“How long will you breastfeed for?” Not-so-new mums get asked this all the time. And, though I have actually asked this question myself, I think it is a ridiculous question. It is similar to other questions you may ask like ‘how long till my baby sleeps through the night?’, ‘how long will it take me to get pregnant?’, ‘how long is a piece of string?’. Some questions you can not predict in advance. You can only answer them as you go.
For me, once breastfeeding was established and I overcame some initial hiccups, it became a beautiful and intimate time with my daughter (you can read about my early breastfeeding journey here). I believed I was giving her the best and I was proud of it. I felt it was something I could give her that no one else could.
I followed a baby led weaning approach to introducing foods, which meant that while food was a lot of fun in my house, my daughter wasn’t really eating a lot and breastmilk was very important for her diet. I didn’t work on a schedule, I demand fed around the clock. I fed to comfort her, to put her to sleep, if I thought she might be hungry. I slept with her in my arms and she learnt to feed through the night all by herself. Most of the time I hardly woke up. As she grew bigger and became more active it became the only time we would cuddle and snuggle. Each feed was a treasured time.
A few days before my daughter turned one I found out I was pregnant with baby number two. Within a few short weeks I was struck down by severe pregnancy sickness and I had to reassess breastfeeding. I became too sick to feed my daughter, too sick to wake up to her at night, I started on medication which is not compatible with breastfeeding, and though I didn’t feel my daughter and I were ready, I started the process of weaning her.
Yes, I had fed her for the first year of her life, and many would say that is a job well done. But I had imagined feeding her for much longer. I had thought I would wait until she self-weaned. In moments of reflection I did feel some guilt for cutting back. I felt I was already compromising the needs of my first born because of my second. That this was the start of my daughter needing to accommodate her little brother or sister – being forced to wait while I care for the baby, sharing her mum with someone else. There is something wonderful about having one, and being able to focus on them completely, to schedule around their nap time, to put all their needs first. And this for me was the first, of what I imagine will be many, compromises. Cutting back on feeding my daughter, so that my body had the energy and strength to grow another baby.
While I didn’t have to completely stop feeding (and at 15 months I still feed my daughter once a day), I knew I needed to reduce the feeds quite quickly. I had thought that breastfeeding would come to a natural stop, but I found I had to be intentional in order to make it happen. Here’s how I did it:
- I started with some reading, because, while there are many different schools of thought, I believe it is always best to arm yourself with some ideas / knowledge and then follow what feels right. One of the philosophies that fits with my parenting style is Pinky McKay’s ‘gradually, with love’. I knew it couldn’t happen overnight, it had to be a gradual process. I also liked the ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ approach. Although I found that I really did have to refuse at times because the medication I’m on means I can’t feed during the day.
- Next I started to increase my daughter’s food consumption. When I read about the nutritional needs of a toddler I realised that, though the amount of food she eats is small, her nutritional needs are quite high. I also knew that in order to wean her off night feeds we had to make sure she was eating enough to keep her full. This was a big change of approach for us, because until then she had been completely self fed. For the first time, we pulled out the spoon and started spoon feeding her. Yes, it felt a bit backwards, and was different to the baby led weaning approach we had been taking, but there’s no rules that say you can only follow one approach. Mix and match away. And, I’m proud to say, at 15 months, my daughter is getting very good at spoon feeding herself.
- We weaned to a bottle despite many books recommending that you wean directly to a cup. My daughter can drink from a cup, but I was worried that she wasn’t getting enough. She drunk a lot more from a bottle. At some stage we will have to wean her from the bottle, but for now we took the easiest, quickest approach. Baby steps.
- Mum happened to be staying with us at the time so I took this opportunity. This was really critical as I found that throughout the day if my daughter was with someone else she wouldn’t think about feeding, but if she was with me she’d start pulling at my clothes and trying to feed. With this in mind Mum distracted her, played with her or offered her something else to eat or drink when she wanted to feed. For a few weeks she actually probably spent more time with my mum than with me.
- We transitioned her to sleeping in a cot. This was probably the hardest part, because she had been sleeping full time in our bed. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep with her if I wasn’t feeding her through the night. As part of this my husband took the night shift and he became the one to try to settle her every time she woke up. There is often lots of rocking and “shhhing” and singing at bed time, and nap time and through the night if she wakes up, although she has very recently started to sleep through! We’ve read all the sleep books about putting her to bed ‘drowsy but awake’, but that has not worked for us. She does not know how to fall asleep on her own. And sometimes she comes into our bed in the night and sometimes when nothing else works I feed her. For us, it’s two steps forward, one step back. Gradually, with love. We also have broken the sleep book rules because we do give her a bottle if she wakes up in the night and wont settle. The books say that nutritionally she doesn’t need anything and she should be able to get through the night by now. But, when rocking and “shhhhing” don’t work, what is a parent to do?
- All the advice I found said to drop one feed at a time. This was hard for me because I’d never recorded specific feed times and I actually didn’t really know when, or how many times a day, I was feeding my daughter anyway. In the end, I dropped the day feeds and the night feeds fairly quickly, over about 3 weeks. I kept feeding her first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, until we replaced the evening with a bottle a month or so later. Advice I’ve read seems to consistently say that once you drop a feed you can’t go back, though I am yet to find a source that explains why. I assume it’s because it could confuse the baby. Well, I’ve been guilty of dropping a feed and going back. When I’ve been alone with Nala, when I’ve been too sick and tired to take the distract approach, when nothing else has worked to get her to sleep, there have been times that I have taken the easy option and fed her, because in the moment, it was what we both needed. Two steps forward, one step back.
So, now we’re down to one feed a day, the moment my daughter wakes up in the morning. Over the last few months this feed has been a lifesaver for me. As my daughter wakes me up each morning I pick her up from her cot and pull her into bed with me. She feeds and often falls back to sleep. And it buys me some more sleep, when I’ve been exhausted and sick and desperately needing it. Still, I’ve hit nursing aversion (which is common in pregnancy) and the time is very nearly here to drop this feed and then our breastfeeding relationship will be over. Yes, I’ll do it all again with my next baby, but it wont be the same. Because it wont be with her. And I wonder, on the morning I give her her last feed, will I know it is going to be the last one?
Finishing breastfeeding is just another marker of my daughter’s babyhood slipping away. I felt it when she started to walk, when she stopped snuggling while she was awake, when she turned one, when we sent her for her first sleepover at Gogo’s house. But as the baby stage disappears something else emerges. It is the stage of her following me around the house with a broom as I sweep the floor, her clapping her hands to congratulate herself when she gets a piece in a puzzle, her replying to every dog we pass by saying ‘woof, woof’, her learning new things every day. Letting go of something, makes room for something new. Our big girl, our toddler, our soon-to-be big sister.