Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Breastfeeding and Weaning - It Should Be Easy, Right?

This post was originally published on BlogHer in January 2009. Check out the original post for more tips and comments.

Breastfeeding Adam
Breastfeeding Adam in the hospital.

Breastfeeding is totally natural so it should be easy right?  We all know that's not true.  My own experiences with breastfeeding were excruciatingly painful in the first month.  Both times.  But fortunately, weaning is not so hard, or is it?

One of the biggest controversies when it comes to breastfeeding is the length of time babies are breastfed. Some women are uncomfortable with it and only breastfeed for a few days or a few weeks. Some women only breastfeed while they are on maternity leave and switch to formula when they return to work.  Other working moms pump during work or use a combination of breastfeeding at home and formula at daycare.  Most women in the United States wean by the time the child reaches one year of age.  And finally, there are moms who breastfeed for an extended time until the child self-weans. Which is right?  Whatever works for you and your child of course.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says, "Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child."  But these are guidelines and are oftentimes cause of mother angst and guilt for either breastfeeding for too short or too long.

Amy Gates put up a thought-provoking post on extended breastfeeding until age 3, 4, or 5.  It is not the norm in the United States, but elsewhere in the world, it is unheard of to stop breastfeeding before the age of two.  The cultural pressures to wean before the age of two in the industrialized world are huge.  Here are my own experiences in breastfeeding and weaning.

When my son was born, we went through the usual trials during the first month and settled into a nice regular schedule for nursing.  I went back to work full-time and found a daycare near my work so I could breastfeed him at lunch.  I also pumped twice during the day to fill in the rest of the feedings.  When he was 10 months old, I stopped pumping but continued to nurse him at lunch.  By then, he was also eating a variety of baby foods.  Whenever people asked me when I was going to wean, I replied about a year.  This artificial end date was partially based on the AAP recommendations and was also due to the fact that we were thinking of having another child.  I had no interest in breastfeeding through pregnancy, although some women do it.  I personally thought it would be strange to be tandem breastfeeding a toddler along with a newborn.

I thought about weaning when my son turned one, but we had a nice comfortable schedule going.  Eventually around 15 months, I started to wean and cut back on the feedings.  Week by week, I dropped one feeding, starting with the daytime ones.  We kept the morning and evening feedings and my son was perfectly fine with it.  After a few weeks, I dropped the morning feeding and then finally the evening feeding.  Since my son was always awake and raring to go in the evenings, I didn't rely on that feeding to put him to sleep.  So it went very smoothly for him.  I was a bit crushed to be giving up this precious bonding time, but I knew it fit into my grand family plan.  About a week later, my breasts were engorged with milk.

"What do I do?"  I asked my husband.  He suggested putting my son on to nurse and I did.  He obviously hadn't forgotten what to do in a week and drained both my breasts.  After that final feeding, my breasts were fine.  They got the message.  Shut down the milk factory.

Unfortunately, it took a whole year to conceive my daughter.  I lamented the missed time that I could have been breastfeeding my son.  But he was healthy and took to drinking regular milk just fine.  And I was enjoying my freedom not being constantly tied to him.  My husband and I finally managed a weekend getaway.  What a concept!

When my daughter was born, we knew this would be our last child, so I vowed to breastfeed her to the age of two.  This brought lots of raised eyebrows even from my husband, who felt he would never get his boobies back.  Let's face it, when your breasts are used as a milk factory, they can't do double duty as sexual objects.  Around twenty months, my father fell ill and I had to visit him every weekend at a hospital that was three hours away.  I couldn't take my daughter on these trips because she wouldn't stand for all the driving and the hours spent at the hospital.  Since I was still nursing, I also couldn't stay overnight because I didn't want to pull out my breastpump which I put away a year ago.  I ended up making exhausting day trips by myself.  I felt torn between taking care of my father and taking care of my daughter.

My father passed when my daughter was 22 months old.  By this time, I was only nursing twice a day, in the morning and evening.  My daughter was very articulate and knew how to ask for it.  She also relied on the evening feeding to settle into sleep.  During the month after my father's death, we finally weaned.  I thought that maybe I should have weaned sooner given the circumstances, but perhaps the nursing kept me grounded during the difficult months before his death.  After weaning this time, my breasts did not become engorged afterwards.  Every once in a while for months, my daughter would ask for it again, but I would simply distract her with a snuggle and a story. It was difficult initially to get her to fall asleep, but she eventually fell asleep with me lying next to her in her bed. After she fell asleep, she would make a suckling noise with her mouth. She still does it occasionally to this day and she is now five.

I often ask both my kids whether they remember breastfeeding. They always say that they do, and if I keep asking them, maybe they will always remember it.  I will always remember it as a special time that I shared with my children.

So my take home message is to wean whenever you feel comfortable.  Despite my desire to breastfeed for an extended time, the freedom I lost was taxing in my circumstance.  The weaning part is easy, doing it on your own terms is harder.

You can find other resources on weaning on the web at Breastfeeding Basics and KellyMom, or in the blogosphere at Breastfeeding 1-2-3 and Breastfeeding Mums.

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