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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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