How I (Gently) Weaned My Breastfeeding Toddler
A milk-weary mama gets real about her love/hate relationship with extended breastfeeding, and the creative tools she discovered to wean her 34-month-old son. Check out some of her tips for weaning a toddler.
I weaned my son at 34 months. Yep, that's right: two months shy of age three.
I never intended to nurse that long. When my son was six months old, I officiated the wedding of two dear students. A mutual friend at the ceremony told me laughingly, radiantly, that her mother had nursed her until she was three. I thought to myself, "HELL NO." Yet, there we were.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, then supplemented breastfeeding for one year. Yet only 35.9 percent follow these guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I can understand why.
Breastfeeding felt like the ultimate in dichotomies. The source of my greatest resentment, as I sat up sleep-crazed at 3 a.m. with my starving 2-week-old googling "breastfeeding is f**king ruining my life." Yet, my relationship with my little one while nursing was deeply rewarding and profoundly intimate. Remarkable, indescribable, irreplaceable.
I know how many women struggle to breastfeed, for a variety of reasons, so I'm glad I was able to do so, even if some of those moments made me crazy. But after 34 months, when I finally weaned my son, I felt like a warrior princess.
I didn't have many friends who practiced extended nursing. Most of them aimed for a year, proudly made that mark, and then cut it off with a work trip or dwindling interest on their baby's part. But my son never lost interest—nursing was our cherished routine, a source of comfort and delight.
As for me? I'd gotten to the point where I was done. Tired of being a milk machine. Tired of my hormone-induced rosacea. Tired of not being able to take Tylenol Cold or drink two glasses of wine at dinner. After almost 3 years, our nursing relationship felt complete. It was time. We needed to take the next step, but I didn't know where to start.
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Books, internet searches, and fellow mothers had suggested going cold turkey, sleeping downstairs, or just disappearing for a week. Those options all didn't feel quite right. If I was going to take away the greatest source of comfort, nourishment, and connection that my son had ever known, I wanted to do it gently, and without trauma.
I scoured the internet for weaning books, and found nothing. So, I decided to create one myself. I drafted the text, emphasizing my son's growth from a tiny baby who needed help dressing, eating, sleeping to a big boy who gets to have all kinds of wonderful adventures and responsibilities. I reiterated our love for him, and the fact that it's normal to feel sad when Mama's mimis, our name for breast milk, is all gone, but that my husband and I would always love him. I created the photo book, beginning with images of my son's first days after birth and finally wrapping up with present-day photos, so he could watch himself grow.
We read the book at least once a day, to introduce the fact that very soon my body would no longer be making mimis. My son got a kick out of his special "big boy" book, and truly seemed to comprehend it.
At that point we were nursing about three times a day: 4:30 a.m., before nap time, and before bed. I tried cutting out the 4:30 a.m. feed, but it just meant we were all getting up before dawn. I felt exhausted and stuck. We needed advice from someone who knew what she was doing; someone who'd done this before.
Enter Britta Bushnell, Ph.D., a Southern California-based doula and birthing educator. Britta had been our birthing consultant so I knew I could trust her judgment; not to mention the fact that she, too, had nursed two children well into their toddler years.
Britta advised me to take it slowly, to move gently so this would be a seamless, organic transition. We'd start by dropping one feed a week: first, the nap time feed; then, the bedtime feed; and finally, the 4:30 a.m. feed, since that one might be the most challenging.
That evening at dinner, my husband and I told our son that in two days he would no longer be having mimis at nap time. He nodded his head and asked for more pasta.
The next day I snuck out to a coffee shop so that my husband could put him down for his nap. The following afternoon, coming home from preschool, was the first time my son and I would have to do nap time without nursing.
He wailed. He sobbed. It broke my heart. But I held him close. soothed him, over and over, cooing that "I know, I know how hard it is. I know it's different. I hear you. It's normal to feel sad when things change. I am here. You are safe. I love you so much."
When again it was time for nap the next afternoon, without nursing, he wailed. But the mourning was shorter than the day before. Within three days, the tears were gone. My son fell asleep quickly, and woke up independently, not needing the usual cuddles.
After that, it all went smoothly. Dropping the bedtime feed seemed like no big deal. A week later, by the time we were ready to drop the 4:30 a.m. feed, the release felt like old hat.
The entire process had begun three weeks earlier—no time at all, in the grand scheme of things. And now, here we are on the other side, over a year since weaning, and that season of life feels so far away. My son only ever asked to nurse once or twice following that final session, and then, only in jest. Never seriously, never traumatically, never achingly wishing for what was.
He was ready. I was ready. I don't think I would've felt that way had I weaned him at six months. I'd have grieved, felt regret.
There's no grief here. Just joy, and gratitude. A celebration of what was, and what is to come.
Rachel Meyer is a Boston-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International, HuffPost, and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.