Weaning My Toddler

It’s 4 am. I can’t sleep because my brain (and my right breast) are full. It’s been 54 hours since my daughter — the one I wryly imagined someday calling me from grade school to come nurse her — had “ne” (our word for nurse) for the last time. Weaning didn’t happen quite the way I’d anticipated it would. It was neither traumatic nor was it completely “child-led” (sorry, LLL). Still, it was, without a doubt, gentle and, in the end, mutual. This is our story.

I’ve been nudging W toward weaning for Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 5.47.56 AMa long time now, because (truth be told) I’m getting a little tired of it. I have little enough milk that the sensation of nursing is, if not unpleasant, at least annoying. I’d rather interact with W in other ways. Still, I’ve had no desire to make the experience completely one-sided or traumatic for her, so my intention in nudging her was largely to assess her feelings about it. I thought I was getting nowhere with all that nudging, but as I look back, I was building a foundation, laying the extensive groundwork. At this early and dark hour, the analogy that comes to mind is that of the Hawaiian islands; eons of volcanic eruption produce underwater mountains that go unnoticed until they eventually break the surface, and when they do, they do so suddenly. W loves stories — both from books and those imagined by my husband and me — and we’ve invented a fictional character “Erin,” who is just a bit older than W. We use Erin stories to help W work through coming changes, prepare for vacations, and so forth. For instance, we’re in Oregon this week staying with family, and W will be learning to ski. She’s excited, and she knows all about skiing, because she’s been listening to stories about Erin skiing for 3 months now. She knows that skiing will feel like sliding on her toboggan, only she’ll be standing up. She knows Mommy will be by her side the whole time. She knows she’ll fall down sometimes, but it won’t hurt the way it does if she falls on the wood floor. She knows (and it’s entirely possible that this is the greater part of why she’s so excited) that we’ll have a thermos of hot chocolate when the lesson is done. Toddlers aren’t great with theoreticals, so telling W “what Erin did” works better for her, in terms of allowing her to form a concrete image in her mind, than telling her what she will soon be doing.

Erin weaned shortly before Christmas, shortly after Erin’s second birthday (W’s own second birthday came in mid-February). The fact that Erin is weaned has been the central theme of some stories, but merely a side note in others. Still, W has considered Erin a “big girl” for some time, and when I ask her what “big girl” means, she always says, “no ne.” Until recently, I kept the specifics of Erin’s weaning somewhat vague. I wanted to be able to insert details as I decided how W’s own weaning would proceed, so that I could make the events match as much as possible.

La Leche League offers the weaning advice of “Don’t offer, don’t refuse.” Perhaps this works for some. For W, if I didn’t refuse her, I’d still be nursing her every two hours around the clock. Refusing her nursing requests started, as a necessary measure for maintaining my sanity, when she was about 17 months old. Until she was probably 20 months, she nursed several times a day. The early morning nursing and the after-bath-before-bed nursing were the two most ritualistic, and were clearly the most important to her. Eventually, all the other requests fell away as I refused them, but those two remained. Once things quieted down around our house after the series of parties and visits from relatives that marked W’s second birthday, I started to think in earnest about how to encourage her to give up those last two nursings. At her two year well-check, her pediatrician offered excellent advice. Told that I was interested in weaning (gently) and that we had a trip coming up, W’s doctor suggested that maybe “ne” shouldn’t come with us to Oregon. Our night nursing is always on the couch while we watch a nature program, and our morning nursing is in our bed, when our “ok-to-wake” timer turns green. In Oregon, we won’t have our couch, and I left the timer at home. I prepared W for our Oregon trip with a series of Erin stories — Erin got to ride on a plane (and because she is such a big girl, she got her own seat this time!), Erin learned to ski, Erin saw her cousin, Erin weaned because “ne” didn’t come to Oregon — and W listened hungrily. I didn’t make a big deal of the story about Erin weaning; I told it matter-of-factly, just like the others. I said that Erin was a little worried the first night when her mommy told her that ne stayed home, because she still loved it. I reassured W that Erin’s mommy still held her and cuddled her after her bath, and Erin felt better. I told W that even though Erin was a little sad, she was also very proud of herself for being a big girl, and that Erin and her mommy did lots of mommy-and-big-girl things (like manicures!), in addition to still having lots of snuggles. I asked W (we were still at home at this point) whether she wanted to be a big girl like Erin and stop doing ne. She agreed that she should stop, and felt she was a big girl, but (as I expected) she still asked for ne that night, and when I reminded her that she had considered stopping, her eyes filled with tears. “No big deal,” I told her, “We can do ne.” And so we did.

Several weeks later (three days ago), we left for Oregon. Our travel time was protracted (no direct flights, long layover), so we were really tired and emotionally drained when we got here. After W’s bath, she asked for ne. “Ne didn’t come to Oregon, sweetie, but we can cuddle,” I told her. She started crying.

“One more ne,” she told me, holding up her index finger and melting my heart with her teary blue eyes and quivering chin, “One more, Mommy. Need this.” I pulled her to my breast.

The next morning, she didn’t ask to nurse. Huh, I thought, Maybe she meant that bit about “one more.” That night, she asked for ne. I replied, “You said one more last night, remember?” I picked her up, cuddled her, told her that she was a really big girl. We talked a little bit. “I think you’re a big girl, and I don’t really think you need ne, babe. Remember, mommies bodies make lots of milk for babies, but they know when their babies are turning into big kids, and when that happens, their bodies stop making milk. Mommy’s body isn’t really making milk anymore, because I know you’re such a big girl.”

She considered my words. She didn’t cry. She cuddled with me for a few minutes, and then walked away to play with her cousin. That was our first 24 hours.

The following morning (yesterday), she asked to nurse, but I could tell she was teasing. I laughed and tickled her, and we cuddled. While I was changing her diaper, she looked at me and said, “Me bid durl. No more ne. All done.” She added the sign for all done — which she never uses anymore — for emphasis.

“Big girl!” I congratulated her. “Mommy’s so proud of you!” We went and told her Baba (daddy) what she’d decided. We told her aunt and uncle. Everyone made a really big deal of it, and she basked in the attention. I asked her if she wanted a cake, and told her she could pick a “big girl” present. She decided on an owl nightlight and chocolate cupcakes. Walking around Target to pick out her present, she considered several options (sparkly boots, a ruffly skirt, a case for her nail polish collection). When she saw the nightlight, she picked it up with intention.

“My owl,” she said. “Put in cart. Need dis. Me bid durl, present.” While I was paying for the nightlight, I told her I was really proud of her. She gave me an impish look and asked for ne, then laughed. Her awareness (and ability to make jokes) reassures me that this really is something she understands; she’s ready. We had the cupcakes after dinner. Before she ate one, she sang herself the Happy Birthday song, which she associates with being BIG.

I wondered whether she’d try to nurse after bath. Part of me worried that all the attention, the party, the present, would make her think about nursing and decide she wanted it. I shouldn’t have wasted the worry; she didn’t even ask. I guess this is really it.

How do I feel? A little relieved, a little sad. I won’t miss the way she would whip her head around to look at something while still latched on. I won’t miss the way she’d feel me up in public, announcing to the world that my breasts belonged to her (and in the process, making it implicitly clear that she was a breastfeeding toddler). I cried a little yesterday morning (privately, so as not to let her see my grieving). I thought,Β If I’d only known that was the last time we’d ever nurse, I would have paid more attention. I would have held her closer, nursed her longer. I would have looked into her eyes the way I did when she was a baby, instead of having a conversation with someone else and waiting for her to be done.Β When I really think about it, though, my nostalgia isn’t for nursing as it was in those last months. Toward the end of our nursing relationship, she and I expressed our closeness in other ways. Nursing was still very meaningful to her, but it had lost much of its meaning for me. My true nostalgia is for nursing her as a baby. It’s for those quiet times when I’d tuck her into my chest and look into her eyes as she drank in milk and love in equal measure. I’m nostalgic for the rush of oxytocin that accompanied her latch and first few swallows in those early months, which flooded me with a feeling of love so powerful I felt sparkles in my brain and couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I’m nostalgic for my baby, the only child I will ever have, whose heart developed and first began to beat underneath mine. These things are long past; the baby with dove-grey eyes became a sparkling toddler more than a year ago, and while nursing was a thread that connected us to that past, I haven’t truly lost anything through the act of weaning W. Still, though, the sense of loss is as profound as the sense of joy and pride for my strong and amazing daughter. Poetically, symbolically, my breasts are as at odds with one another as my thoughts; the right breast is still making milk, and it’s unpleasantly full. The left apparently recognizes that its service is no longer needed, and is starting to atrophy. The right side will get there too, it’ll just take a little longer, and it will be a bit uncomfortable in the meantime. And my nostalgic side, the thoughts that are sweetly sad, well…they will be replaced by nostalgia for other things as my daughter inevitably moves forward through life, stretching the invisible thread that binds us thinner and thinner, without ever breaking it.

W just stirred in her sleep and reached out for me. I picked her up, cuddled her, reassured her that I am next to her in bed, as I am every night. She wormed her hand down the front of my shirt, rested it on my breast, sighed and closed her eyes. My breasts still give her comfort (and I don’t delude myself that she won’t ever eye them with interest again, or entertain the notion of nursing if she catches me on the way in or out of the shower, or changing clothes), but she has made a decision. No more ne. All done.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mar
    Mar 11, 2013 @ 10:46:13

    Thank you for this. I teared when I read it. I have a 14 month old daughter and hope to wean nursing around 2, when I can reason with her. A part of me would love to wean now but it is so helpful when she wakes in the middle of the night (often) or when she gets sad and needs comfort.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Mar 14, 2013 @ 11:05:08

      I’m glad you found the post touching and (hopefully) helpful. Good luck as you approach weaning!

      Reply

  2. SarahSD
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 09:44:11

    I found your blog via Skeptical OB, and I think you’re awesome. This post totally made me cry over my laptop at Starbucks, and I’m not even particularly overtired or hormonal. With weaning feeling like it’s around the corner for my toddler and I, I’m realizing how much I will miss that time. You do a beautiful job of expressing the bittersweet ambivalence of witnessing your baby grow up.

    Reply

  3. Teresa
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 20:17:49

    I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who got choked up while ready this. My son is 15 months and I had my mind pretty set on 18 months for weaning but I’m wondering if it will just get harder the older he gets. Most of the time I still love nursing but I don’t love the shirt pulling and hand reaching down/up my shirt.

    I LOVE your blog. You’ve been gone for a while and I’ve missed your postings.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Mar 16, 2013 @ 13:06:30

      Thank you! Yeah, sorry…things have been hectic! I’m going to try to post more regularly…

      As far as when to wean, I think there are arguments that could be made either way in terms of whether it’s easier sooner or later. Ultimately, your son will be fine either way, so my advice (FWIW) is to go with when you feel like YOU’RE ready. πŸ™‚

      Reply

  4. Heather
    Jun 28, 2013 @ 12:45:38

    I just happened upon your blog today, and must say you are a truly talented writer! My youngest is four, and stopped breastfeeding at 9 months, but this brings those feelings right back around, and made me tear up! And just so you know…he still sticks his hand down my shirt when he thinks I’m not noticing. He’s four, so I always gently pull him away and distract him, but I think somehow he remembers. πŸ˜€

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Jul 03, 2013 @ 09:34:10

      Hi Heather! I’m glad you found this post enjoyable, and thanks so much for your kind comments about my writing! It’s sort of a dream/ambition of mine to be a writer in “real life” someday, but for now, it’s just a hobby πŸ™‚

      I’m sure W will be sticking her hand down my shirt for months/years to come; lately, she’s actually been asking to kiss my boobs, which is not my favorite thing in the world, so we’ve been talking a lot about private parts, and I’ve sort of been using my requests for privacy with regard to my boobs as a segue into talking about the fact that her body is hers, and no one should touch it in a way she doesn’t like. So I guess the somewhat annoying/embarrassing boob-touching has its uses πŸ™‚

      I hope you stick around! I don’t write as much as I wish I could, but I post once or twice a month, at the very least.

      Reply

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