I’ve written this post a hundred times in my head. I think it’s so hard to write because it matters to me SO much.
But I don’t want to be judged. So. I breastfed my firstborn son until he was four. If that freaks you out, you can go read something else now. Or, maybe, reading this will help you understand why something so crazy and weird and socially unacceptable, might have occurred to me and my son.
See, I didn’t set out to nurse him until he was four.
I just started out breastfeeding him when he was born. About an hour after he was born. Then an hour or so after that. Then some days after that. And some weeks and months after that.
I never knew how, or when, or why, moms would wean their babies.
So I didn’t think about weaning, when I breastfed him that day he was born. I thought about nursing.
Those first two weeks of breastfeeding were AWFUL. I mean, really awful. I was totally, completely determined to breastfeed my children. Before they were born. But in the middle of those first awful weeks, I COMPLETELY understood why so many moms give up breastfeeding.
It hurts. I mean, it really hurts. Even after two lactation consultation visits, it hurt. It only stopped hurting while they were at my house, helping me. That little hour of pain-free nursing was my light at the end of the tunnel that it was possible.
My newborn didn’t want to nurse every three hours. He wanted to nurse every hour. Every thirty minutes. Every hour and a half. He refused a pacifier (I tried several kinds). Nursing made him so darn happy. Even when it was hurting me like hell.
There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Because it is. Torture. Breastfeeding a newborn, being woken up a bazillion times a night, for days and weeks and months on end. Torture. So painful. So overwhelming. “Exhausted” is so lame at capturing the feeling, that it’s kind of a joke to even use that word. Desperately, unbearably, horribly, dark, deep, fatigued in every cell of my core. Emotionally drained, physically empty, mentally unable to think straight or even in a wavy line.
I can’t blame all that on breastfeeding. But exclusively breastfeeding (EBF) means no one else can feed baby in the middle of the night. I guess they could IF the baby would take a bottle of pumped milk (which mine wouldn’t). But the alternative to waking up to nurse a baby, is waking up with horribly engorged, rock hard, swollen breasts from having skipped a middle of the night feeding. So it wouldn’t really be worth it.
At some point, the advice of the lactation consultants began to help, and it got easier. And stopped hurting. Hooray.
Until I got mastitis. Having mastitis feels like having the worst flu ever. High fever, aching body like a beating with a baseball bat, horribly horribly sore breasts that make nursing burn and tear. I was grateful for the help of my lactation consultant, kellymom.com, and my naturopath. I got rid of the mastitis in 24 hours. It came back a couple weeks later. And we got rid of it again. I hate mastitis.
Then one day, breastfeeding was the easiest thing in the world. I never noticed it had happened, until suddenly, it was. Easy. Quick. Painless.
Even more suddenly, it became delightful. Amazing, incredible. Bonding, cuddles, intimacy, connection. Smelling the top of my sweet baby’s head while he nursed. Relaxing on the internet, blogs, or Facebook while he nursed to sleep. Long naps for both of us in bed together, interspersed by nursing sessions. Co-sleeping at night, because everyone got more sleep that way.
Breastfeeding is the purest, simplest form of connection I’ve experienced with my children. It is priceless, and a gift I’m blessed with. I can’t imagine my life, or my relationship with my children, without breastfeeding.
I have SO many photos of Jax breastfeeding. We spent hours and hours nursing and sleeping and nursing and awake. He would nurse in any position, in any carrier, anywhere we went. Nursing was his anchor.
Around twelve months, we both got thrush. My son had whitish spots inside his cheeks in his mouth. I had horrible pain in my nipples, the skin got pink and would peel off, and crack and bleed.
With help from my support team of lactation consultant, naturopath, and kellymom.com, I was again able to treat the thrush naturally. It took several weeks to clear up. It popped up again a few months later, and receded again.
Twenty-one months went by. My son was almost two years old! He slept about eight hours straight at night. The rest of the the 16 hours of the day, he nursed every 1-3 hours, on demand. I never scheduled him. I never put him off from nursing. He was speaking in sentences by this point, and could clearly ask for nursing when he wanted it.
Because of the frequency of his nursing, and my physiology, my feminine cycles had not returned. We wanted to get pregnant again. I knew I had to reduce his nursing frequency, to get my cycles back.
Telling him “No” was torture. He cried. I mean not just a little whine or fuss. Bawling, sobbing, huge tears rolling down his face. I eventually discovered it was easier to tell him “The next time you can nurse is _____ (example, at naptime),” compared to “No, not right now.” Getting him down to three nursing sessions in a 24 hour period (bedtime, naptime, and morning wake up time), was SO, SO hard on both of us. So many tears were shed, by both of us.
As a parent, I’m a firm believer that children are real humans. They have real feelings, opinions, needs, and ideas about the world. I treat my kids with respect, even when they are little. I allow them to have a say in what goes on in their world, as reasonably much as I can. I expect them to cooperate with me, but I find that the more I can understand and listen to their ideas and needs, the more easily they cooperate with my plan.
With this philosophy, I absolutely could not “just wean him.” These tears were real tears. They were tears of sadness, disappointment, loss, pain. They were tears begging for comfort and connection. They were tears needing to know Mommy still loves, and the world is safe and secure. Seeing his tears, I could not physically deny him what he asked for and needed. I had milk to give him. My body was capable. I could only stall him enough to achieve what I wanted – pregnancy.
I had two cycles before we conceived on the third cycle.
Lots of people said their child naturally self-weaned once they were pregnant with another baby. Supposedly it changes the taste of the milk, or the quantity. To be honest, I was hoping for that.
If it did, my two year old didn’t notice or care. Once again, I was in breastfeeding pain. Pregnancy makes the breasts and nipples extra sensitive, and also reduces milk supply. Sometimes I could hardly stand to nurse him longer than a few minutes. But any “no” or “that’s all for now” was met with such sadness and so many tears. And it was clear every time we nursed, that he loved it. He felt peaceful and happy and satisfied. What a gift.
We began to talk about the baby. How the baby would need lots of nursing. How the baby would need to nurse first. How there would still be enough milk for my firstborn. My Jax. How there would even be MORE milk for both of them! I was prepared to tandem nurse, but had no idea how that would go.
Tobi arrived when Jax was nearly three.
Tandem nursing totally tapped me out physically (pun intended). It’s extremely difficult to get two small human bodies positioned in a way that actually works to nurse at the same time. Especially when one is a floppy newborn. Especially when the toddler wants to wiggle around while nursing. And having two little mouths sucking on my nipples at the same time was just way too much for me to physically tolerate. I was willing to nurse them both, but not at the same time.
It’s hard for a firstborn to adjust to the arrival of a sibling. Really hard. I think parents underestimate how shocking and terrible this can be for a firstborn child. How painful the loss of attention can be for the first child. The second child never knows any different. But the first, really this is quite a tragedy – the arrival of this new person. Taking Mommy and Daddy’s time. Taking Mommy’s breasts and milk.
I was so grateful that I could still give my firstborn something reliable. Something that assured him of our connection, of my love, of my availability to him.
In the first few weeks, I was so engorged (like the first time), and mastitis threatened several times. I happily let Jax nurse much more than his usual “designated” times of day (bedtime, naptime, wake up time in the morning). I eagerly let him nurse a few times when his younger brother skipped a feeding, and I was getting engorged.
Eventually it wasn’t working for him to have flexible nursing times. He would ask to nurse all day long, just like when he was an infant. But I couldn’t nurse him like an infant, when I had a newborn nursing on demand. I went back to our three-times-a-day schedule. That worked better. He knew what to expect. He would still ask at other times, and it would make him a little sad when I reminded him of his next nursing opportunity, but it was usually without tears. He eventually stabilized with the predictability of his own nursing schedule, and the difference it was from his brother’s nursing schedule. I also made it a point to read books, do puzzles, or give him my attention, while nursing the baby.
When my second son (Tobi) was four months old, we moved. We bought our first house. We had been living with (renting from while sharing a home with) my parents, since before Jax was born. Living with me, my husband, and my parents, was all he had ever known. My parents played with him at intervals during the day and evening, we ate meals together, and he saw them frequently throughout each day.
Moving away from their home, into our own home, meant a huge loss for him. A huge loss of the playtime and connection with his grandparents. A gaping hole of attention. Not only was a new baby stealing attention, but now there were fewer available adults to fill the attention gap.
Within a few days of moving into our home, Jax turned three. I had been ramping up to wean him on his third birthday.
It was getting increasingly difficult to keep up with his three-times-a-day nursing sessions. The worst was bedtime, because that was also a fussy time of day for the baby. I would end up either
1) Nursing the baby first, while Jax fussed and complained that he wanted to nurse. The baby would take such a long time to nurse to sleep, that sometimes Jax wouldn’t get to nurse, or would be begging me for such a long time that I didn’t know what to do (since the baby was still nursing). Tandem was so uncomfortable for me, and truly almost physically impossible especially with small breasts like I have.
Or 2) Nursing Jax first, in a big rush, while Tobi screamed. Not relaxing or enjoyable for anyone.
Naptime wasn’t too far off from bedtime, in difficulty, and similarity of issues.
Because of these troubles, I wanted to wean Jax on his third birthday. He’s smart. Really smart. Also really verbal, and quite opinionated. I knew that in order to wean him, I would need a good reason, or he wouldn’t go along with the idea. The only thing I could come up with was that three years old was too big for nursing. So that’s what I began telling him in the weeks leading up to his third birthday.
I nursed him on the morning of his third birthday, and even posted a photo on Facebook that it was our “last” nursing session. I refused to nurse him that day, for naptime or bedtime. He only fussed a little, and I was hopeful.
The day after his third birthday, when he woke up that morning and asked to nurse, I tried telling him no. No, three years old is too big for nursing.
Soo many tears. So much sadness and hurt and loss. I relented, and nursed him.
I got to thinking about all the changes going on for this three year old. Totally rocking and shaking his world. A new brother. A move. A new home. A new room. Losing daily companionship with his grandparents. Really, it was a lot of sadness. A lot of loss and confusion. Very little security. A world upside down. Truthfully, not a good time to be weaning a child who was still so needy of nursing and security.
So Jax and I had a talk. We talked together about the baby. About how much the baby needs to nurse. About how hard it is for Mommy when the baby is crying at naptime and bedtime, and I’m trying to nurse two people. About how it would be better if Jax didn’t need to nurse at bedtime or naptime anymore.
He has such a tender heart, and an intelligent mind. We had a truly reasonable, respectful conversation. We agreed that Jax would nurse once a day – when he woke up in the morning. This was the most peaceful nursing session for me, and the one he also seemed the most attached to.
For the next year, he nursed once a day – when he woke up in the morning. He only got one “side” so there would always be milk for the baby. Sometimes he asked for more nursing at other times. I allowed him to do so only rarely, as it seemed to spawn more requests, and more tears at my denial. The reliability of the wake-up time nursing worked for both of us, and wasn’t hard on me. It was a sweet time to connect with him in the morning, before our day got going. Most days, he woke up before the baby, so we had time together alone. Like the old days, before his brother was born.
At some point when he was three, I asked him why he liked nursing. I was expecting all sorts of answers, but not the one I got. My chocolate-loving, candy-desiring, sweet-toothed son, said he liked breastfeeding, “Because it tastes GOOD!”
As we neared his fourth birthday, my husband ventured to me in private, that he was getting uncomfortable with how old our son was, still nursing. Up to this point, he had been okay with the breastfeeding situation. We had talked on several occasions about my reasons for continuing, and were on the same page.
I was feeling ready to wean him as well, but was anxious about how it would go, since it went so badly before.
I began talking to Jax with the same mantra I had chosen the prior year. Four years old is too big for nursing. After you turn four, you will be a big boy, and we won’t nurse anymore. You will be all done nursing after your birthday, because four years old is too big for nursing.
On the morning of his fourth birthday, I nursed him, and reminded him it would be our last nursing time. I again took a photo, but this time didn’t share it on social media. I honestly didn’t know how the next day would go.
The day after his birthday, when he woke up, he asked for nursing. I gently told him no, four years old was too big for nursing, and we were all done nursing. He cheerfully replied, “Okay, Mommy!” and went on with his morning.
He didn’t ask me again.
A couple days later, I asked him about it. “Are you okay that we are done nursing?” “Yes, Mommy, I’m fine!”
A few days later. “Are you still okay that we aren’t nursing anymore?” “I’m okay, Mommy.”
A week or so later. “Are you feeling okay that we don’t nurse anymore?” “Mommy, it’s okay.”
And that was it. He was weaned.
It’s been over two months now since he nursed. He doesn’t ask me to nurse anymore. Although he is very quick to let me know when his brother is distressed and seems to need nursing!
I was a little more heartbroken than I expected. That was it. I was done nursing my firstborn. We had nursed thousands of times, and this was the end of it. And he was fine with it.
I guess part of me wished he wasn’t fine with it. Wished it had been a battle, so I could have seen how much it mattered to him. But, it was easy. He was ready. It finally mattered little enough, that he was ready for it to be the end.
That is when I weaned my child. When he was ready.
Before I had kids, someone asked me once, how long I planned to breastfeed. I remember thinking, “I’m not even pregnant! How would I know how long I plan to breastfeed?” I hesitated, then answered, “I guess, when they are old enough to help themselves?”
Jax could help himself by five months old. At church one Sunday, while I held him on my hip, he pulled my shirt down and latched on. All by himself.
Since five months old was clearly too early to wean him, that idea of “old enough to help himself” went out the window.
Once he was past the age of being able to “help himself”, I figured one day he wouldn’t want to nurse anymore. I had no idea that day would be his fourth birthday.
I didn’t plan it. I didn’t mean it to be that way. I didn’t expect it.
If I had seen a four year old boy running around and you said I might be nursing a boy like that, I probably would have laughed in your face and felt terribly awkward about the idea.
It happened because my son needed to nurse. Wanted to nurse. Was physically and emotionally benefited by nursing. I nursed him because I’m his Mommy and I wanted to do what was best for him. And at each point I tried to wean him, or reduce his nursing, I was met with such sadness and despair that it didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
Until he was four.
Then he was ready.
I’m sad. I’m relieved.
I’m grateful for our journey.