So I’ve weaned two babies now, both around the age of 18-20 months. Although I’ll always support moms in breastfeeding as long as they want, I don’t use the terminology “full term” or “extended” breastfeeding, because there is no term. Not term to complete, no term to fail to complete, no term to exceed.
It starts with a newborn who blindly, hungrily, instinctively nurses for survival. For an exclusively breastfeeding mother, this essential nursing carries on for about a year, or until the baby gradually becomes interested in and then well nourished by solid foods. Take advantage of this time, mothers! It is so incredible to be able to go anywhere with your precious cargo and know that you don’t really need anything but the clothes on your back.
But of course breastfeeding is about more than simple nourishment, it is an act of love and holistic nurturing. Once the baby’s nutritional reliance eases up and their little bodies are supported by real foods, the relationship evolves. What that means is completely unique to each mother-baby duo, but the fundamentals are universal: love, trust, closeness, comfort. There’s absolutely no expiry date on that.
Breastfeeding is also not the only way to offer these things. And there is one other (I believe) universal trait of breastfeeding relationships: convenience. I will never understand why people say that breastfeeding is a difficult path, assuming everything is in working order (which it almost always is, until the allopathic medical system breaks it). I have cracked. I have bled. I’ve cried. I’ve writhed and wailed in agony in the first weeks of both of my babies’ lives. I’ve put in time massaging out clogged ducts in hot showers. But those hurdles have never in any way diminished my wholehearted understanding of the overriding ease and utter convenience of breastfeeding.
It’s this convenience factor that I think leads many of us to struggle to end the breastfeeding relationship long past when we’re actually really ready. I believe it is fully within the mother’s right to end this relationship when she is done. For me, that is ideally after year one, but me and my ideals are really not relevant to another woman with another body, life and child. I do not at all relate to the guilt I so often hear associated with weaning, as many women wrestle with the weight of regret for having actively weaned their (now grown) babies. It’s okay, in my books. It’s right, if it’s what you want. And it’s difficult, because breastfeeding is so bloody convenient for everyone involved!
For me, 18 months is when I’m done. So far, anyway, with my two kids. At 18 months, my babies are thriving, adorable bundles of chaos and mayhem, and breastfeeding becomes something that feels half sweetness, half chore, half crutch (yes I know that’s too many halves). Around this time, I am looking at my babies, and noticing how they’re really not babies anymore. Or at least I’m noticing them hurl themselves with 200% confidence in the general direction of full-blown childhood.
Around this time, I am still enjoying some of those sweet moments nursing provides, but I’m also tired. I’m tired of having my shirt tugged at impatiently in public by a crying toddler. I’m tired of not being able to snuggle or read a book without nursing. I’m physically tired by the demands on my body. I’m tired of being the only one who will “do”, in the middle of the night or during a big upset. I’m starting to sense that my baby-child is ready to move on from relying on this fall-back, and begin to embrace their independence and the variety of new comforts awaiting them.
I am often asked about my approach to weaning, because it can be such a very difficult transition for so many. So here’s my practical guide, all laid out:
Step 1: Never offer, and if they’re asking always try other comforts and distractions first.
Step 2: Wear bulky, high-necked clothing to hide the goods.
Step 3: Tell your toddler that mommy doesn’t want to breastfeed anymore for whatever reason is important to you. With Ocean, I told her I had “owies” because it was true, she was in the habit of comfort-nursing so much at night that it was getting sore & uncomfortable for me.
Step 4: Change up your routines. So if bedtime is normally nursing to sleep, try giving a cup of warm milk before crawling into bed – or only if they’re crying for your milk. Freely offer yummy (healthy) snacks as a distraction in tough moments (yes I endorse bribery and emotional eating). You have to get creative, and it requires energy – hence the immediate appeal of just surrendering yourself to the prospects of breastfeeding forevermore. Attempt to stay strong, while honouring your child’s needs.
Step 4: Assess. For me, this process takes time. I hear your stories, tales of children who self-weaned at 12 months, or just couldn’t have cared less. This hasn’t been my experience, and with both kids I payed careful attention to how truly upset they seemed. With both, this was a stop-start process over 1-2 months. Nobody knows my babies better than me, and when I listen closely I recognize a distinct difference between the desperate “no, I’m not ready!!” cry, and the “this is different, challenging and uncomfortable!” cry. One state, I won’t leave my babies to languish in. The other is okay. It’s my sign to stay strong and be there for them in new ways as I gently nudge them along.
So there… that’s as scientific as I get when it comes to weaning. There’s no magic formula – just your own trust in your inner voice, and a little bit of creativity and stamina. Listen to yourself, and listen to your baby, and someday soon you’ll be trying to remember for a friend how you weaned your babies.