I have two children: one is seven, the other just turned four. The oldest nursed until he was six (plus a handful of times in the year afterward, but I still say his official weaning was at a full six years). The younger one, my current and final nursling, has some time left to go — he’s still going strong! But I’m already thinking about what his weaning will look like, and what affect it will have on our lives.
I imagine once he’s done, he’ll be really done. Based entirely on the behavior of my eldest, M, of course. M talks about “nanoo” fondly, albeit matter-of-factly. He thinks it’s both sweet and ridiculous how much his younger brother falls apart at the seams for nanoo, and is put right again with ease when provided mother’s milk. He offers to take photos of us nursing, either cooing “aww” or rolling his eyes at his little brother’s milk-inspired silliness.
From age five-six, M didn’t nurse very often, but when asked whether he was done nursing, he’d say, “No, I’m not done, I just don’t want it all the time like I used to.” After six, the way he described his experience shifted. He explained: “J wants nanoo all the time, but I don’t need it anymore.”
Recently he wanted to sit with J and I while he nursed. He smiled as he watched J fool around and giggle with happiness (“Mmmmm, nanoo!”). “You can have all of it,” M offered generously.
“Mmm, thank you!” J replied, smushing his face even further into my breast to show his enthusiasm.
“I don’t need it because I’m not little anymore,” M said, then with a mischievous smirk: “Are you even still getting breast milk, or is it just your spit?”
Not fazed by M’s brotherly teasing, J asked me to squirt some. “Wow!” said M, observing the sprinklerhead of white liquid gold as it shot two feet into the air. I’m not much of a performer, but hey, when you’ve got skills…
Just like with M, I’ve taken a child-led weaning approach with J. Technically, weaning begins when the first taste of solid foods is introduced.
For some, the weaning stage begins in earnest when night feeds are dropped, or when the mother can spend a full day without the company of her barnacle baby. My first baby slept through the night early on, but nursed the ENTIRE day. My second nursed ALL night but went longer between nursing during the day. Both situations equally felt like I was at the unremitting mercy of wanting mouths, alas nighttime nursing habits weren’t quite a weaning barometer for me.
For the purpose of this writing, I’ll refer to the beginning of weaning as when my children dropped enough nursing sessions that it mostly became a once- or twice-daily occurrence.
J slowed down nursing habits in the beginning of his third year, but ramped up again some months later (and it’s been a popular request since being quarantined due to COVID). Just when I thought he was veering into true weaning territory (and admittedly getting excited for the extra freedom), it seems we’re nursing regularly again.
As a doula, I’m gifted with glimpses into the early nursing days of other families, fresh and raw in their postpartums, and my own memories come flooding back.
Memories of nursing my first baby, almost always alone, or feeling like it. Thinking I should be apologetic for this mothering style that felt natural to me. One day I decided it could be okay for me to stop playing so nice, to weed out those who failed to show up in my first year as a mother, to quit the self-pity party of my isolated days of breastfeeding – infant caregiving – more breastfeeding – more infant caregiving – breastfeeding times a thousand – wash rinse repeat. That’s when I gave myself permission to fully bask in this bond without worrying I should hide what we’re all about.
I also see memories of nursing my second baby, and finally really appreciating the fascinating, powerful things my body can do. I know now, my body is capable of incredible feats, but nothing will ever hold as much shine as building a human and continuing to fulfill its needs until physical independence. I believe there is literally nothing I can’t do, with some time, patience, and conviction. For me, this has been the ultimate gift bestowed upon me by a mothering role (not counting the amazing humans I’ve been blessed to watch as they navigate the world). I can accomplish anything I want — the real trick is, knowing what the hell it is I want. Breastfeeding has given me a lot of time to think, you see — interestingly, during the same time I’ve felt nearly lobotomized (breastfeeding brain is a thing!).
These are parts of my life, my story, my being — and I’ll never forget them. When my friends, clients, and students embark on their own infant feeding journeys, I feel earlier versions of myself reflected in their stories, and my current self connected in a most authentic way.
Weaning Effects on Me
Breastfeeding has been an exquisitely normal — and major — part of our daily lifestyle for the past seven (plus) years. I can hardly remember a time when my body wasn’t constantly and consistently needed by a dependent tiny person, frequently searched by grabbing hands, serving as a treasure chest of nourishing goodies, hopefully plied for reaction, response, validation at the turn of every milestone and achievement…
Honestly, it’s been an interesting time, for better and worse. I like a challenge, you know? What’s life without some trigger-fire button pushing, sandwiched between the assuage of soft doughy cuddles, anyway?
My breastfeeding days aren’t over for good yet, but I’m getting a taste of the hormonal ramifications. My cycles returned two years postpartum (to the day!) after each baby. THIS is precisely when the glorious glow of bountiful milk, oxytocin rushes, and complete symbiosis of nursing all prepared to drive off a cliff together. Alright, a little dramatic, but during certain phases of my cycle, yeah… I’ll testify to it.
So, real talk. PMDD is a bitch. Breastfeeding did not cause my PMDD or play any role in its development, but it does earn a credit for its performance in the Exacerbating The F Out of My Ragey Cycles act. Now that I’m “getting older, I hate to say,” as my gynecologist recently reminded me, breastfeeding at this stage feels different than it did when I was younger with my first child. Back then, my cycles were easy-breezy other than nursing aversion increasing. Now, my cycles are plagued by PMDD and aversion is worse.
Feelings of being “touched out” have decreased significantly since the cluster feeding phase ended, but aversion is still a beast. Thankfully I’ve acquired many an effective tool to minimize symptoms and allow me keep pushing forward without feeling like a martyr. I try to focus on the fact that J is my last baby, and all the reasons why I’m happily committed to child-led weaning.
A few feelings I experienced while in the later stage my first child weaning and immediately afterward (in alphabetical order):
Like many breastfeeders, I found it was tough to keep weight on for the first few years of breastfeeding. Once my kids started nursing less, I produced less milk, and my body was no longer a high-functioning calorie incinerator funneling energy and nutrients away from my thighs directly into their own. For me, overall weight restoration was a main physical side effect of weaning.
My breasts had an opposite plan: they shrunk to fit back into my pre-pregnancy tops, holding reasonable and humble amounts of concentrated milk rather than being flooded, swollen and stretched to the max. The right side was a favorite for both kiddos, so it became the workhorse of milk delivery and thus a cup size or two larger than the left. My breasts have now regained their relative symmetry.
I’m interested to see how long I’ll continue to produce milk after J is fully weaned. Some people realize they still make milk even decades after weaning, which I think is pretty cool.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember who I am outside of being a breastfeeding mother because giving someone milk has topped my To Do’s for so long. Being in the weaning stage is a blessing after devoting years of time and energy to nursing. It means having the ability to spend a night alone without my nursling, to go a full day sans nursing without risking mastitis, leaving for a solo excursion… ahhh. The taste of freedom.
Healing & Closure
Looking back, would I change anything about my breastfeeding journey up to this point? No, I really wouldn’t. I needed every ounce of wrenching transformation as much as my kids needed every ounce of breast milk I lovingly made for them. I understand for some people, it’s just a method of feeding, and that’s okay. But for me, breastfeeding unearthed many shadowy, stuck, shrouded emotions. It shook up some buried wreckage inside me, many times a day for more than seven years (and ongoing). Those pieces were used to rebuild. What, I still don’t know. But immense growth has happened where deep, buried wounds once were.
When my second baby was born, I knew time was running out with my older child. He was three-and-a-half, and I started to panic. It felt like far too soon for him to wean; he clearly wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t sure I was either. At the time, I didn’t know his true weaning had yet to begin and would happen gradually over the next few years.
I felt preemptive grief over the fact that our nursing days would inevitably come to an end, and I had no idea how it would affect our relationship. Would we stay as close? Would he still need me, love me, feel comforted by the rest I can offer as his mother? Would he feel second to his little brother, who would have the extra nursing attention for years to come? This kid was my one and only for nearly four years… how can you transition from that so easily? Is there a word for what happens to your heart? I still don’t know.
Chapter closing ideas:
- Marking a Calendar – When M began nursing more infrequently, I worried I wouldn’t know when it was the truly last time I nursed him. I wanted to remember it as a special milestone. I made a note on my calendar each day he did nurse so I would know exactly when was the last time. Doing this with J isn’t practical as he doesn’t skip days yet.
- Photoshoots – I’ve participated in many breastfeeding photoshoots to commemorate and celebrate our journey. Some were professional, most weren’t. Either way I cherish every capture.
- Writing – Expressing our story through words has helped me move forward, while still appreciating where we’ve been. Blogging, journaling, texting a supportive friend… there are many ways to do this.
- Weaning Party – When my last nursling is done forever, I plan to throw a Weaning Party. I’ve heard of families doing this for their kids, putting a positive spin on the milestone (especially if weaning wasn’t the child’s choice) and associating it with fun stuff like cake and gifts instead of loss. For me, it’ll be an awesome way to kickoff the next chapter of motherhood AND a chance to show gratitude for the supporters I’ve had along the way.