I am nearing the delivery of my third child and just weaned my two-year-old within the past couple weeks. To some, this may seem odd, risky or at the least, rare. But to many moms, this is the norm.
This is actually my second time nursing through pregnancy, and I am so grateful for the experience.
There are many reasons a mother may choose to wean an older child when she becomes pregnant. I totally understand how this could be necessary. Often nursing during pregnancy can be uncomfortable and some women experience pain or nausea while nursing. That was actually my first symptom of pregnancy — within a few days of conception, I felt jabbing pains while nursing my toddler.
In my case, the pains only lasted for the first few minutes of each nursing session for the first few weeks of pregnancy. But in both cases, my toddlers were used to nursing several times during the day and the thought of weaning them felt abrupt. Both toddlers turned two just a few months before I became pregnant, so even though they were used to nursing for naps or comfort, I was not their primary food source.
If they had been younger and relying on me for more milk, it would have been more of a challenge. But I know several moms who are able to provide. They make sure to get plenty of healthy calories and drink a gallon (or more) of water each day. It is definitely a commitment, and for some mothers the symptoms may be overwhelming, but in many cases, it’s doable.
Some moms may be concerned about breastfeeding causing premature labor. According to Hilary Flower, the author of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond, research does not show that the uterus is sensitive enough to the oxytocin stimulated by breastfeeding to cause premature labor in a healthy pregnancy. This makes sense to me — otherwise sex during pregnancy would be dangerous, as well.
Flower points out that it is also common for milk supply to decrease during pregnancy. Some mothers experience dips in supply during different stages of their cycles, but in pregnancy, it can be more significant. If that is the case, moms can try things to increase milk supply like mother’s milk tea, lactation cookies, oats, essential oils and supplements. For some mothers, milk supply seems unaffected by pregnancy. In fact, many who manage to tandem nurse report oversupply!
Many children do self-wean during pregnancy and there are many reasons why: lower supply, change in taste or even just less opportunity to nurse if mom is not available or interested in nursing due to morning sickness or fatigue. Both of my nursing toddlers tapered feedings very slowly during my pregnancies and self-weaned about a month or two before I delivered. Every time they asked to nurse, there was some milk for them.
As breastfeeding became less frequent, the milk supply decreased until they no longer asked. I cannot know if they would have weaned at this same time had I not been pregnant, but it was a gradual, smooth transition for us.
We’ve probably all heard stories about how a couple relied on breastfeeding as birth control and found out by a surprise baby that it was not effective. We know it is not a guaranteed method, but according to Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC of kellymom.com, exclusive breastfeeding can be effectively prevent fertility under a few conditions: a baby is under six months of age, is nursed on demand and the mother’s period has not returned. In my case, my cycle did not return for over two years after my first baby and over a year after my second. Some mothers have to wean completely in order to conceive again. So for some, weaning may be necessary for a family who wishes to add to their families.
My philosophy about breastfeeding since my first baby was born was that I want to provide mama milk for as long as my babies are interested. I know there are benefits long after the early months for their immune systems, gut health and bonding.
Extended breastfeeding may not be possible for every family, but pregnancy does not necessarily mean weaning. Each family will have to make the decision that suits them best.