Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lessons in Weaning

Long before I had children, I had lots of ideas that later turned out to be false. For instance, I remember thinking that my kids would sleep through the night at a young age, that my kids would never behave badly in public, that I wouldn't want to be a stay-at-home mom, and that having kids wouldn't have any impact on our sex life. Regarding breastfeeding, I remember saying something along the lines that, "If they are old enough to ask for it, they are too old to be breastfeeding!" Now that I'm older and more experienced, I've had the joys of learning that so many of my ideas were wrong and advocating for some of the very things I was so wrong about.

My First Time Weaning

While I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought that two years would be a good length of time for breastfeeding.  After she was born, despite many of the usual early nursing problems, I fell in love with breastfeeding.  The closeness it promoted, the ease of nighttime feedings, the sheer wonder of my body producing a perfect food: I absolutely loved breastfeeding!  As my daughter neared two years old, I knew that my arbitrary plan to wean by the age of two was unnecessary.  Why should we stop doing something that we both enjoyed so much, and that was so healthy for my daughter? Breastfeeding was so much more than I thought it would be, and instead of feeling like I couldn't wait to be done, I found myself thinking of how sad it would be when we were done.

And yet.  As she neared two years old, my daughter was still nursing several times every night.  How I longed for an uninterrupted night's sleep! So when my daughter was 22 months old, I decided it was time to night-wean her.  I spent three miserable nights trying to comfort my daughter in every way I could, except the one way she really wanted: breastfeeding.  Over those three days, it became readily apparent that my daughter was not ready to be night-weaned.  She cried for long periods during the night (even though she was still in our bed and being held by me), but even more troubling were the differences that I noticed in her daytime behavior.  She became increasingly clingy and very insecure.  Anytime I tried to put her down or leave the room, she was upset. And then she became ill, and I realized that this attempt at night-weaning was not working, for any of us.

So I backed off, and let her once again nurse at night.  All was well. My daughter's behavior returned to normal, and we got back into our previous routine.  About 6 months later, I decided to try night-weaning again.  It was a breeze!  There was a small amount of resistance from my daughter, but I was amazed at what a difference 6 months could make.  There was no negative effect on her daytime behavior, and it was obvious that she was developmentally ready for night-weaning at this time.  This illustrated one of the most important lessons of parenting:  every child is different and trying to fit my daughter into a mold of what she "should" be doing was not good for any of us. By balancing my own needs with my daughter's needs, we were able to advance towards weaning at a time that worked well for everyone.

My daughter was 26 months old and still nursing fairly frequently when I became pregnant with my son.  By the middle of the pregnancy, my milk disappeared completely, and nursing my daughter got to be so uncomfortable/painful for me that I really didn't enjoy it anymore at all.  I think my daughter could tell that I felt this way, and she self-weaned herself by around the 4th or 5th month of my pregnancy.  But, at the same time, I could tell that she wasn't really "ready" to be weaned, as she started having temper tantrums for the first time ever, as well as other signs that the milk had been very beneficial for her (such as less immune resistance to illnesses).  I think she would have benefited from nursing for longer, if I had been able to do that.  After her brother was born, I let my daughter try to nurse again, and was surprised to find that she had completely forgotten how to nurse.

My Second Time Weaning

Right now I'm in the process of weaning my son, but this is a much different experience because I am letting things develop more on their own (since I am not pregnant this time and am able to do things much more gradually).  Ten years ago, I never could have guessed that I would someday be nursing a 3&1/2 year old. But life has a way of showing me that I am not always right, especially when it comes to "planning" the way I will do things that I have no experience with.

This time around, I wasn't even thinking about weaning as my son neared 2 years old. Why? Because he had sleep problems, starting from birth, which got gradually worse and worse over time.  By the time he turned 2 years old, he was waking every hour, every night.  Getting 3 hours of sleep in a row was a very rare treat for me.  Around this time I also suffered from strong adrenal fatigue, which was exacerbated by the lack of sleep.

My son could not sleep away from me, and if I tried to let him go back to sleep on his own during the night waking, he would just become more and more awake, eventually getting out of bed even if it was 2am.  The only way I could get him to go back to sleep easily (without having to carry him around for 30-45 minutes each time) was to nurse him back to sleep.  If I could respond quickly enough as soon as he started waking up, I could even get him to go back to sleep in less than 10 minutes, whereas if I was too slow, it would take closer to 30 minutes of nursing to get him back to sleep. Weaning was not on my radar as breastfeeding was the only resource I had to help us try to get more sleep.

Around the age of 3, I talked to my son about how we would no longer be nursing when we were not at our home or grandma's house.  Because of his age, he was able to understand these new rules and he was fine with them. It was no issue whatsoever. A few months later, I established that his only daytime nursing would be at naptime; this was again accomplished with hardly any resistance from him (and no behavioral changes to show that he was not ready).  And then last month we stopped the naptime nursing session, again with only minimal resistance.

Over the last eight months, my son's sleeping problems have had a dramatic improvement through his constitutional homeopathic treatment.  His sleeping pattern has changed from waking every hour to sleeping straight from 9:30PM until 4:30 or 5AM each morning. Since he is sleeping so much better now, I have been able to transition to only nursing him once a day, when he wakes up around 4:30-5am. Retaining this one daily nursing session allows my son to go back to sleep until he can wake up at a more "normal" time of 6:30-7am.  Without nursing, my son would be getting up to start the day at 4:30-5AM every morning.

Fulfilling the Child's Needs While Weaning

While weaning both of my children, I have tried hard to make sure that I still meet their needs.  Breastfeeding certainly provided my children with excellent nutrition and immunity, so I made sure that their diets were nutritious and wholesome as they stopped nursing. As my children grew older and were eating plenty of nutritious foods, I found that their main need for breastfeeding stemmed from the desires for closeness, security, and comfort. Making sure that I still spent plenty of time snuggling and cuddling with my children even when we were not nursing really helped to meet these needs.

Weaning Should Balance the Needs of Both the Mother and the Child

Through my experiences in weaning both of my children, I have learned much about parenting.  Trying to impose my own arbitrarily chosen timeframe on the process of weaning was counterproductive and did not work.  Even though my daughter was over two years old and may have been considered too old for breastfeeding when she weaned, it was still apparent that she was not ready to be weaned in terms of her health or her emotional development.   

Because the timeframe has been so much more relaxed with my son, I've been able to see just how un-stressful weaning can be.  Since we have been able to wean gradually, there has not any big effect on his behavior or his feeling of security, as he still feels like his needs are being met.  And allowing him to nurse well beyond the "normal" timeframe has allowed us to survive through his years of deteriorating sleep.

Of course, every child is different. I've heard of lots of kids who weaned or even self-weaned easily at around 1&1/2 to 2 years old.  My kids just didn't fall into that category, so I had to adjust my own expectations to match their capabilities.  Being able to meet each of my children's individual needs requires me to be willing to do some things in an unusual way, but they don't deserve any less. 

What have been your experiences with weaning?


Tara said...

I'm so glad you shared this, because it makes me feel better when I hear that others have dealt with sleep issues and we're not the only ones! My 16-month-old still wakes frequently, and I can start feeling like I'm the only mother who can't seem to properly help her child get to sleep and stay asleep. And we are also familiar with the long carrying-around-to-get-to-sleep episodes. We are all worn out after the getting-to-sleep process, which can take an hour and a half or so. I've been thinking I should ask you about constitutional remedies for toddlers because I know you are studying homeopathy, so I'm glad you mentioned it here. I've wondered what age is appropriate for starting a constitutional remedy with a child. It would be sheer bliss (for me and for my dear husband who has to go to work each day after whatever nighttime drama has occurred) if a remedy would help my son get to sleep more easily. He can be so sleepy but just can't seem to make that final step into sleep. There have been times (though not so much lately) when he easily nurses to sleep, but more commonly he just nurses and nurses and nurses and can't seem to transition into sleep - even if carried around, it takes a long time and he can be so close to dozing off and then perks right back up. I'd love to know if homeopathy could help. We have trouble with naptime also - getting to sleep (especially now that he's such an active toddler and would rather play, read books, anything but sleep), not having a set naptime because even though he fights going to sleep, etc. I can imagine our days and night going much more smoothly if the sleep issues were resolved; we'd all be more rested and could do other things. But back to the topic of breastfeeding... I recently read a few articles about night weaning, and I'd never considered that idea. I hadn't differentiated between day and night and just figured when he's ready to wean, he'll wean. So when I read those articles, I wondered if I should consider night weaning. I was afraid that if I try that, we'll experience what you described - crying for long periods, because he does cry if I don't get to him soon enough, or if my husband tries to comfort him instead of me nursing him. I've sort of had this doomed feeling that since I didn't do some things differently in the newborn period, we're just kind of stuck like this. For instance, as a newborn, I held him while he nursed to sleep, and only later did I read that it's good to lay the baby down while drowsy but not asleep so he can learn to fall asleep without being held. Well, too late... he's totally attached to falling asleep while nursing and being held! So I'm on the lookout for ways to help our sleep issues without taking away the comfort of nursing.

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Tara,
I, too used to worry about getting my kids into "bad" habits like nursing to sleep. But over time and as I had a second child, I realized that my kids were just different than the others. Other kids could actually go to sleep, without any effort from the parents. I am still shocked when I see other kids falling asleep at places away from home or even in the car. My kids just didn't do those things, and that is why I got into the habit of nursing them to sleep. It sounds like your son is similar in that regard. I could never have even attempted night-weaning my son before his sleep issues were resolved through constitutional homeopathy. I would have had to carry him around for 30-45 minutes each time he awoke, and he would only sleep for one hour at a time! Applying overarching ideas like (all kids should be able to sleep without nursing" just doesn't work for some kids.

Regarding constitutional homeopathy, yes it can absolutely help with sleep issues. I am taking constitutional cases now, and my fees are still very low since I am still learning. Constitutional treatment does take some time, usually at least a month or two with young children (and it seems to take longer as people get older; they've had that much more time to get out of balance). But I only charge a one-time fee for constitutional treatment, so all the follow ups (usually over several months) are included. If you want to know more about consulting with me, please e-mail me at nourishedandnurtured[at]gmail[dot]com

Kathryn said...

Have you ever tried an earlier bedtime? Or, does he instead take a long and late afternoon nap? Having read "Healthy Sleep Habits; Happy Child" by Dr. Weissbluth years ago, I've been a big believer in adequate sleep, early bedtimes, and healthy sleep habits ever since - including the importance of uninterrupted sleep (for both child and mother/father!). My old college roommate is now a professional sleep consultant for parents of young children - a job neither of us could have imagined in nursing school. Anyway, food for thought..........

Sarah Smith said...

Yes, I have tried an early bedtime, but he will just roll around until 9:30 no matter what time he goes to bed. When he was a baby, I read The No-Cry Sleep Solution which also recommends an early bedtime, so I did put him to bed very early when he was an infant (but as an infant, every time he went to sleep, there was 30-45 minutes of carrying around required before he could go to sleep). And even though I could get him to go to sleep early in the evening as an infant, he would only STAY asleep if I stayed in bed with him; I remember being so frustrated that I had to go to bed at 7 or 7:30 every night. His bed time gradually got later as he got older, but it would always take him at least an hour to fall asleep if he goes to bed early. Even now, he is in bed by 8:30 every night, looking at books in bed, but he still does not go to sleep until 9:30.

He does not take an overly long nap. I've found that if he sleeps any more than 1.5 hours or any later than 4:30 PM, then it is even harder getting him to go to sleep at night (and he wakes up even earlier than 4:30-5AM). He seems to defy all the norms.

Anonymous said...

I weaned my first son at age 3. By then he was nursing in very short sessions 1-3 times a day and once at night. The weaning was painless for both of us. I weaned my younger one this summer. The pattern here was similar and I actually had some help: both boys were going to spend the summer with my inlaws in Europe so my younger one would no longer be able to nurse. I actually nursed him the last time the evening before he was to leave on his trip with my husband!! I learned from my mother-in-law that he only woke up the first night or two, got some herbal/fruit tea to drink and went back to sleep. I absolutely loved my experience nursing both of my boys and I was sad to see it end. But, I nursed as long as I had planned (or longer!!) and we weaned on our terms when both parties were ready. No regrets here!