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When Child-Led Weaning Isn't an Option

Lynne Leary-Khater
North Andover MA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 1, January-February 2004, pp. 15

When my pregnant friend told me she was planning to nurse her baby during his entire first year, I smiled. Inside I thought, "That's too long to nurse." After all, the child will be possibly walking and talking. At an LLL meeting I had attended while pregnant, I found it difficult not to stare at the preschooler asking her mother to nurse as she pushed up her blouse. Yes, I was going to nurse my baby. Before my son was even conceived I knew I wanted to nurse. But for a whole year? I wasn't so sure.

After Colin was born, I experienced plugged ducts two to three times per week, two cases of mastitis, and a baby who often nursed every 30 minutes for 30 minutes. Despite these difficulties, we established a wonderful nursing relationship. It was so beautiful. As time flew by, weaning took a backseat. Even my husband, who originally said he wanted to see our son weaned at one year old, encouraged us to continue. He saw the way our son kicked and smiled with glee as I brought his downy head to my breast. Colin cooed as milk dribbled down his chin. Even when he received his first solids, he always wanted to nurse, before and after a meal-sometimes even during.

As he grew, I realized that the best part of nursing was how much it helped Colin transition as he developed. I found breastfeeding not only to be a form of supreme nourishment, but also a supreme tool for mothering. Throughout the "stranger and separation anxiety" stage, bumps, bruises, or illnesses, nursing was the single best way to take care of Colin's problems.

Soon, the idea of breastfeeding a baby for a year, and even into toddlerhood, didn't seem so odd to me. I wanted to allow Colin to wean at his own pace, but I had a feeling that this wasn't possible in our situation. Colin wasn't conceived "naturally." He was conceived through in vitro fertilization. My husband and I still had five-day-old embryos frozen and waiting for us. They had no expiration date, per se, but I did. At LLL meetings, I saw other mothers with two or more children. Although I was generally five to 10 years older than the mothers in my LLL Group, I knew I wasn't ready to stop expanding our family. At 40 years old, I was ready for another baby.

I met with my fertility doctor and was hit hard with the news that Colin must be entirely weaned in order to begin a cycle. I had to take fairly strong hormones to menstruate, never mind conceive. I never had a regular period, or one I could chart, and suppressing my ovulatory system with nursing wasn't helping me.

I pored over books about weaning and fertility that my wonderful, supportive LLL friends provided me with. I decided to night wean first and see what happened. Having Colin in bed and nursing when he wanted was all too natural for our family. I wondered how we would be able to handle it. I didn't want to think about it. I just knew I had to do this as gradually and gently as possible.

Instead of weaning him completely at night, I slowed down the process. We didn't make much progress during the first six months, but Colin did begin to understand the limitation on nursing and accepted it…sometimes.

From there, I wondered what the next step should be. Colin made the next move before I could and went on a nursing strike when he was 18 months old. He was extremely clingy and fussy, not uncommon when he wasn't feeling well. Yet, the difference was he wouldn't nurse when offered my breast. This seemed to make him cry even more. I called my local Leaders. They were supportive and empathetic. One told me that she experienced nursing strikes with both of her boys and assured me it would pass. Another Leader told me to take advantage of the situation since I wanted to wean him completely. I even asked a friend, who had a nursing toddler at the time, come over and nurse in front of Colin to motivate him. No such luck.

I was able to get Colin latched-on while asleep, but he always went back on strike as soon as he woke up. My breasts were engorged and painful. I had plugged ducts, but was able to use my pump for relief. After a doctor visit, we found out that Colin had a virus, which caused a sore throat. Once he began to feel well, Colin asked to nurse again.

My husband and I were determined to wean Colin gently, so often set new goals for the date we wanted him completely weaned by. No matter what we decided, it never felt right. We made weaning books, read the LLLI children's book, Maggie's Weaning (Available from LLLI, No. 721-12, $6.95) together, and talked about weaning. Colin always changed the subject, and I knew he wasn't ready. I tried not to be anxious, but I was. I had still not had a menstrual period. I did have some light spotting, but nothing that indicated my fertility had returned.

After getting a painful milk blister that just would not heal, and after I felt as though my milk stores were diminishing, I felt ready to try and eliminate the morning nursing, too. I took a different approach this time by not talking about weaning all the time, and gently explained to him that mommy needed things to change. I also contacted the fertility center and told them I would be ready for fertility treatment soon. The pressure was on. My clock was ticking, and I felt as though our chances for conceiving were rapidly diminishing.

Although the weaning process, which took 13 months to complete, was difficult, my husband and I were able to do it with the love and support of friends and La Leche League. I know Colin's desire to breastfeed has not gone away completely because he sometimes asks to see my breasts or nurse. But, now, at least we can lie down together without me feeling panicked that he will ask to nurse. Instead, he enjoys wrapping his arms around my neck while pressing my cheek to the top of his head. He and I know that our bond has not changed. He knows there is a reason for weaning. I took him off to preschool the other day for the first time. He said, as he held my hand tightly when we approached the door of the school, "Colin big boy now. Colin go to school, and I don't nurse."

I never expected that I would love nursing so much. It has been such a gift to be able to provide my child with what he really needed and wanted in the most important first years of life. Now, six months after Colin's weaning and at the age of 42, I'm pregnant again. My newborn daughter will arrive this April, and I can't wait to share the gift of nourishing and nurturing through breastfeeding once again.

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