By Maddi Munzer – Sydney, Australia
I feel the unmistakable throb of an overly-full milk duct on the outer, lower side of my right breast. It aches with a dull but persistent pain, so different to early-days engorgement. I have been trying unsuccessfully to not think about it the whole day. As a mother I am accustomed to waiting my turn. Yet now in the cool evening air — while my daughter is sleeping — it is nagging me.
Raphaela and I are 3.5 years into our breastfeeding relationship. Why on earth would my right breast be hurting now? Am I adjusting to making less milk since we are breastfeeding less often?
My left breast ached just the other day, the same dull ache needling me on the way to school, but I had forgotten to feed her to sleep that day.
What on earth is going on? Then, it hits me. We didn’t feed to sleep tonight.
Earlier this evening, after a long, hot afternoon, I unceremoniously waved to my child and announced, “I will see you after my walk. I’ll give you milk when I get back.” “OK Mummy” she agreed. No fuss. No tears. Just me with my breasts inconveniently plastered to my body. I tried to forget the pain as my little one smiled up at me, and with a simple, “OK Mummy” from her, we were on our way.
It is in this moment I realise: I am weaning too.
I often consider that my daughter is weaning gradually in terms of the pace of it. I thought she would lead this process if I let her, but as with many aspects of breastfeeding this is a shared experience. I find myself missing it less, wanting it a little less, and depending on it at longer intervals.
When I realised the cause of this throbbing ache, I went to my sleeping child and offered her my sore breast. Affable in her sleepy state, she drank willingly. Her expression was a mixture of surrender and sweet surprise over the milky indulgence. Much like enjoying a piece of fine chocolate following dessert, she appeared to drink not out of hunger, but out of drowsy pleasure.
When I felt I had given enough I let her know and she released my breast. A notable lack of negotiation in that exchange had me wondering: is she drinking for my benefit? Is she comforting me? She sleeps peacefully, and I feel both physical and emotional relief that she drank my milk.
Lately, we keep forgetting to breastfeed. While it is still an important part of our relationship, it is becoming less central, less essential. Why do we linger on in this way — this unhurried unravelling, this gentle division of mother and child? Why do we choose to separate at a pace slower than most people in our time and culture? How do we measure the value of sharing each other in this way? And why do I savour this dance as it slows? My mind wanders…
In Hebrew the word for weaning is ‘gamal’, meaning ‘to ripen’. I enjoy thinking about it in these terms: a gradual process, a passage of time, of becoming tender and mature.
As I look at my precious daughter I wonder: as we peel away from each other so slowly, one day will we even be aware that we are having our last milky embrace?
Or with a backwards glance, will we realise?
Considering Gradual Weaning?
A few words of wisdom…
- You are the expert on your child. Only you know when your child has outgrown the need to breastfeed.
- Breastfeed for as long as you and your child are happy to continue.
- Keep communicating your own needs, including the need to breastfeed less.
- Trust the innate wisdom of children to lead the process. They will not breastfeed forever.
- Antibodies against viruses and bacteria are present in breastmilk for as long as you continue to breastfeed.
- If you live in a culture of premature weaning, know that breastfeeding well beyond infancy was once common practice around the world. Remember that breastfeeding older children is not harmful to you or your child. 
- Find your support network. A La Leche League (LLL) group meeting is an excellent place to find a community that celebrates breastfeeding.
- Keep in mind these wise words from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding :
“Does the idea of a nursing toddler still seem strange? A lot of mothers (including many LLL Leaders) couldn’t fathom nursing a toddler or older child when they were first getting started nursing; they got there one nursing at a time. So if you’re just at the beginning stages, there’s really no need to worry about it now. Just know that there’s no reason to stop before you and your baby are ready, and the longer you breastfeed the better it is for both of you.”
- Remember, the choice is yours. As author Nancy Mohrbacher says in her book Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, “When it’s time to wean, be sure you have all the facts, know all your options and you (or your baby) make the decision to wean.” 
- La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th revised edition. Edited by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West and Teresa Pitman. New York, USA: Random House/Ballantine Books. 2010; 314-316, 330-331.
- Nancy Mohrbacher. Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers. Second edition. New Harbinger Publications. 2010; 164.