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Gentle Weaning

January 29, 2014

gentle weaning

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the gentle weaning experience we had since my son stopped nursing over a year ago. For some reason I just kept putting it off. Breastfeeding was extremely important to me when I was pregnant. I borrowed a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and read it cover-to-cover before he even arrived. Despite a bumpy labor and delivery experience, he was born ready to nurse and I was blessed with a wonderful nursing relationship for the next 21 months.

I knew, of course, that some day the nursing would end. In the early months I’d get weepy at just the thought of my tiny boy “all grown up” and not breastfeeding anymore. We nursed through teething, colds, ear aches, plane rides, skinned knees and countless nights. But in the summer of 2012, I knew it was near time to end.

There’s a lot that goes into the decision to end nursing. It’s a personal choice that each mother makes. Some moms let it be completely up the child to stop and others play a part in the decision. I’d always been told that I would “just know” when it was time to wean and that’s exactly how it happened. For me, I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by his demands throughout the day and night. I also wanted to get pregnant and knew I’d want to stop nursing when that happened. (For some moms, it’s necessary to wean before they can conceive and for others they can nurse through the whole pregnancy. Just like everything: everyone’s needs are different.)

During that summer, I decided it was time to start the weaning process. I was afraid of crying, tantrums and post-lactation depression that I’d read about in others’ experiences. So I decided we’d try a very gentle approach.

Here’s what we did:

1. Go slow.

I’d say the weaning process started in July and ended in December. If possible, make it a gradual process. Start (in some minor ways) before you are completely fed up.

2. Talk about it.

The first step that summer (any maybe even before) was to just talk about not nursing anymore. He would sit in my lap and nurse and I’d look down at him and say, “One day you’ll be a big boy and you won’t drink Mama’s milk anymore.” I didn’t know if he really understood, but I think he did. Later on, he’d act out nursing and not nursing with his little plastic animal toys. By talking about it and giving him the language to express his feelings, it made it safe for him to deal with his feelings about the change in roles.

3. Distract.

This is a classic piece of advice. Your child wants to nurse? Offer water. (Especially in the summer, he might actually just be thirsty!) Offer to play a game. Offer to go for a walk. To go along with this, you might need to keep the “milk jugs” out of sight. I started wearing higher-necked shirts around the house that didn’t provide him with easy access.

4. Limit nursing to specific times and places.

This had the biggest impact for us. My 1.5-year-old had begun to treat me like a water fountain, pausing for a sip anytime he felt like it. While I understood it was a natural part of his kinetic personality, it was starting to bother me and I noticed that I actually avoided sitting down.

We started nursing only in certain spots in the house and only in the Ergo while out. Over time, the nursing spots decreased to be only the bed. If he wanted to nurse, we had to stop whatever we were doing and go upstairs and lay down in bed. This put an end to most of his daytime nursing.

5. Find new ways to comfort.

After we stopped nursing in the living room, I found that I was suddenly able to sit down and read a book to him. We’d snuggle on the couch and look through books as a cozytime activity. It’s important to have a replacement  activity for comfort nursing. Your little one will always need comfort, but it will just take a different form.

6. Naturally reduce your milk supply.

I got pregnant that Fall, so I didn’t really need any help drying up. However, there are teasand herbs that can help reduce your supply. Sage is one of the most effective herbs in reducing milk supply and is only recommended if you really are in the process of weaning. Depending on how quickly you want to dry up, you can either drink herbs in tea form (which is not as strong) or take a tincture.

Slowly reducing your milk supply can be a good way to avoid engorgement and discourage nursing. There are some little ones who are perfectly willing to dry nurse, so be prepared for that possibility.

7. Nighttime weaning is different.

For us, the middle-of-the-night nursing session was the last to go. We co-sleep and my son typically woke up to nurse once or twice throughout the night. I didn’t want to stop co-sleeping, but at that point I really wanted to stop the nursing. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy with my daughter and needed rest.

There are so many distractions in the daytime, but they just didn’t work with a half asleep child.

So what worked?

My husband would have to wake up and hold him. We started with just a few minutes of holding while crying and once he started crying really hard, I’d nurse. After some nights, he cried less and eventually just fell asleep in my husband’s arms. It ended up being an every-other-night nursing schedule until one night he slept through the night. And again the next night. And the next.

It was a long process and we had to be very patient, but in the end it worked for our family and our son. I can already see that my daughter will be different. She’s also a good nurser, but she’s not as voracious as he was. She’s actually refused the offer to nurse on occasion, which I don’t think he ever did!

What gentle weaning techniques worked for you?

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