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Mother-Led Weaning: How and Why I Gently Weaned My Son

22 Feb

Mother led weaning

I really loved breastfeeding both my children, the benefits and the ease and the simplicity, and oh those tender bonding times untouched by the world. Ah, sweet bliss.

But, I was done. D.O.N.E. (Imagine me saying “done” with my eyes bugging out of my head, and waving my arms around in circles like a mad scientist with crazy hair who hasn’t slept in years.)

Sixteen months into it, my breastfeeding relationship with my son was starting to take a toll on our mother/child bonding relationship. You see, I was no longer happily breastfeeding, a lot of times I was just plain-ol’ resentfeeding (I just made that word up, but you’ll know it if you’ve done it).

I really needed to focus on taking care of my needs. (You can read bits of that experience here, here and here.) In order to properly love my family I needed to pick my burnt-out self off the ground and get my groove back, for the sake of my sanity, for the sake of both my children, for the sake of my husband, and for me. Quite honestly, I knew that the first step in focusing on my own needs involved weaning my son. (Gulp.)

And while I understand the WHO recommendations of nursing a child till they’re at least two (you can read about that here), I also know that a healthy breastfeeding relationship should continue for as long as both mother and baby desire. Both.

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You see, I would step into the living room, hoping to sit down and enjoy my kids, play with my daughter and son together, and upon setting eyes on me, Noah would simply burst into frantic screams until I nursed him.

This happened all the time: happy baby boy without momma around, the moment momma comes near, unhappy baby till boobies arrive – even if he nursed five minutes ago.

I could no longer handle the emotional and physical hesitation I felt approaching my son anymore. It wasn’t fair to him! In my heart I knew what I needed to do.

Mother-led weaning, with gentle compassion for my son, but also gentle compassion for me as a mom. (Yes, I deserve that much! We all do!)

My personal goal was to breastfeed Noah till he was 18 months old, and or finished with teething,  whichever came first (nothing soothes a cranky, teething baby faster than a little nursing session) and at 16 months Noah’s teeth had all arrived (two-year molars withstanding, those started at 20 months).

Here’s how we approached gentle mother-led weaning in my home.

Nursing my son for the first time moments after giving birth. He's eating, and I'm eating too. This is my mom feeding me my postbirth hamburger. I like to call this 'generational feeding.'

Nursing my son for the first time moments after giving birth. He’s eating, and I’m eating too. This is my mom feeding me my postbirth hamburger. I like to call this ‘generational feeding.’

Plan of Action

First I made a plan, and gave myself about 8 weeks to fully wean Noah. I decided not to implement a new phase until the first phase was successful for at least a five days or more. Here’s what worked best for our home:

  1. Remove random feeds scattered throughout the day that don’t follow a pattern.
  2. Remove morning feed.
  3. Remove feeds before naps and bed-time. (Starting first with naps, then moving onto bed-time.)
  4. Remove night-time comfort feeds.
  5. Be flexible and go slow. Give extra special care and attention to help my child adjust peacefully through these changes.

Phase 1 – Random Feeds

At 16 months old, Noah was breastfeeding around ten times a day, if not more. My goal was to cut back his nursing sessions to about six feeds a day. That meant we needed to cut back on the breastfeeding that happened randomly in a day, like when he would fuss, or fall down, or want a snack, or just hollar at me for boobie, “Maaaaaaaaaa, the boobies!”

I felt these would be the easiest to replace with distractions, like a sippy cup of water, a toy to play with, or a bite of fruit (if he was hungry). What Noah did not want instead of nursing, though, were cuddles from me. Having mommy so close and not having “a nurse” (that’s what we call it in our house) only frustrated him.

Believe it or not, phasing out those extra nursing sessions were simple as pie. Noah didn’t seem to even notice the change-up and responded well to the alternatives. (Whew!)

Phase 2 – Morning Feed

The next step was removing the morning feed. No sweat! Instead of my husband bringing Noah to my bed to nurse when he woke up (we stopped co-sleeping when Noah was 9 months old), Peter simply brought Noah to his high chair, offered our boy a sippy cup with water and a yummy hot breakfast. (Noah does not like cows milk, almond milk, coconut milk, you name it. So, water it is. We supplement with cheese and kefir/yogurt.) Sweet boy was happy as a clam with that change. Not even a bit of fuss over that.

Big sister loved to nurse her baby too whenever mommy fed Noah.

Big sister loved to nurse her baby too whenever mommy fed Noah.

Phase 3 – Sleepy Time Feeds

The next step was to remove the sleepy time nursing sessions prior to his two daily naps and bed time. We did this by really focusing on our routine before bed.

We’ve had a bed-time routine since Noah was about 9 months old. And the last step of our routine always included nursing Noah till he was this close to being asleep (and then I laid him down in his crib). The plan was to simply remove the last step in the routine (yeah, easier said than done, I know!) and give extra cuddles and lullabies instead.

I read him a book, sang lots of songs, said bed-time prayers, and gave all those warm mommy lovin’s in the rocking chair. I did add a new “lovie” to the bed-time routine (a little yellow blanket), and I also offered Noah a sippy cup with water to hold during our bed-time routine, he would take sips from that here and there while we sang and read books.

This stage was a little touchy for about three days – the worst being the first day. Noah fussed and let me know he wanted to nurse. However, I committed to comforting his heart with extra mommy love instead of nursing. I knew there really wasn’t an easy or quick fix to this stage, only through it. (Just like labor, ladies!)

After about three to five minutes of fussiness and tears for a few nights, Noah would settle into me and relax, allowing himself to be soothed by my touch and voice. After three days, we successfully transitioned out of those sleepy-time feeds.

Flexibility

After cutting out those feeds, we were left with just our night-time comfort sessions. Things were moving on as planned.

Then we had a curve ball. Noah suddenly showed signs that he wanted to nurse in the afternoon, usually after his second nap of the day around 4 PM.

I believe in following my children’s cues whenever inherently possible. Since none of my distraction techniques worked to keep Noah from wanting to nurse late in the afternoon, I made peace with the extra session. I think he liked the cuddle time after his nap and it appeared he was hungry. I was fine with this, I knew we we’re taking things slowly.

However, after a few days, it seemed like Noah was happy to have a snack instead of an afternoon nurse. At 4 PM he and his sister (to this day they still do this) sit at the table together and enjoy apple slices, or carrot sticks and humus, or whatever sounds yummy and won’t spoil dinner. This has become a regular routine in our home – Zoe and Noah’s 4 PM snack time and mommy’s cup of coffee!

One of my favorite candid shots of me nursing Noah. A picnic with friends on the square in Denton, TX.

One of my favorite candid shots of me nursing Noah. A picnic with friends on the square in Denton, TX.

Phase 4 – Mid-Night Comfort Sessions

The next step was to cut back on the comfort sessions in the middle of the night. I’ll be honest these were the ones that had me worried the most. When Noah woke up at night crying, it was so easy to simply pick him up, nurse him and viola, two minutes later he was back in dreamland, which meant I got to go there too just as quickly.

Weaning him off of those nightly comfort sessions took some effort on my part. I had to make peace with the reality that I would be up for at least 15 minutes each time he woke. It was challenging, but not any harder than it was to remove the feeds prior to his daily naps – it’s just that in the middle of the night we were both really tired and less patient.

But I stuck with, we stuck with it, Noah and me. I talked to him all through it telling him what was happening and why, and how much I loved him and how he could have mommy cuddles any time he wanted, but that nursing had to go bye-bye. Our children understand far more than what we give them credit for and it’s very important that we talk them through these types of changes.

At night, I would pick Noah up in my arms, sit in the rocker and sing to him, patting his bottom all the while. Sometimes I would offer a sippy cup of water if he seemed thirsty.

(FYI, my miracle cure to stop Noah’s tears were, and still are, songs with short, choppy, rhythmic words sung in staccato style. As soon as I start singing this way, he quiets down and falls asleep – no matter how loud he’s crying.)

However, If Noah didn’t calm down after trying all those things within 5-10 minutes of me offering other options, I’ll would then offer him the breast, just until he calmed his little soul down (not till he fell asleep), then once he stopped crying, I would unlatch him, cuddle him close, sing to him, and then lay him down once he showed signs that he was ready to stretch out and sleep. Sometimes, like his sister did at that age, Noah would sign “all done” when he wanted to lay down in his crib.

I sat down to nurse Noah and Zoe brought over her rocking chair and nursed her stuffed dog, too. Just like mommy.

I sat down to nurse Noah and Zoe brought over her rocking chair and nursed her stuffed dog, too. Just like mommy.

Saying Good-bye to Breastfeeding

Six weeks later, we had finally reached that point where I knew Noah had successfully weaned. At 17 months he was no longer showing interest in breastfeeding any more.

He also stopped crying when I would walk into a room, and instead he would simply smile at me, jump up for a hug and then go back to playing with his blocks!

I also started to enjoy more personal time to attend to my needs, and our daily life seemed to settle into a peaceful rhythm, with less crying for Noah, and less stress for all of us.

Even so, the emotional implications of letting go of breastfeeding were very hard. I knew this would be the case. I also knew that no matter when I weaned Noah, I would never *not* feel that deep tug on my heart – that ache that comes from saying good-bye to something so intimate, so maternal, so universally indicative of mothering a tiny child.

When I recognized that there would never be a magical moment when it would feel easy to say good-bye to breastfeeding, it made coming to terms with the process of weaning my son a little easier on my heart.

The Very Last Time I Breastfed My Son

My last nursing session with Noah was in the dreamy hours of a crisp September night, and I knew…

I sat down with him in the rocker, the sound machine offering its rainy tune, the night-light casting little golden flecks across his sleepy face. With his squishy cheek pressed into my breast, his starfish hand clasped around my index finger, and the gentle metronome of his breathing – in and out like waves on my heart, I allowed myself to become fully aware of it all – his very body being nourished by my own.

I turned our intimate space into an altar of worship – saying feel this, let your spirit acknowledge this holy place. I wrote my feelings down with love along the walls of my heart saying to my mind, “remember this moment, forever.”

Noah fell into a deep sleep, as he had so many times before, nestled securely in my arms, latched onto my breast, filled with contentment and quieted with sleep. Ever so slowly his mouth opened, slack-jawed and loose, lost in his slumber, my son took a deep breath stretched out his arms and … unlatched.

I leaned down and pressed my lips against his doughy cheek and I knew. I knew. I knew.

It was the end.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother,

like a weaned child is my soul within me.

– Psalm 131:2

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This is one of the last pictures taken of me nursing my son. He’s a little over a year here and we were out as a family visiting the Art Institute in Chicago.

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How I Learned to Support A Mother’s Choice Not To Breastfeed

10 Feb

bottle fed baby

It was a blazing summer evening two years ago and our weekly childbirth class was filled to the brim with parents laughing and talking over their meal. The last session of our six-week birth education course had arrived – it was graduation night (everyone could go have their babies now, we always joked). In celebration we all brought food and shared a meal together before the onset of class.

While all the expectant couples were enjoying their BBQ, lost in conversation and anticipation over how their lives would change, the midwives pulled the other instructor and me aside. They had something they needed to share with us.

There was one expectant mother in our group who was choosing not to breastfeed. The CNMs urged us to keep this mother’s choice in mind as we approached our teaching session on breastfeeding and the nutritional needs of a newborn. We were asked to use the phrase “feeding your baby” when we could instead of “breastfeeding” to help this mother, who already felt guilty and ostracized for her unusual choice in this natural birthing environment, feel included in the conversation.

I bristled at the idea that we were coddling a mother’s poor decision. I thought it was irresponsible of us to not speak openly and directly as we always did on the amazing and overwhelming evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding. Besides, if she’s going to make a choice to deny her newborn the very best nutrients he needs then she should at least face it full-on. My job isn’t to white-wash anything. Breast is best.

But she knew that, I was told, rather sharply. She was well-informed on the benefits of breastfeeding, even so, she had personal reasons not to breastfeed her son. (None of which they shared with me, by the way.) Besides, no one was asking me to shelter her from breastfeeding benefits, only to make room in my conversations for formula use.

I was reminded that my job in that moment was to offer the best education I could to this mother to fit her needs and choices, without judgment. After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?

After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?

As we taught our class and covered our material, Sarah (I’ll call her Sarah, but that is not her real name) sat quietly through it all. I tried not to give her eye-contact as I went over warning signs of things that she wouldn’t ever deal with, things like thrush, clogged milk ducts, and mastitis. (Or would she?)

That night, as couples said good-bye and we hugged each round-bellied mother, offering hopeful hearts that the seeds we’d sown would blossom into beautiful birth stories for each family, Sarah stayed behind.

The midwives suggested we spend some personal time after class explaining to Sarah how to dry up her milk and offer further resources to her on bottle-feeding. Sarah and her husband sat in the living room waiting sweetly for us to talk her through it all.

Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could control this: the choice to breastfeed.

Hot tea was poured into our mugs and we all sat cross-legged on the floor and began to discuss the best technique for drying up her milk. At some point, after everything had been said, Sarah looked up at us, a circle of women gathered around her, and with an open heart, shared her story.

With brief and sharp details, Sarah explained how she was a survivor of sexual abuse and that it was a dark line that cast a shadow over her body. For this reason, she could not bring herself to breastfeed her baby. The emotional memories connected to certain parts of her body were still all too real.

She loved her son, and she wanted the very best for him, and in her case, she knew the best for him was to allow these memories – which were deeply rooted into her body – to stay quiet. She could do this by keeping (some of) her body to herself.

Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could at least control this: the choice to breastfeed. Sarah understood that by making the choice to bottle-feed, she would be in a better place to bond with her son, giving him a love untouched by resentment.

I knew her name, but I did not know her story

I realized something that evening that I feel indebted to always remember in my work with women: after six weeks of classes with Sarah, I knew her name, I knew her due date, I knew the gender of her child, but I did not know her story.

We can never fully know the stories of the mothers we serve. As a doula and a birth educator, I’m privileged only to what a woman shares with me, and often it is simply a picture of her present life, not her past.

And if a woman shares her past with me, it is by comparison, only a tiny glimpse into the story that really occurred – a condensed version that she feels comfortable expressing on that day, at that particular time – there is much left unsaid.

The words left unspoken tell a deeper story than the words that are spoken. And because of this, I must trust that when a woman makes an informed choice not to breastfeed she’s doing so because she knows ultimately what is best for her and her baby.

In return, I must offer the best support I can give without judgement or assumptions – something that every mother is deserving of.

Our birth prejudices get in the way

Too often in the natural childbirth community we reward a woman with our support when she births like we do and breastfeeds like we do. And if she does not birth or breastfeed in ways we feel are best, we turn our back on her with our judgment, proving that we hold our birth ideologies in higher regard than the women we are committed to serving. We allow our birth prejudices to get in the way of our care.

(I hope you’ll read that statement again.)

I understand and support the unequivocal benefits of breastfeeding. I want to see breastfeeding normalized and embraced in our culture. I hope to see access to breastfeeding resources become more readily available. I happily celebrate that milk-banks are becoming slowly more common in the US. I’m a breastfeeding advocate to the core.

But first and foremost, I’m an advocate for women.

When a mother feels fully cared for – equipped with confidence and security in her abilities and choices – she is then enabled to offer better care to her baby.

I see no outcasts. I see no second-class mothers with bottles in hand. I only see mothers with babies who are in need of support and love.

And maybe when I offer her care that is free of judgment or pretense, she’ll tell me her story.

I hope so, because I’m listening.

………………………………………………………….

Something to think about:

How to Give Up Breastfeeding And Not Feel Guilty About It – Porch Philosophy

Links to explore for Bottle-Feeding Support and Education:

Baby-led Bottle Feeding

Bottle Babies

Fearless Formula Feeder

13 Billion Saved Annually if Mothers Would Breastfeed

12 Jul


I’ve known for a while, thanks to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that the US would save a whopping 13 billion dollars a year if 90% of mothers could (or would) breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months of life.  Not only that, but 911 infant lives would be saved annually.  This profound bit of information shows us the impact that breastfeeding can make for not only a child, but for our entire population.  With this information in mind, I sat down and created this meme shown above.

I’ve also included a portion of the abstract from the study cited above:

Results: If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).

Conclusions: Current US breastfeeding rates are suboptimal and result in significant excess costs and preventable infant deaths. Investment in strategies to promote longer breastfeeding duration and exclusivity may be cost-effective.

Source: click here to read original abstract.

Breastfeeding Drama in the Animal Kingdom

12 Jul

I am visiting my childhood home in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Each evening I look out the window and see the cows grazing lazily in the field. Seeing these dairy cows grazing brings to mind plenty of memories of growing up of watching sweet new calves nuzzle and feed from their mammas.  In light of those memories, I was inspired me to create these two new breastfeeding memes:

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