‘You’re doing it more for you than him now though, right?’
The question was thrown at me from across the dinner table as I sat peacefully feeding my two-year-old son. My colleague’s face contained a mixture of fascination and revulsion as she stared at us.
It was a close summer evening and we’d spent the afternoon at another colleague’s house having a barbeque. Up to that point, I’d been completely relaxed. There were no other children present but my son had wandered happily in the garden, rolling in the grass, and attempting to kick a long-forgotten football with his chunky toddler legs.
As the evening began to get boozier and we started to near bedtime, my partner and I agreed that he would take our son home while I stayed on and enjoyed a rare night off.
This feed was to calm him before his Daddy took him home, rocked him to sleep and I returned later to deal with any wake-ups with a comforting side order of milk.
I felt shamed for ‘still’ breastfeeding my toddler
I don’t think my colleague’s words were intended to shame me, but nonetheless that’s exactly how I felt. As she asked me how long I intended on feeding him in front of the rest of the guests, I found myself defensively quoting statistics, referring to the WHO, who recommend breastfeeding to at least two years and explaining that breastmilk is not just about nutrition but, especially with a toddler age child, has tons more benefits like emotional regulation, connection, and boosts to the immune system.
As she asked me how long I intended on feeding him in front of the rest of the guests, I found myself defensively quoting statistics…
It didn’t work. I was preaching to someone who, at best, thought I was a bit of a hippy, and at worst seemed to think I was a sexual pervert, who got a kick out of getting my breasts out in public.
‘It’s more for you than it is for him,’ she’d said, and I suppose yes, there are many recognised benefits for a breastfeeding mother – better protection against breast cancer for example – but I don’t know anyone who would continue to breastfeed their child solely for that reason. Maybe she was referring to the fact that it made our nights far more tolerable when I could just roll over, give him a quick feed, and get back to the business of sleeping. Or perhaps it was the ease of travel (which we did a lot at that time), as breastfeeding during plane take-offs and landings made them infinitely less stressful. Could it be the fact that I never had to force a nap time because I could just feed him to sleep in literally any location? Maybe I was doing this for myself after all!
Ultimately, it was easier to continue breastfeeding than stop
There are many, many reasons why someone may choose to keep feeding past the arbitrary six months or a year. I don’t think there is any shame in admitting that our reasons were simply because it was ultimately easier to carry on!
I had endured plenty of early challenges in the first year of breastfeeding after all: engorgement, mastitis, bleeding nipples (having to give pink milk to the creche had been a particular low point). Wasn’t I allowed to enjoy it now that everything had finally started to work without an issue?
The other problem, of course, was that although I had felt relatively well supported with other aspects of breastfeeding, the weaning process seemed like a complete minefield. My son had his own forthright ideas about breastfeeding, and they didn’t seem to involve stopping anytime soon!
Although I had felt relatively well supported with other aspects of breastfeeding, the weaning process seemed like a complete minefield.
Research suggests that a natural weaning age for an entirely child-led process is anywhere from two and a half to seven years. Before that age, you are more likely to be experiencing a nursing strike, which indeed we had been through at thirteen months. When that happened and my son suddenly refused to feed (likely because of an illness), I experienced the most horrific hormone crash that left me feeling depressed and tearful. It made me more determined to take things slowly when I eventually initiated the end of breastfeeding to ensure everything was as gentle as possible for both of us.
Gentle weaning strategies that are respectful of the child
I researched weaning strategies, and after rejecting any I felt were not respectful of my child or would be too sudden, I was left with the following:
- Don’t offer, don’t refuse – this is a great way of starting to cut down on feeds in a gentle, child-initiated way. If your child asks to nurse, then let them; if they don’t ask, then don’t offer!
- Distraction – used in conjunction with cutting down on feeds, it makes sense to try and distract from feeding as much as you can. Getting outside the house is great as you could then put a boundary in place by explaining that breastfeeding will now only happen in certain locations (home for example) or for a specific length of time.
- Substituting feeds with another source of comfort – you can give milk in a ‘special’ bottle or cup, use other carers for key transitions such as nap time or bedtime for a while or create a new routine with a soft toy and cuddles, for example.
A friend also suggested picture books as a way of preparing my son, but I couldn’t find anything using neutral language or a story I thought he would find engaging.
Understanding weaning from the child’s perspective
Instead, I decided to write my own narrative and a little boy called Seb was born! It’s taken a while to get the book from random scribblings into a professionally published picture book, but I am so pleased with the results and really hope it will help other parents in a similar position to me.
Following the journey of a toddler who is starting to wean from breastfeeding it uses some of the gentle techniques I found worked for us. The narrative doesn’t shy away from some of the conflicting emotions that a child may feel, mixed with a move into being more independent and confidence in other areas of their life.
There may never be the ‘perfect’ time to wean, and big emotions and logistics will probably always play a part. However, ensuring that you are stopping on your own terms, and not because someone has made a snarky comment, will undoubtedly feel much more empowering and be a far kinder end for both you and your child.
There may never be the ‘perfect’ time to wean, and big emotions and logistics will probably always play a part.