About six months ago, I wrote a post for Kveller about my 3-year-old’s nursing patterns. I suggest you read it before reading this one, but here’s the recap:
Fred, who is now 3 1/2, nursed on demand for the first three years of his life, including every 2-3 hours all night. We both were happy with the arrangement, my husband slept great, and, knowing Fred is my last child, I relished breastfeeding this way.
I stopped pumping at work after he turned 3 and at that time, he nursed once or twice in the day and, as I mentioned, 4-6 times a night, God love that child.
Recently, for many personal and complicated reasons that were my husband’s and mine to explore, we decided to nightwean, but to still let Fred breastfeed in the day. I was not happy about the decision to nightwean, to be quite honest, because I would have preferred child-led weaning in all of its complexity and beauty. I believe that Fred still needs it, he still cherishes it, and in case you were wondering, yes, I still have milk in my breasts. How do I know? Well, I know how to hand-express (a wonderful easy skill to learn, by the way!), and when I asked Fred if there is still milk, he replied, “Nummy in my tummy.” Okay, that answers that.
I had so much fear about nightweaning. I feared telling Fred. I feared I would lose my mind if he cried. I feared my husband would not be able to handle Fred crying even though he is a patient and loving father. I feared Fred would never want me to cuddle him at night. I feared finding more things to fear. Did I mention that I had a lot of fears?
I was, frankly, devastated and paralyzed by all of these fears and I cried every time I considered it. So I did what women have done for all of history when we needed help: I rallied the troops to support me. My husband is a nice man, but he didn’t really understand what I was going through. So I called on no less than two La Leche League leaders (who each had different perspectives but were equally supportive and helpful), and no less than four close girlfriends who had nursed children as old as Fred and even older. I looked to some attachment-parenting-friendly websites for articles on weaning and I also took the sage advice of a close friend who told me it’s okay to not rush anything. I emailed our pediatrician to give him a heads-up, and I also spoke to 2 therapists I know who know a lot about child development (they spoke to me for free, otherwise this would have been the most expensive night weaning in history).
Here was the plan we decided to proceed with based on all of the women I spoke to.
1) Tell Fred what’s going on. I thought that I could just sort of sneak it by him. Nu-uh. I was told to speak simply and lovingly to Fred about the decision to not have nummies at night. We chose to embrace the vocabulary that “Nummies at night made Fred big and strong, but now he gets big and strong from food and nummies in the day.” I don’t like the whole “You’re a big boy now” line of discussion because in many ways, Fred still is a baby, and I believe he will be done “being a baby” exactly when he’s ready to be done.
2) Get Fred a weaning doll. A special “Wow Fred! You get a special weaning doll to hold when you want nummies!” He chose a furry small kitten with fur he could twirl, the way he used to twirl his hair to fall asleep before we cut it at his upsherin. (I weep as I write this–who was that tender long-haired child and where did he go that he is standing tall and proud and selecting a doll to cradle as I used to cradle him?)
3) Throw Fred a party. Weaning parties vary, but I was told to for sure throw one and make it a very big deal for Fred. We took him to the party store and allowed him to choose a theme. He didn’t miss a beat: “Batman.” I bought all of the paper plates, napkins, cups, and streamers I could despite that going against every holistic environmental fiber in my body. I also got a Batman candle and a blue ribbon with a Batman insignia on it that you pin on a shirt, as if he was winning something at the State Fair.
4) Buy Fred a present. It was suggested to get him a toy before and one “after,” but this also made me super anxious because did this mean I had innumerable months of crying to look forward to and then after that I was to proudly proclaim, “Here’s a toy Fred!” The whole “after” concept was making me feel nauseous, but I decided to put that aside for the moment. We selected a large Batman figurine for before (he had nothing like that at all so it was super exciting) and Robin for after.
5) Make Fred a book. Kids love books with pictures of themselves, and weaning books tell the story of how life has changed since they were newborns. I left making the book for this for last because I knew once I made it, I would have to give it to him right away, for fear I would burn it in rage and sadness if it was in my hands for too long.
6) Be flexible. Here’s what I heard from a lot of well-meaning people: “If he cries, don’t give in no matter what. You can’t go back on your decision even if he’s vomiting all over himself and loses his voice from screaming.” (Really? That sounds like the perfect time to go back on my decision!) And my personal favorite: “Hand him to your husband and let them figure it out. Better yet, lock yourself in another room with earplugs. Or even better yet? Go check yourself into a hotel.” This all sounded really not at all how either of us wanted it to be. Why do dads get saddled with a super anxiety-provoking situation that they do not have any better ways of handling than moms do? And believe me, there have been MANY times I wanted to stick it to my husband for all of the nights I was pacing the floors, icing my sore nipples, and breastfeeding a child through 20 teeth coming in, but this was not the way I wanted my husband and Fred to experience nightweaning.
I came to understand that weaning does not have to be like a military excursion. If it was miserable or unbearable (whatever that means for our family), we could always stop and try again. It’s not like a test I would be failing. No one would take away my Mom card if I “gave in.” There IS always going back. It’s not confusing to a child, it’s REAL. Why does everyone become like a guerrilla soldier when discussing weaning!? It made no sense. And one of my La Leche leaders told me, “If he gets sick on night two and you know he needs to nurse, nurse him. You can start this up again. It’s not all or nothing even though everyone tells you it is.” So true. So true.
I took a deep breath.
I wept as I crafted Fred’s weaning book on the dining room table. I told him that this was a very special book about no more nummies at night. He watched in excitement as I worked with rubber cement and various pictures of him nursing as a newborn, as a 9 month old, as a toddler, and even us in bed that very morning. The tears fell, and we instructed our older son that this was going to be very hard for Fred and to try and make it as exciting as possible. He did great helping Fred playfully hide in the next room as I put the finishing touches on the book “so it will be a surprise, Fred!” he said. When I was done, we all sat down to read the book together and I cried some more as I got to the page where I wrote: “Dada can hold Fred. And Miles can hold Fred. And Mama will always be here to hold Fred and love him.”
I don’t know that Fred totally understood what was going to transpire. We read the “Batman Weaning Book” as he called it for 3 days and nights before we actually stopped nursing at night. That gave us time to repeat the simple phrases I used in the book over and over and make them part of Fred’s mental vocabulary. It also gave us time to pick his weaning kitty and put a picture of it in the space I had left under the caption:
“Fred has a special weaning doll to hold when he wants nummies at night.”
And it gave me time to know that Fred may never want me to hold him at night again. And Fred may start to prefer my husband over me. And Fred is that much closer to not nursing in the day. And he is that much closer to not needing me. And I am that much closer to not being his everything. And it gave me time to know that it was going to be ok. Fred was going to be ok. And most importantly, I was going to be ok.
The first time Fred awoke to nurse that first night of nightweaning was – like clockwork – 2 hours after he went to sleep. That was our first nursing every night for 3 years, so why should it be different tonight? I took a deep breath and I murmured the simple phrase that would be my mantra for weeks: “No nummies at night. No nummies at night.” That first waking, he cried for about 7 minutes in my arms off-and-on; never forcefully and never angrily; sleepily, and in a form of mild protest and discomfort, not unlike the fitful sleep of a child with a fever. He kicked the covers off and readjusted his position in my arms dozens of times. And then, to my amazement, he slept in my arms. 2 hours later, he awoke again for our next encounter. Same drill. And he slept. And again at 3 am. And again at 5 am. And then we woke up and started the day.
And so it went. The first week was miraculously smooth. There were a few times I let my husband rock him, but Fred, sweet Fred, blessing upon blessings Fred; he let me hold him through it. Fred repaired me and redeemed me from my fear. Just as Fred was born in under 3 hours, needing no one but me to birth him (after my first labor 3 years before took start to finish 4 miserable traumatic days), Fred made it ok. He made me ok.
Months later, Fred stopped waking so many times. Now he wakes only once or twice to be rocked back to sleep after he uses the potty. He lets me hold him close. He twirls my hair to fall asleep. He cuddles with me in bed in the morning without even asking for nummies (ok, sometimes he asks but we wait until we get out of bed).
We did it.
I am happy to report that Fred still nurses once or twice a day, but he skips a day here and there. And when he got a cold last week, he nursed 3 times in one day and that was fine too. And when he falls hard, I nurse him. And when he couldn’t get his shoes on all by himself this morning and he cried so hard that his cheeks and forehead flushed, I knew that I still had the magic. I cradled my giant baby in my arms, his hot tears mixing with my clothing, and he said to me after finishing one side and switching to the other, “Me anymore no cry.”
“That’s right, Fred. You are not crying anymore.”