The final time that I nursed my oldest son is a memory that is imprinted in my brain and my heart in a way that I could never forget. Unlike most memories, which fade or become muddled over time, the last time that my son and I breastfed remains like a movie in my mind. The film, although nearly seven years old, is equally heartbreaking and beautiful.
As a new mom, I was one of the fortunate to be given an ample amount of breastfeeding support. My midwife knew that I wanted to bring my baby to my breast immediately after having him. He latched on relatively quickly, and I felt confident that nursing would be a piece of cake. That's why, when I was given the green light to leave the hospital and go home, I wasn't even remotely worried about my ability to provide sustenance for my child.
However, when my son was three days old, I noticed that his skin had a slightly yellow-tinged color. Although he was crankier than I expected a newborn to be, I admittedly had very little idea what I was doing. I visited a lactation consultant, who reassured me that I was doing fine and encouraged me to keep breastfeeding on demand. My colostrum had turned a milky white color, indicating that my milk had come in. I wondered why my breasts never felt full and began worrying about my supply.
Was I making enough milk? Was my son hungry?
Our one-week follow-up visit to the pediatrician revealed a concern. Despite my best efforts, my son was losing a substantial amount of weight. It was suggested that I supplement with formula.
I was young and somewhat naïve, but I was not ignorant. Knowing that whatever I was doing wasn't working to fully nourish my son, I decided that I needed to give him formula while I continued troubleshooting my supply issues. I would give him a small amount of formula after every feed, at least for a short time. I would experiment with galactagogues, trying herbs and eating more oatmeal than any one human should consume. I would pump in between feedings. I would meet with lactation consultants, attend Le Leche League meetings.
I would not stop.
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Although my milk supply never flourished, eventually I was making enough milk to feed my son without supplementation. Soon after that, he began solid foods. Still, we kept nursing. Soon he turned one, and we continued breastfeeding through a move, a new job, and another pregnancy. I never expected to tandem breastfeed, but there we were. A newborn on one breast, a toddler on the other, and me in the middle.
Before I knew it, my son was approaching three years old. Certainly, he was more than developmentally ready to be done nursing. However, after a long day at work, it was our natural way to reconnect. Then, at bedtime, it was our way to fall asleep. I knew no other way to help my child drift off than with the tool of my breast.
In my heart, however, I knew that I was done breastfeeding two children. My body was tired, and I was emotionally exhausted. I loved our nursing relationship, but I looked forward to having one less person relying on my body. Rather suddenly and without much of a plan, I decided that my son and I would stop breastfeeding the very next day.
When the time arrived that my son and I would typically breastfeed, I matter-of-factly told him that this would be the last time that we would have "boo-boo" together. I explained that he was big now and that he and I could read books and snuggle, but that I needed to save the rest of my milk for his younger sister.
Much to my surprise, he nodded his head in agreement. As we nursed, I choked back the tears, knowing that this was going to be our last feed. I savored his body in my lap, his lips on my breast, and his hands on my body, trying to memorize it all. When he was done, he got up and began playing quietly. I knew that he knew. It was over.
I didn't expect the torrent of emotions that followed. The next day, during what would normally be the time that we breastfed, he didn't ask. In fact, he never asked again. It suddenly dawned on me: My son was long-ready to be done breastfeeding. He was waiting for me.
Related: Weaning a Toddler While Nursing an Infant: My Unexpected Journey into Tandem Nursing
Both mothers and babies need to give themselves room to mourn the ending of a breastfeeding relationship. While it may sound dramatic, for many women the termination of breastfeeding is a bit like a death. It is the ending of an essential stage in the mother/child relationship. As author Kathleen Huggins explains in her book, The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning, the last drop of milk is our last connection to our childbearing bodies. It's often an uncelebrated, but poignant moment.
While some mothers may feel elated when weaning a toddler, the experience does not come so naturally for others. There are many unexpected side-effects of weaning that are rarely discussed but often experienced.
Post-Weaning Sadness and Depression
Most new moms are carefully screened for post-partum depression, but by the time they are ready to wean their toddlers, very few are regularly followed by a healthcare professional. In fact, few moms have even heard the term "post-weaning depression."
According to KellyMom, there is very little research on the biological effects that weaning has on the human body. However, just as hormones play an integral role in postpartum depression, they also impact postpartum weaning.
Prolactin, one of the hormones involved in milk production, is responsible for feelings of calmness, relaxation, and a general sense of well-being. Oxytocin, the hormone that assists with milk let-down, also facilitates bonding and creates a warm and content emotional state.
When weaning occurs, a drop in the circulating levels of oxytocin and prolactin can cause an often unexpected increase in feelings of sadness, anxiety, or depression. The effects of weaning on mood and emotion are compounded when breastfeeding is stopped suddenly.
Post-weaning depression and anxiety are often overlooked. Motherhood after all, especially during the toddler years, is exhausting and overwhelming. Knowing that post-weaning hormonal shifts can impact mood may help mothers to understand what signs and symptoms to be aware of when the breastfeeding relationship ends.
Post-Weaning Power Struggles & Guilt
While weaning a younger baby can present its own set of challenges, discontinuing breastfeeding a toddler can sometimes bring things to a whole new level. Most toddlers don't respond well to the word "no," especially when it involves something as comforting and familiar to them as their mother's breast. Truthfully though, can you blame them? Unlike infants, toddlers have become accustomed to the breast over an extended period of time. These adorable creatures are experts at negotiation, even when they can't yet talk. Moreover, for most toddlers, their meltdowns are of epic proportion.
While child-led weaning will often reduce or even eliminate weaning power-struggles, it is not a cure-all. Further, child-led weaning may not be an option for everyone. Even the most level-headed mama is bound to feel some guilt when watching her child cry over missed milk. That completely natural reflex sometimes causes mothers to breastfeed longer than they intend or desire. After all, offering the breast is sometimes the path of least resistance for an overwhelmed mom.
While there are many strategies around coping with post-weaning power struggles and guilt, one suggestion involves acknowledging your child's feelings about weaning. All humans, including small ones, want to feel validated. More times than not, once a child feels heard, the struggle dissipates.
Post-weaning power struggles can also sometimes be successfully handled with distraction, depending on the age of the child.
The breastfeeding let-down reflex, or milk ejection reflex (MER), occurs shortly after a child begins sucking on the breast. Let down feels different for each woman, but sometimes is described as a feeling of pins and needles, tingling. warmth, pressure, or burning. For some mothers, let down is extremely noticeable and intense, and others barely notice it at all.
For some women, the sensations that accompany let-down occur even after weaning is complete. This phantom let-down does not produce milk, yet causes the same physical response to occur that happens during actual breastfeeding. Phantom let-down can create anxiety, discomfort, and even sadness.
While phantom let-down typically passes within a few weeks, some women report the sensations for a number of post-breastfeeding years.
Breast Engorgement and Discomfort
Breasts that are accustomed to making milk continue to do so even after it's no longer needed. As breast milk supply is dependent on demand, sudden weaning can sometimes lead to painful breast engorgement, clogged milk ducts, and in some cases, mastitis.
A gradual reduction in breastfeeding can often minimize engorgement. Dropping one feeding at a time, while simultaneously shortening sessions has proven to be a successful approach for many women. Others have had success choosing night or day weaning first.
Even those who wean gradually experience some engorgement. Cabbage leaves or cold compresses on the breasts, milk-decreasing herbs such as sage, and medications such as ibuprofen to relieve pain can all help with engorgement. In some instances, the use of antihistamines to reduce milk supply is used, but only under the direction of a health professional.
If the discomfort becomes unbearable, expressing the smallest amount of milk to relieve the pain can also prove fruitful. However, mothers should be careful to not pump unless absolutely necessary, as to not increase milk supply.
Weaning a Toddler is Not A Complete Let-Down
The difficulties that come along with weaning a toddler are most certainly negated by the fact that the breastfeeding child was fortunate to be given such an incredible head-start in this world. In addition to receiving perfect nutrition for the first one plus years of life, an extended breastfed toddler has been the recipient of a special bond that can never be broken.
While many mothers will feel a pang of sadness when breastfeeding is over, there is often also a great sense of joy. According to many traditions, a weaned child has survived the fragile stage of infancy and is now able to sustain herself on solid food. The sense of accomplishment is enormous. My body, says the breastfeeding mother, has been able to grow and nurture a human being.
Some women use the termination of breastfeeding as a time to celebrate their success, marking the special event by throwing a weaning party, buying a present, or writing a breastfeeding story. There are many ways to honor this transformational time in a mother and child's life. And while we want to acknowledge the growth of the child, we can't forget the growth of the mom.
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