Full term breastfeeding isn’t too rare in my circles, outside of them though it is severely misunderstood. Have you ever seen somebody express how their child self-weaned and then add, almost in a way to preempt judgement and concern, that is was smooth or easy or simple? And this isn’t necessarily untrue of course. When Imogen weaned, at around 3 and a half, it could be described as smooth and easy and simple and I often did. But behind these words, was this idea that weaning is only successful when it is easy. That to make self-weaning seem palatable to the masses, to be a justifiable choice it had to be simple. That because it was smooth, it was the right thing to do to allow the child a voice in the process. Nothing to see here, everything worked out.
But I’m sure I am not alone here when I tell you that the weaning process with Aubrey (which is still ongoing) has been completely different. It has not been smooth or easy or simple. There have been big emotions, from both of us. There has been steps towards weaning then sprints back away from it. It’s been messy. And it is difficult to talk about because it opens you up to people potentially saying “you’ve made the wrong choice”, “you should have weaned her earlier to avoid this” and you don’t want to be responsible for putting others off choosing this path with your “horror stories”
But it is really not so strange to think a child might feel upset to let go of a large part of their early years even if part of them also feels ready. It isn’t so strange to think it could be a conflicting season. Unfortunately understanding this doesn’t always make it any easier to witness your child hurting. And the idea that this could have been prevented is an alluring one. It can feel like a detraction from the beautiful breastfeeding relationship once shared to now have negative emotions involved but trust me, it doesn’t; it is because it was so wonderful that it is hard to say goodbye!
When children are weaned by the decision of the parent, they generally seek advice to make the transition as smooth as possible. I’m not going to go into the motivations for that here, I don’t have the personal experience to comment but when a child is given more of a voice in the decision, smooth isn’t necessarily the goal. I know for me, the reason for taking this route was never about making things easier, it was about understanding the benefits of continuing to breastfeed and respecting my child’s autonomy and opinions in the process. (This isn’t to say it should solely be about the child, a relationship is between two people and both are important to consider. I feel that the weight of the individual’s needs shifts as a child ages; obviously, should your needs conflict, a newborn could not be expected to address that as much as an older child potentially could).
Right now our focus is not on the act of weaning, she isn’t completely ready and I feel no strong desire myself to stop. Instead our attention is on supporting the emotions that are developing alongside the knowledge that one day, breastfeeding will end. So how are we doing this?
Remember why we are doing this. Re-affirming our ideals and priorities helps to bring me clarity to the situation. It is not about smooth or simple or easy, these do not have to be the indicators of success.
Acknowledge. Understanding that this is a completely acceptable reaction to the concept of weaning and communicating that with your child is important. Even when we don’t understand our children’s emotions, it is important to understand at least that they are very real and important to them.
Empathize. Weaning is difficult for me too, breastfeeding is something I will miss too. We talk about this, it helps to cement the idea that we are going through this TOGETHER.
But it is also important to be honest. As a child gets older, their suck and attachment can change, the sensation as milk depletes can be uncomfortable. I am honest with my daughter about my limits, it is completely okay to have your own boundaries. The most important part is to say what you mean and be clear — don’t give ambiguities such as “later”, especially if you don’t actually intend to follow it up. Right now we have one feed a day, at bedtime and that seems to meet our needs in a mutually agreeable way.
Reminisce. My daughter loves to hear stories about breastfeeding; particularly her very first feed and from when she fed alongside her sister. It helps to remind her that though we might stop breastfeeding, it will always be a part of our story.
Reassure. We talk about her fears surrounding the end of breastfeeding and how it doesn’t change our relationship or my love for her. We talk about her sister weaning and the different ways we still connect, comfort and express love.
Work together. We figure it out together. Her needs and my needs both important considerations in where to from here. It can be a little one step forward, two steps back but for us there is no rush.
Enjoy!! As things come to an end it can be tempting to focus so much on getting to the other side that you miss the treasured memories of the closing days. I know when it happens it will feel so quick, no matter how long the lead up might be and I want to enjoy this season while it still lasts.
No mater what happens, I could never regret this path we are on! It feels right for us to be experiencing the bittersweet farewell together as equals.
Update: Our breastfeeding journey has now ended, Aubrey weaning a few months after her fourth birthday.