I hadn’t planned on blogging these pictures or our experience with self-weaning, but when I suspected that that was what was happening, I realized how hard it was to find answers to my questions. I realized how little we hear about toddlers and kids self-weaning in our culture. I had read a bit about the worldwide average weaning age, about how it usually happens gradually and how sometimes you don’t even realize your child has weaned themselves until you sit down and count back four days to the last time they nursed. What I couldn’t find online were stories from different mothers about what self-weaning looked like for their family. I couldn’t find anything about the conflicting emotions that I would feel. And I couldn’t find anything about the whole host of other changes that would occur at the same time.
I was lucky enough to grow up watching my mom breastfeed my siblings until they self-weaned. I saw her nurse through pregnancies and tandem nurse. I gave birth to my son nearly three years ago and knew that I would breastfeed him. It was my normal. Just like how a lot of women have no idea how to breastfeed, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to formula feed because I never saw it. My goal was to nurse him for two years or until he self-weaned. A new mother who has never even seen another woman breastfeed in person would probably think that was an insane goal. A lot of women don’t even know that kids will self-wean or that nursing into toddlerhood is normal and a legitimate option, complete with a wide range of benefits. I can’t thank my mom enough for exposing me to such healthy and biologically normal nursing relationships and I can only hope that someday, full-term breastfeeding is seen as normal.
Shortly after Silas turned two years old, I noticed a significant decline in the amount he was nursing. He normally nursed morning, nap and bedtime with a few extra sessions thrown in during the week for good measure. In January he cut out the morning nursing. A few months later, he dropped his one and only nap and consequently dropped that nursing session. Since late spring, he had been nursing primarily around bedtime. If we were out around other nursing toddlers or babies or if he got scared or hurt, he’d nurse during the daytime. As he got older, I sometimes worried about mean comments or nasty looks from strangers if he ever did need to nurse in public but we thankfully never encountered that (it still makes me sad that that was one of the only things I worried about while breastfeeding him).
Then he went nearly a month with nursing only once a day, that bedtime session. It seemed to be something that he needed to wrap up his day, to stop and really connect with me, to make sure the world was alright. I was convinced that he’d never give up that bedtime session. He’s always been an anxious child. He cries like he’ll never see me again when someone else watches him for me. He prefers to hang around me when we go out and he refuses to talk to strangers, even if it’s the cashier at Target trying to hand him a sticker. I was very much the same way as a kid (and up until college) so I have always simply tried to support him and make him feel safe while validating his feelings. I’ve acted as his home base. Nursing was a huge part of that so I really thought he’d continue to nurse for much longer.
A month ago, my husband left for a work trip for two weeks and I suspect his absence plus the change in our routine had something to do with the timing of Silas weaning. While he was gone, Silas started to skip the bedtime nursing. On the second day in a row that he didn’t ask for it, I asked him if he wanted to nurse and he said yes. Then he skipped the next day. The next week he skipped several more days. Written down it seems very gradual, and it was, but actually living it, it seemed very sudden. He went from absolutely needing it to just not. Every time I asked him if he wanted to nurse, he would say yes, but he stopped bringing it up himself.
As I suspected the end was nearing, I started to stress about not having any recent pictures of me breastfeeding Silas. After my husband returned, I asked him to help me take some pictures of Silas nursing. It’s one of the harder self-portraits to manage because I can’t really keep getting up to check the camera to make sure focus is on and I always want more angles than I can safely achieve with my tripod. My husband more than stepped up and took all of these amazing pictures for me. I kept directing him around the room for the shots I knew I wanted, but most of the framing in these is all him. I was so relieved after I had these.
Silas nursed once more, a week after these pictures were taken. My husband and I were talking about it with him and he asked to nurse. Unlike these photographs, it was not a particularly beautiful nursing session. Silas was climbing all over me, we were watching a movie, the room was a mess, I probably needed to shower and it was hot. It was also uncomfortable. I suspect that Silas had already started to forget how to latch properly and I had little to no milk left. I think it was exactly what we both needed though. It felt like we were both checking one last time, just to make sure it was really over. And it felt good to have that confirmation.
I had doubts through all of this that Silas was really ready to wean, despite him initiating the process. He seemed to love it up until the very end. I worried about him regretting his decision to wean and trying to come back to it after my milk was gone. A really amazing thing happened within a week of him weaning though. He started socializing. He started talking to and playing with his friends. For a year and a half, he only played near them, always with one hand on my lap. He started talking to other adults. I had a friend watch him recently and there were NO tears. Nearly three years have gone by and this was the first time he did not cry one drop. He ran off to play before I even left. He is a completely different boy. And it’s amazing. I feel certain now that he knew he was done. He felt this independence brewing and knew he didn’t need to nurse to feel safe. I am so happy that I was able to breastfeed him right up to the point when he didn’t need it anymore.
During this transition, I had no idea what I was feeling. I was sad that it was ending, happy that it was ending, worried that he’d regret it and stressed about the unknown. I had never parented without breastfeeding. For nearly three years, the two went hand in hand for me. I didn’t know how I would help Silas feel safe or how we would slow down at the end of the day. It was all so confusing! Silas has seemed to take over the transition. Instead of asking to nurse, he’ll ask me to hold him. At bedtime we just cuddle now. The process has been so gentle and peaceful that those worries have been erased. The independence Silas is showing now and the anxiety that he no longer carries with himself on a daily basis has more than made up for any sadness I had about him weaning. I know self-weaning isn’t right for every family, but if you think it might be for you, I highly recommend giving it a whirl.
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