Weaning an older toddler

There’s so many things I’d like to say to make you feel less alone. More seen, more heard and more understood. And although my primary and most popular medium is 1-3 minute videos, that is simply not enough time to explain and communicate some of the more complex parts of motherhood, such as weaning an older toddler. The major problem with the short videos is that, even when I’m being authentic and honest, so much can still be misinterpreted or misconstrued. Social comparison is so easy to fall into and it’s second nature for our generation. Add in your own personal experiences and suddenly my simple little video about weaning my 3-year-old makes you feel guilt for not breastfeeding as long, guilt that you haven’t weaned your 3-year-old yet or any number of other complex emotions which I have seen play out in the comments and in my DMs.

So here I choose to lay everything out for you. Every doubt. Every stumble. Every success and good decision. Perhaps I’ll do this more often, but honestly probably not. I have less time to do more things as a mother and adding yet another to my list sounds terrifying. But for now, I will write this, to share with you and help you feel like less of a failure in parenting (which seems to be our default attitude in parenthood).

I have hated breastfeeding from the beginning. The extreme hormone-induced mood fluctuations I got from feeding was what I later realized is known as DMER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex). Essentially a let down would give me anxiety, irritation, make me want to crawl out of my skin. Add in one very hard to settle, wakeful, low sleep needs, highly sensitive baby who seemed only to stop crying when feeding, plus a mum with extreme postnatal anxiety, a touch of postnatal depression and (what we later realized was) autism. I would say the fact I breastfed at all was a miracle, but it wasn’t. Because the PNDA coupled with a baby that would sooner starve and scream than take a bottle led to me feeling like I truly had no other choice.

Breastfeeding incited multiple panic attacks. In the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, while out in public, while hidden away in private. I was living in my own personal hell. It wasn’t only the breastfeeding that caused this but a confluence of many factors. In fact, I didn’t even realize I had DMER until after I had recovered from my PNDA because the anxiety and depression were so loud, it was hard to notice “minor” fluctuations when breastfeeding. My life, my body and my mind felt constantly in a state of terror so a little bit more wasn’t noticeable in the grand scheme of things. But once I started to feel more like me again, once the anxiety and depression slowly released me from their clutches, I started noticing my mood fluctuation around feeding.

At this point, my daughter was a bit over 1 and still sleeping terribly, but breastfeeding was working to give us both a decent night sleep. So I chose to keep the breastfeeding because at this point better sleep was more important for my mental health than the momentary mood shifts caused by breastfeeding. I would breastfeed 4-10 times a night, plus bedtime, wake up, before nap, after nap and honestly anytime she asked.

I so desperately wanted to be a good mother. I had spent the first year of her life being what I felt wasn’t a great mother because of my mental health. So I chose to go out of my way to be connected, responsive and caring for her. This meant breastfeeding because I thought this would help our bond. But here’s the thing, when breastfeeding makes you feel so awful you have to escape into your phone, a book, a tv show, literally anything to get your mind off the act of feeding and the DMER, it’s not really a bonding activity.

Did I spend 3 years in a constant state of conflict over the fact that I continued feeding my child to strive for the “perfect mother” myth while simultaneously telling mothers all the things I desperately needed to hear myself (things like “breastfeeding is only the best approach for a family if it doesn’t harm mental health”)? Yes. Did I ever take my own advice? Absolutely not.

Why on earth did I feed my child for as long as I did then? Well, a few reasons. First, because at some point it just felt easier than changing things. I called it being “lazy”. Because I could just jump into bed with her at night, read my book while she fed and she’d nod off. When you’ve had a child that is REALLY hard to put to sleep and you finally find something that will work, you really don’t want to give that up.

Second, COVID. Under 5 vaccines still aren’t available here in Australia. But I’m vaccinated and there is some research that suggests infants and children receive antibodies through milk. I wanted to give her that. Should I have done that at a detriment to myself? No. But here we are.

Third, she not only wanted it, it was all out war when she didn’t get it. Now I’m not one to shy away from tantrums. In fact I’m a goddam pro at them. I’ve got more patience than you can believe (unless you’ve seen my child and I in public or you are my husband in which case you can probably believe it). But generally, these tantrums happen at bedtime or the middle of the night when everyone’s patience is low. Plus 2 hour tantrums make me worry for my child’s well being. It’s not that I want to stop her emotions, not at all, I just don’t want her little body working so hard for so long without a break. So instead I chose to allow breastfeeding in the hopes that one day she’d be ready and the tantrums would stop and I’d be able to wean her. We did actually try night weaning almost a year ago. And while we had moderate success, it still always included a midnight tantrum, didn’t really reduce night wakes and as soon as she got sick for the first time, everything just reverted back to pre-night weaning stages.