastfeeding when they leave the hospital, only 49% are still breastfeeding at 6 months, and only 26% make it all the way to a year. Among my friends, even those that were able to keep going past the first few months and establish a good breastfeeding routine would often comment that their babies weaned themselves by at least a year old when they started eating solids in earnest. I fully expected to experience something similar.
A year later…
So once Charlie reached his first birthday I quietly celebrated the fact that we had kept up breastfeeding for the first year. In fact, we were still going strong. Charlie still nursed several times a day, and though he was eating solid foods, we practiced baby led weaning and were very relaxed about how much he ate each day. I didn’t stress out about the solids he was eating because he was still nursing so well and I knew he was still getting plenty of nourishment from breastmilk. I knew that his solid food intake would continue to increase and become more varied, and his nursing needs would diminish. At this point it was pretty clear that we would continue nursing well past the one-year mark, but I still expected it to drop pretty drastically over the next year and figured he would be completely weaned well by the time he was two. By this time nursing felt so easy and natural to me that I didn’t feel any need to rush the weaning process or put it on a timeline. We were both happy with how things were going so I just let it be.
And a year after that…
Once we hit Charlie’s second birthday I found myself firmly in the camp of those that practiced “extended breastfeeding.” Charlie was still a big fan of mama’s milk and still asked to nurse about three times a day. For the most part I didn’t mind, but I was definitely in unknown territory. I didn’t know anyone personally who had gone for that long and I started to feel a bit self-conscious mentioning it to others. Would people think I was weird? Had I become one of “those” mothers? And even more pressing, would he ever actually wean himself? I realized I had spent so long expecting Charlie to just become disinterested eventually that I knew nothing about how to successfully encourage a child to wean. And honestly, at this point I was a little reluctant to try. Not because I wanted him to be attached to me forever, but because I had found breastfeeding to make so many things easier. It remained my one sure-fire method to get him to relax and get sleepy before bedtime. I knew that if he was hurt or sick that it would comfort him. And it was one of the only times in a day when he would actually be still and let me hold him for a while. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to give that up.
But once we became pregnant with baby number two I started to feel a bit more urgency to move the process along. First of all, although I knew tandem nursing was possible, it wasn’t really something I was interested in doing. But perhaps more persuasive was the fact that pregnancy had made breastfeeding pretty painful again. It was no longer a relaxing bonding time, but rather chore I had to brace myself for each time. I was also pretty sure that by this point I wasn’t producing much milk, either because Charlie didn’t need much anymore or because of the pregnancy, so I figured my body would be able to handle a transition to weaning pretty easily. But the question remained…how to do it?
Talk about a cliff hanger, huh? I found I had way too much to say on this subject so I’ll continue with some strategies that helped me next week. UPDATE: Here’s part two!