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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.

She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to milk a year ago. But a week ago, at almost 3-years-old, she finally was. We’d just gotten back from Scotland the week prior, during which time she fed a lot. She upped my supply and everything. Understandable between jet lag, very long flights, being in a new country and having to say goodbye to me every morning when I went to work. I hated every single second of feeding her on this trip and probably the previous few months. On top of DMER she was doing a lot of dry nursing because she would feed for so long after my milk had run out. After she’d finally fall asleep I would have to get up and aggressively scratch my body to stim and get the overwhelming frustration out (hello to my neurodivergent friends who need a good stim for all the different occasions).

We were in the shower one Thursday night (because we shower together most nights. It’s easier. We have a double shower. It gets her in there easier. No arguments. Nothing. She’s mum obsessed so if I offer to shower with her it is never a no -but showering  alone, that is almost always a no). Anyways, we were showering and the previous night she had told me I had no milk. She brought it up again in the shower. So I said let’s check.

If you’ve ever breastfed a child, you will know what I did next. I have hit my child in the face multiple times checking or showing her my milk. But when we checked, there was nothing there. Typically it would be flowing freely. Instead, the most we got was a colostrum consistency droplet. So I turned to her and I said, “it looks like my body has stopped making milk, what do you think this means?” We had a discussion (as deep a discussion as you can have with a near 3-year-old) and decided that my milk had gone because she was big enough not to need it anymore. I asked her if we could stop having milk at bedtime and during the night and she surprisingly said yes. We then had a “bye bye milk” party where we danced around singing those words over and over and then she fed to sleep for the last time that night.

I felt no overwhelming sadness that this was the end. I had no attachment to breastfeeding. I wasn’t desperate to stop but I was very ready. It had been getting progressively harder over the last year and I was done. I wasn’t sad. But I also wasn’t happy. I was just… neutral. Honestly, everyone feels different for their last feed (and some don’t realize it at all until after and then mourn that fact). But for me, I just didn’t feel anything. Other than extreme irritation from an older toddler dry nursing for 45 minutes to sleep because she found it hard to go to sleep that night.

I remember early on in motherhood I desperately wished and dreamt of a baby who would come out of the bath, let me dry them off, massage them, dress them, read them books and then their little eyes would flutter closed as sleep took them. My reality instead was an infant that screamed from the moment she left the bath until the moment she was given a breastfeed. I remember thinking “I’ll never have a normal baby”. Little did I know that most babies don’t do this and it was just the idealized picture sold to us on social media. Once I got my head straight and started recovering from PNDA I let go of that dream and desire. I accepted it may never be us.

Much to my surprise, after only one night of sadness over not having my milk (Friday night), my daughter fulfilled that early motherhood dream… sort of. She wasn’t a chubby little baby that was all snuggly, being massaged and comforted. She was a long limbed almost 3-year-old who had just streaked around the house to burn off that last bit of energy that I had to convince to wear pajamas by telling her that I was going to put them on myself (thus commencing toddler competition mode - a very effective way to get toddlers to do what you want). But once she was lured into bed with the promise of books, it took only 5 stories before her little eyes fluttered closed and she fell asleep.

An entire week later, and the difference it has made to my relationship with my child is staggering. I think a lot of people expect to lose a connection when they wean and it’s very possible that, for those that breastfeeding is a beautiful experience for, it will feel like that. It might take some time to figure out that bond again. But for me, the the establishment of reading my daughter to sleep instead of trying to escape the feeling of breastfeeding by reading a book or scrolling social media has made me feel more connected to, and more positively toward, my child.

Not only have I done away with some of the sensory overload, reduced my “touched out-ness” and stopped the DMER, but it’s also given me uninterrupted time with my child where I talk to her, read her stories and snuggle into her without any part of me being overwhelmed. It’s a beautiful turn of events I never would have imagined. And I don’t know why I never imagined it. I’m a smart person. I can process and explain this to other mothers. I can spot this happening when other mothers tell me their story. But see it and believe it in myself? Absolutely not.

Now it is not all rainbows and unicorns. We didn’t just have one bad night and then she just drifted off to sleep to the sound of our voices each night. We’ve had some slightly harder nights (like when we switched to me doing solo bedtimes when my husband left for the week - excellent timing), and we still haven’t tackled a solo dad bedtime. But what I can say is that this is hugely different from when we night weaned. It is obvious looking back now that she was not ready or capable of understanding then. Because now, when she wakes in the middle of the night (which she still does, weaning doesn’t guarantee less night wakes) she no longer even asks for milk. She just asks me to rock her or cuddle her.

She has asked for milk, sometimes she asks to test the waters and find out whether the milk is still gone, sometimes when she is hurt or frightened she’ll cry out for it, but she lets it go without too much issue. One of the hardest parts of this experience has been the behaviour and the attachment to me. She was a little sadder, a little more overwhelmed, and much more sensitive for the first few days. This isn’t surprising. It’s a big change. Just as mothers mourn the change in relationship or loss of breastfeeding, so do children, arguably more so. It is quite literally all they’ve EVER known. It’s their primary way to feel good and connect with their parent. They have less ability to regulate themselves or control their impulses than adults. So challenging behaviours are super normal, but also super exhausting.

Because of weaning, dropping day naps and returning from holiday all so close together, daycare drop offs have been hard. My little girl who is usually happy to say goodbye and play had to be handed to an educator kicking and screaming every single day this week. It gave me so much doubt about everything I’m doing. From the way I drop her off at kindy, to the time I spend with her at home, to whether I should even be leaving her and whether she’d be better off with a stay at home mother (the answer to this is: if the mother is me she would not be better off. I know who I am and what I need to be the best mother I can be, and that is one that works full time but comes home excited to see her kid and puts down all the devices and focused solely on her when she’s home).

I’m not just filled with doubt about daycare drops. Now that I’ve seen how peacefully she drifts off to sleep I’m also filled doubts about whether my “laziness” of breastfeeding to sleep for so long led to a more tense relationship (on my side at least due to how I felt while breastfeeding). In the last few months, I roused on her often for being rough while feeding from me and I never rouse on her. I would apologize and explain why I did what I did and we would agree on not doing a particular behavior again. But inevitably it happened over and over. Lots of frustration, rousing, essentially bickering over what the most comfortable feeding positions are for each of us. I doubted whether I should have tried this earlier. Whether I should have pushed harder to stop breastfeeding when she was tiny. In the end, I’ll never know. I made the best decision I could for my child and myself at the time. Would I now make different decisions in hindsight? Probably not. We did the best we could. We have a super happy and healthy child who is securely attached and outgoing, who can travel halfway around the world and make friends with a room full of academics while I watch on from the corner. I don’t think I did the wrong thing. I think she wasn’t ready until now. Yet the self doubt and the parent guilt will always seep in, no matter how much evidence we have to the opposite.

If you take anything from this post, I hope that it is this: however long you fed for, was the perfect amount for you. Whether you decided to stop or your child did, it was still the right decision . If you hated feeding an older toddler or loved it, you are entitled to your feelings. If you celebrated the end of breastfeeding or mourned it, both responses and everything in between are okay. If you chose a gentle way of weaning or a quick and dirty way because your mental health was more important in that moment, it was the right decision. There is no science that I know of on the best weaning time or approach. And ever if there was, that would still only be accurate for half the population if that. So please know that your decisions, your journey and your emotions are the right ones. Never let anyone on social media tell you and make you feel any different.

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