A Nursing Tale, or How I Weaned My Toddler

When I first thought about weaning a toddler I cast about to see what others had written and not much of it was helpful. Hence, despite the embarrassment of breastfeeding posts already out there, there’s about to be one more.

My early google searches turned up a few selfless people who said weaning had been entirely child-led, unstintingly following their toddler’s time-frame. These sadly made me feel like shit for wanting to hurry things up a bit.

I also found a lot of over-wrought, guilt-ridden posts suggesting complex techniques to soften the blow – whether to the child or the parent I’m not sure. One example was a system of three milkie cards with a special milkie pouch for them – the child had to cash in her cards during the day in order to nurse and once they were all in the pouch, sorry, no more milk for you.

Aside from the fact this would be hard for a younger toddler to grasp, I think it puts too much responsibility for the mother’s decision to wean onto the child’s (very young) shoulders. I was searching more for an emotionally annotated how-to, and given I didn’t really find one, here ya go…

Cast your mind back to the dog days of summer 2010. I found out I was pregnant and already knew I would nurse. Biologically and financially it seemed stupid not to – why pay for a fake when my body can make the real thing for free? I already knew a bit about what to expect in the early days – cracked nipples and blockages are normal – and (arrogantly or naïvely?) I had no fears about failing. I took comfort from nature on that one; some 5,000 species, including ours, have been nursing young for millions of years and mammals are still thriving – the system can’t be too suspect.

Whether because of or despite this fearlessness, I had an easy time setting up a nursing relationship, although it was tough dealing with little dude’s cluster feeding in the first three months. I set a hazy goal of nursing for a year, based on my assumption at the time that I would simply switch to cow’s milk at that point.

Well, the young master’s first birthday came and went and there was no question of me weaning him. I was still enjoying our nursing relationship, it was a wonderful way to comfort and reassure him, and there was no way I was giving up the only thing that reliably got him to sleep. I’d also learned a bit more about full term nursing since LD was born – the World Health Organization suggests two years as the minimum time a child should nurse for, and this is the norm in large parts of the world. Sadly we’ve lost sight of that in parts of the west and babies there are often weaned very early for no reason other than social pressure.

So I carried on happily and LD naturally dropped his day feeds until he was having milk first thing in the morning, after his nap, before bed and whenever he woke at night. He was still waking roughly every two hours through the night, which might sound hideous but I adapted to it well – one of the benefits of nursing is that it releases oxytocin, which makes you sleepy, so I would hazily wake up, offer milk and drift straight back to sleep. I was probably only awake for 20 mins the whole night. It messed with my REM:deep wave ratio though – I recently slept for a couple of eight and even 10 hour unbroken stretches and they felt so amazingly restorative because the balance was better.

Around 20 months the cracks started to show. Apart from the fact that LD was bigger and more demanding, I started to get an unpleasant, skin-crawling sensation at times when he nursed. It would make me want to push him sharply away and I few times I lost it and actually did 😦 * Otherwise I would do my best to tolerate the creepy feeling and unlatch him gently but end up hitting walls or even myself instead.

No bueno. I was being inconsistent with LD about when he could nurse, because other times I’d have no problems, and I would often let him start nursing and then make him stop, which was more upsetting for him than if I said no from the outset. J had a serious talk with me about my own boundaries and how a good nursing relationship was breaking down, but I was reluctant to stop before my new two-year goal. Instead I agreed to try “don’t offer, don’t refuse” to see if that helped cut out some more feeds.

It did nothing for the daytime, but miracle upon miracles, it cut out nearly all the night wakings. LD was clearly ready to let go of the two-hourly feeds – he would wake up, whimper a bit, and instead of automatically giving him milk I’d wait and he’d shuffle about and go back to sleep. And then he stopped really waking up much at all. He’d go down at 9pm, wake at 11pm for a little cuddle, wake at 5am and ask for milk and get up at 7am.

This reassured me that our gentle, respectful approach worked, and it gave me some breathing space to enjoy nursing again. That lasted a while, but around 22 months things started to go sour again, and the creepy crawly sensations returned. This time I was calmer. I felt more confident that I had options and wasn’t trapped in whatever nursing cycle we were in. I was able to assess the situation and it was clear that the more tired I was, the more unpleasant it felt to nurse. We already knew LD went down at bedtime without nursing if he was with someone other than me, so we figured I could make the switch as well, and I concentrated on cutting out the evening feed.

Prodigious offerings of milk in LD’s favourite digger cup (these days known as milk-cup) helped, as did lots of stories. It was a fairly easy transition, and I gradually used the same technique to cut out the 5am feed. By 24 months LD was down to two feeds a day, when he woke and at naptime. As with bedtime, he was going down for a nap without milk with other people, but still nursing to sleep if he was with me.

The now familiar pattern of difficulties started again at 26 months, and I cut out the morning feed. But we were on holiday at the time, doing a lot of daytime driving. This meant that for four days in a row LD fell asleep in his car seat without nursing, which meant in turn he went four days without any mama-milk at all. I decided to take this opportunity to wean completely. There were some super-tough naptimes in the days that followed – LD really resisted going down with me without nursing. He asked for milk constantly and often angrily in the coming days. I don’t know if this was because the change came so close to cutting out the morning feed, or if it was going from some milk to no milk that was upsetting, but it was definitely the hardest stage.

In all, he asked to nurse for a further two weeks. During the first week he’d get angry when I said no, but by the second week he would happily take the proffered milk-cup instead, or be cheerfully distracted by a book or toy.

In total weaning took us six months. It was mummy-led, sometimes reluctantly but it ultimately had to be for my sanity. I’m happy now with the way it worked out, even though I felt quite lost at times (I contacted a lactation consultant for help at one point and her surprise that my child was two-years-old made me unwilling to make an appointment with her). I had pangs of guilt because I took a source of comfort from LD that he’d known his whole life, but I’m pleased we managed to transition gently. Hopefully this means the change wasn’t too out of sync with his developmental stage.

Nursing has been intricately tied-up with sleeping for us. I stopped fighting the numerous night-wakings when LD was about 9 months old, and decided it was fine if he didn’t sleep through until two or even 10. This was a huge weight off my shoulders, but honestly, I did sometimes worry secretly that I’d created patterns that would be impossible to break. I feel like this change is proof-of-concept – at 27 months he’s sleeping through most of the time, falling asleep without nursing, and going back to sleep with some milk-cup and a cuddle if he does happen to wake. We made it to this point without having to cry-it-out, and without losing sight of the fact that his brain is still SO EARLY in it’s development.

And the nicest thing about weaning? My non-cuddly sleeper is now a little hugging machine. He crawls on my chest and murmurs “Mine sleep top mummy” as he falls asleep. I was worried that the end of nursing would mean the end of those magical moments of connection, but my little dude found a new and beautiful way to keep them alive.

* * * * *

Back to that asterisk! * Some mammals, I know horses and dogs do it, not sure of others, start nipping and pushing their nursing young once they reach a certain age. It seems to encourage weaning, and I wonder whether my creepy sensations and desire to push LD away were a human manifestation of the same thing – albeit tangled up with rational thought and guilt that other animals wouldn’t experience.


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