Wednesday, November 23, 2011

weaning a one year old

Every nursing relationship eventually comes to an end. Weaning an infant under one year of age is different than weaning an older baby or toddler. In this post, I am talking about weaning an older baby or toddler and when that time comes, so many different emotions can come into play. These emotions may range from negative emotions like resentment, apprehension, sadness, guilt or they may also include positive emotions like relief, pride, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of closure.

 Maternity - Pablo Picasso

When you start the weaning process, things can be easy or they can be downright difficult and seem impossible. After successfully nursing 3 children for a combined total of about 4 years, I can definitely say that every experience is different. These are a few things I have learned in my varied experiences, with very different babies.
The most important tool you have in your belt when it comes to weaning your breastfeeding buddy is the knowledge you have of your baby. If you have been able to nurse your baby for a year a more, think of all the time you have spent in such a close and intimate relationship. No one knows this child better than you. Most mothers have this keen insight into their child's disposition but the nursing mother has a unique connection in addition to this. I know I do. With this knowledge, you know whether your baby is ready, how hard this process will be, and you can read their reactions better than anyone.

The difficulty of this process might be influenced by a few outside factors. I think these can basically be broken up into two different scenarios:
  • The first is whether this is a "forced or abrupt" weaning, otherwise known as "cold turkey". Are you going back to work unexpectedly? Did mother or baby become ill and does this require an immediate break in the nursing relationship? If the latter is the case, make sure that you have done enough research and are sure that the relationship must end if you do not feel like this is the best decision. There are many alternative medications that are safe for the nursing mother and nursing through many illnesses can actually strengthen your child's immune system. Just know the facts before you make such an important decision.
  • The second is whether this is a "gradual or baby-led" weaning. Traditionally, baby-led means waiting until the baby does it completely by themselves. But, there can be room for variation here. You can initiate the weaning process and allow the baby to lead you through it. Ideally, this scenario is best.
Whichever scenario you find yourself in, you have one thing working in your favor. Since your baby is at least one year old or more, your baby has been on solids and might even be receiving another form of liquid supplement such as milk (cow's, soy, formula, etc). This will work in your favor, because your baby already receives nourishment and satiety from another source other than your breasts.

If you find yourself in the first scenario, typically, this is the most difficult. Besides the issues that might arise with your body, such as engorgement, your baby may not be emotionally ready for an abrupt ending to something that he/she has been receiving as his primary source of nourishment and/or comfort since almost the very moment they were born. Can you imagine yourself in the same situation? This is what your baby has known to be an integral part of their everyday routine since day 1, and now it is being taken away without any explanation that they can comprehend at this age. It is a hard situation. I found myself in a similar situation to this. When Emme was just under one year old, I had to take medication that was not safe for breastfeeding and there was no alternative medication for me to consider. I was working at the time, and she had been supplemented with formula because I wasn't able to pump enough milk during my day at work. I mostly nursed her in the morning, evenings and during the night. She was used to using bottles and sippy cups already. She ate a lot of food at this age and was used to it. This was probably harder on me than it was on her. If I would have been at home, nursing her on command, this might not have worked out so well. I believe it went so smoothly because she was ready. I got over it eventually.

With Luciana, she exclusively nursed until she was a little over one year old, at which point we introduced soy milk and then cow's milk. However, she did continue nursing until she was over 2 years old. Again, this nursing relationship was solely seen as a form of comfort. She only nursed about 2 or 3 times a day for no more than five minutes. It was as if she just wanted to reconnect, get some love, and move on with her next activity. The reason our nursing relationship had to come to a close was because I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC with a group of youth activists and I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I knew she would be okay. I knew she was ready. It didn't even phase her. Again, I eventually got over it, too.

Then we come to Ms. Roslyn. My side-kick. The clingy one. She just turned one this August, and our nursing relationship has been over for about a week now. I'm still coping, but she's doing great. We started giving her milk and a little watered-down juice over the past few months. She has been eating solids since about 5 months due to her persistence. She eats all table food and has never had a jar of baby food before. I say this because again, it is important that babies psychologically realize that nourishment comes in more sources than just from mom. Why did I stop nursing her if I'm home with her? I have to say, that I am big proponent of breastfeeding as long as possible. Anyone who knows me, knows that. I don't judge anyone else, but for me and my children, this is what I strive for. I know everyone has different problems and faces different challenges, but I truly believe that a majority of all the issues people have can be solved with the right guidance and education about breastfeeding. With Luciana, I had virtually zero challenges, and this is probably why it lasted so long. With Emme, I had a comparably rocky start with pain and bleeding but I pushed through it and we found success. But with Roslyn, after a double whammy of infections, one including an ever-so-traumatic episode of mastitis, I felt like nothing could be worse. I figured that all the pain and suffering I went through had better be worth it, so I continued on to nurse her. Things got better. She was definitely a demanding nurser.

Then came my feelings of personal readiness. Initially, I planned on nursing her until she was just ready to walk away. Since we have another baby coming in a few months, I figured why not tandem nurse? Roslyn would just be an occasional diner anyway. But then things started happening that made me start to change my mind. This little girl has teeth. She started to change the way she latched on and I could feel the effects. It wasn't just biting, it was like prolonged irritation because of friction. Hard to explain unless you've nursed a child. Just trust me on this, it started hurting. The resentment came. Now, I didn't resent my baby, it wasn't her fault, but I started wincing every time I was about to have her latch on. I'd sit down and feel like, "Oh crap, here we go again, hold on, it's coming". Not a good feeling to have. I do have to say that the positive feelings did outweigh the negative ones, so much that I still had the capacity to sit back and view this situation from all angles. Was I ready to wean her? Yes, I felt physically ready. Was she or I mentally or emotionally ready to end our nursing relationship? Not exactly. How did I do it? It was a rollercoaster.

I mentioned before that with baby-led weaning you can initiate the process and have your baby lead you through it. That is what I decided to do here. No one really taught me about this, it was just instinct, if I have to label it. I started withholding a few nursing sessions here and there. Instead of sitting down to nurse her, I would offer her a drink of something else, or a snack. I made sure I gave her lots of love and hugs and attention but didn't do it while sitting in our all-too-familiar nursing position. I knew the night-time and nap-time feedings were definitely going to be the last to go, although I wished the night-time one was the first! Mama was tired of waking up two times a night for the last year. Especially, now that I am pregnant, I was needing the extra sleep. Besides, nothing is worse than falling asleep with your baby on your breast only to be awakened with her bite reflex as she too, was nodding off. Damn! It hurt, and it happened one too many times. After we got her daytime nursing sessions down by keeping her busy, making sure she ate and drank enough to keep her satisfied, things got easier for us both. I knew she was starting to see that sleep time was the only time she really had to have it. She did pretty well after I slowed down to follow her pace. No way would she let me take those sacred nursing sessions first. Then we were down to just those two, nap and night. I started the night time ones first, because I could control that situation better. We have a pretty steady routine here, of her always going to bed with us, which is usually before 10pm. I started giving her something to drink before bed, so she felt full. She would still occasionally wake up and whine to nurse for about two weeks, but it never lasted more than five minutes and she would finally fall back to sleep, unaided. Then, she just stopped waking and starting sleeping through the night, completely. Once this was taken care of, I started working on nap time sessions. I continued them for a few weeks, then I started trying to give her a drink at nap time as well. And as I hoped, since she was able to self-soothe during the night, she carried it on to nap times. Yay! We did it. Now, it has been about a week of her not nursing at all, and not asking for it at all, either. It's over.

Yes, I have mixed feelings. I have shed a few tears over the fact that this portion of our relationship is now over. I will miss it. I already do. But, she is still the most cuddliest, snuggliest and still clingiest baby I have. She nuzzles against my chest, still. She kisses me and her dad to sleep every night. She still co-sleeps, so we are face to face almost all night. Her budding independence is evident in everything. Sometimes people are surprised at how independent, yet connected, my three daughters are to me and I think it has everything to do with the great nursing relationships we had. They are very secure in their attachment to me, and they are able to venture out and stay with grandma or grandpa and not have any anxiety. I love it. We are a strong group. It was a beautiful partnership.

So, that is my story, and my method of weaning a one year old or toddler. Just give them enough love to supplement the changing routine. Be gentle, and talk to them about it even if you think they can't understand. They listen with their hearts. If you start to get the feeling that they aren't ready and it's possible, then take a few steps back and give them a few more weeks. It is definitely a process. Step back, assess your situation, and take it one step at a time. That is the best advice I can give.

Good luck to anyone thinking about weaning or starting the process. There are lots of resources out there to support you. Check out La Leche League International, which is my go-to resource for all things breastfeeding.

Now I just have to wait for our next little family member and I get to start this journey all over again!

If you nursed your child, do you have any advice you can give to other mother's who might be going through the process of weaning their child?


  1. Beautiful post. I can relate. My son weaned himself. I knew the end was near so I could prepare for it, but it was still sad. I definitely cried the last time he nursed at just shy of 17 months. But he is happy and healthy and that is what matters the most. Thank you for this honest post - I bet a lot of women will enjoy reading it.

  2. What a great informative post, thankyou

  3. I've done it both ways. My first child had to be weaned abruptly as I needed a medication that was believed unsafe during breastfeeding and I need to go on it right away. It was painful both physically and emotionally and I really think it has something to do with our relationship now.

    My second child I weaned but she was over a year. We weaned slowly and it took 3 months to get her off completely. Much better.

    I am now nursing my third child and have no interest in stopping any time soon, but he's only 8 months.

    My advice: don't feel like you have to wean because a certain age was reached or others are asking "are you STILL nursing??" Only initiate weaning if you yourself would like the baby to stop. Otherwise let baby wean when he or she is ready.

  4. Emily- Thank you. It is so much easier when they do it themselves, for sure. Good job sticking with it for so long.

    Kathleen- Thanks for sharing your stories and the advice! It's very true. Outside influence wasn't really discussed in my post, but I definitely can relate to dealing with it.

  5. My daughter is almost 8 months old and her first teeth are cutting through...I think that will make it easier for me LOL. In the beginning I never thought I'd make it she had colic & reflux and was super challenging but I've stuck it out and I"m so glad I did.