[photo © 2013 bonbonmini]
LONGTERM BREASTFEEDING: baby-led weaning…
“Babies should continue to breastfeed for at least 12 months and thereafter for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” American Association of Pediatrics
“Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.” World Health Organization
Why let baby decide?
Before Max arrived I remember saying to myself that I would breastfeed for just six months. For the life of me I can’t remember what logic I used to set such an arbitrary limit. I think I wanted to get back to using my topical retinoids or something else I thought was so crucial at the time?! But I was definitely still thinking with my pre-baby head. Once I actually had this little mini at my breast and saw the comfort it gave him, saw how it maintained my sanity,and of course read about the nourishment and protection it provided him, my time limit became a distant memory.
In the beginning I didn’t even know what weaning really meant, let alone that it was a process, and that many moms initiate it themselves just a few months into the game. But with a little research and a lot of experience I decided that child-led weaning was the best for us. I felt that although nursing is a shared process, the decision to stop should belong to him and that he would build personal strength and self-confidence by being able to choose to move forward, rather than be forced.
From the start, when I nursed Max, I was moved by his utter dependency. His need for nourishment was palpable and there was no greater joy than being able to feed him from the body that had sustained him for 39 weeks. When he suckled he just stared forward with a wide-eyed urgency until he grew full and sleepy, his eyelids getting narrower one blink at a time. As the months passed he grew more interactive, making eye contact, flashing little smiles, innocently playing with the fringe of a shirt or a bra strap or kneading my breast to get a little extra milk out. It became a time of rest for us in our hectic day. A time to look quietly at each other and connect. My time to say all is okay little one, and his time to feel that mama is 100% his.
Once he began solids and passed the one year mark, his dependency on nursing for physical nourishment was noticeably less but the need for emotional nourishment increased, and so nursing took on a new role. It became a way for him to relax and make peace with all of the new thoughts and experiences toddlers face. In the busy life of a toddler in a world where everything is new, nursing becomes an island of constancy and stability. During times of illness or stress, his intake would increase and I felt so grateful to have such a nourishing and simple way to comfort him.
Child-led weaning is simple. It involves letting your child set the pace of the transition to solids foods and the cessation of nursing. To prevent cavities, I initiated no-tears night weaning when Max was 15 months but we continued to nurse on demand during the day.
Baby-Led Weaning: Max’s Story
During the first few months we breastfed on demand and exclusively, without ever offering solids or milk substitutes. We co-slept and I allowed him to nurse freely during the night. He naturally increased his intake when he had a cold or if we traveled.
We continued to nurse on demand during the day and during the night (still co-sleeping). We first tried to introduce solids around 6 months of age. He cried when we offered him spoonfuls of steamed veggies and fruit, so I did read up on delaying solids past 6 months and decided to try again in a month or two (click here for more info on our decision to delay solids). Right around 8 months he developed an interest in what we were eating and we began to offer him a mixture of finger foods, pureed foods and yogurt. His interest and appetite grew with each new flavor and texture, but we didn’t pressure him to finish portions. Since he continued to get the bulk of his nutrients from breast milk until 12 months, we didn’t worry if he would go for days without more than a ounce or two of solids per day. We let his eating develop at it’s own pace and within a couple of months he became good and open-minded eater.
I continued to nurse him on demand, although I decided to night wean him at 15 months (see below). He tended to nurse about 3 times a day (before breakfast, at nap time, and at bedtime). I started to feel more self-conscious about nursing in public once he started walking. The fact that he was wearing shoes suddenly made him a toddler instead of a baby to others. It turned out that I rarely nursed him when we were out because he would fall asleep in his stroller without requesting milk. But if he did we found a seat, pulled out a trusty Aden + Anais wrap and did our thing. I got the “You’re still nursing?” question more than once, but no one was rude about it. They were more curious than anything. And like most moms, the only opinions that mattered were those of my child and his papa, who was luckily extremely supportive.
By 13 months Max cut had himself down to about 4-6 breast feedings per 24 hour period. (1 morning, 1 afternoon, 1 bedtime and 1-3 nighttime or early morning nibbles). I thrived on the middle of the night reminders that my little one was with us and safe, and co-sleeping meant that my sleep disturbance was very little. But around 15 months, he was averaging three feedings a night and I began to worry that this might lead to tooth decay. Luckily we were able to night-wean him with hardly any tears in just over 7 days using the Dr. Jay Gordon sleep plan. You can read about our experience here.
When Max was 17 months we found out that, because of a medical condition, the mister needed surgery that would make him infertile. We were suddenly faced with only 2 months to conceive a sibling for the little guy. Since I had not had a single postpartum period, we made a difficult decision to begin weaning. I started by dropping to 1 feeding per 24 hours (at bedtime) but when this didn’t work our doctor advised that we wean entirely. Overnight, cold turkey we transitioned him to a bottle. Emotionally it was extremely painful, but within 30 days my period resumed and we conceived. Each day I talked to Max about why we had made the change. I made sure never to make him feel wrong for reaching into my shirt or asking to nurse. Somehow he understood and as his verbal skills increased he began to repeat what I’d said… “No milk til baby born!”.
As I write this, 10 months after our sudden weaning, he still checks the milk status by pointing and asking “Milk, mama?” and he attempts to latch on every few days. When he sees me undressed he even says proudly “I love Nuckeln!” (which means “to suckle” in German). He remembers everything and when the new baby arrives, I will be ready to tandem nurse. I will keep this section updated as we progress with baby #2 and tandem nursing, so check back!
The information provided here is based on my personal experience and research only. Please have a talk with your doctor and pediatrician regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation.