Dessa Lennox loved to breastfeed. Minutes after she was born, she latched on and suckled for an hour. Throughout her first year, Dessa nursed seven or eight times a day. “I always thought weaning Dessa would be really hard,” says her mother, Julie, “and that if I didn’t force the issue, I’d be following her to kindergarten.”
A few days before she turned 1, Dessa suddenly staged a breast-milk boycott: She bit her mother’s nipple and refused to latch on. “The area was tender for days,” says Lennox, of Missoula, MT. “I tried to nurse her over the next few days, but every time I’d offer her my breast, she’d bite down and push me away as if to say, ‘Get that thing out of my face!'” The pain that followed the bite was nothing compared to Lennox’s feelings of sadness and rejection — mixed with some pride that Dessa was growing up.
Getting a baby to give up breastfeeding can be a difficult process for both mother and child, physically and emotionally. “How do you stay connected to your baby,” asks Elizabeth Flynn Campbell, a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, “but at the same time allow him to move toward independence?”
Complicating matters is the conflicting advice on the best time to wean: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be breastfed for at least one year and drink breast milk exclusively until about 6 months of age. Some nursing advocates argue that infants, not their mothers, should initiate weaning. This usually doesn’t happen until babies are at least 10 months old, and often not until they’re over 1 year. In another camp are those who say that moms should call the shots when it comes to quitting. “Any time a woman feels unhappy, compromised, or bound by breastfeeding, she should look for alternatives,” says Lillian Beard, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at George Washington University, in Washington, DC.
What’s a mother to do? Remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to weaning — and no right way or right time to do it. Breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby, and it will end when one of you decides the time is right.
When the baby wants to stopBaby-led weaning is the gentlest way to go, says Marianne Neifert, M.D., author of Dr. Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and a Parenting contributing editor. “Ideally, a baby’s needs should come before her mother’s wants,” says Dr. Neifert, who breastfed each of her five children. “You should wean your child at her own pace rather than forcing her to do it because you’ve grown tired of breastfeeding.”
Even when a baby weans herself, her mother may feel a sense of loss. “I’d planned on nursing Dessa much longer because I knew I wasn’t going to have any more kids,” says Lennox. “When she bit my nipple, I thought she had to be teething or upset about something; I couldn’t believe it was over.” Lennox also had to endure the physical discomfort of overfilled breasts. “She cut me off so fast that my breasts became engorged,” she says. Thankfully, Dessa nursed one last time, long enough to ease her mom’s pain.
Sometimes it’s tough to tell when a baby’s ready to stop. My son, Matthew, for instance, was a nonstop nurser, and at times I felt like a human pacifier. “He’s sucking the life out of me!” I cried one night to my husband. Matthew was only 11 months old, but I’d had enough. So the next evening, when he woke up, I slipped him a bottle of expressed breast milk. He took it eagerly, sucking then sleeping the rest of the night away.
The next day, I breastfed him at our usual intervals. When night fell and I tried to nurse him, he caught sight of the bottle on the nightstand. “The jig is up,” I thought. He pointed to it, grunting with desire until I gave it to him. From that moment, Matthew lost interest in breastfeeding. Every time I’d try to nurse him, he’d twist and turn and swing his head from side to side to duck away from my breasts. The swift separation left me feeling deflated. Besides the rejection, there was the guilt: Had my baby sensed my impatience? And the shame: For the first time in nearly a year, I was sleeping through the night¿ — and loving every minute of it.
Some mothers can’t even talk about weaning without getting weepy. Others look back at the hundreds of hours logged at the breast pump and are proud, even amazed, that they stuck it out for so long.
When it’s Mom’s decisionMore than 50 percent of women in the U.S. stop breastfeeding before six weeks; for many, it’s because they run into problems nursing their babies, says Kathleen Huggins, author of the Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning. They often become frustrated, aren’t confident that they’re nursing correctly, or find it too difficult to fit breastfeeding into their lives. Whatever the reason, weaning is a private matter, and women shouldn’t feel they have to defend themselves about when or why they choose to do it.
Karen O’Shea decided to wean her daughter, Kate, before she went back to work full-time as a newspaper reporter in Staten Island, NY. But she hadn’t mapped out a strategy. Caught up in the frenzy of the Christmas shopping season while toting around a newborn, she found herself more often tipping bottles than hiking up her shirt. “Looking back, I was weaning her, but I didn’t realize it,” she says.
Kate had no problem making the change from breast to bottle at 4 months of age because she’d always had some formula in her diet. O’Shea herself had a tougher time. “A couple of weeks later, it hit me: I missed the physical closeness I’d had with Kate. I kept thinking about the last time I nursed her, the night after New Year’s Day. My husband wasn’t home, and Kate, who had been sleeping through the night, woke up. I hadn’t nursed her in a few days, so I took her into bed and breastfed her. She fell asleep, and I cried. For some reason, I knew it was the last time,” she says.
Many women feel that breastfeeding is one of the most intimate experiences they can have, so it’s not surprising that it can be hard to give up. “When you’re pregnant, you’re physically one with your baby,” says Jean Ciardiello, a psychologist in Lawrenceville, NJ. “When you’re nursing, your baby is still a part of you because you’re nurturing and sustaining her with your body.” Cutting the umbilical cord is the first big separation; weaning is the second.
Suzanne Waltman, an investment banker in New York City, breastfed her son, Max, for six months. “I loved nursing right away: seeing Max’s little face looking up at me, knowing that I was doing something good for him, and, of course, the convenience of it all.” Even so, as much as she enjoyed breastfeeding, Waltman had no problem retiring the nursing bra after her maternity leave was over. About a month before she planned to go back to work, she started to wean Max. The first week, she substituted formula for a single feeding each day. The next week, Max got formula two times a day, and so on. “I remember feeling really sad about weaning him,” she says. “Max was growing up so fast, and I realized that I couldn’t hold on to him as a baby much longer. But as soon as he was totally weaned, I felt free. I liked having my body back.”
Are we having fun yet?The wondrous terms “intimacy,” “joy,” and “fulfillment” don’t describe every nursing mother’s experiences. For Kathy Meyerson of Baldwin, NY, breastfeeding was over-rated. It wasn’t the achy nipples or the all-night feedings that soured her but the feeling of being enslaved to her oh-so-bountiful breasts. “I constantly felt as though I was dragging around a pair of drippy bowling balls,” she says. “So I gradually started to add formula to Sammy’s diet when he was about six weeks old. He didn’t seem to mind, and my breasts felt less sore than if I’d stopped nursing him abruptly. I liked the closeness of breastfeeding, but actually, I didn’t find bottle-feeding to be that different. On a certain level, it was even better. I could face him and talk to him more easily.”
Nursing your baby should never feel like a chore, experts stress. If you dread doing it, he’ll undoubtedly sense it — you’ll be less likely to rock, sing, or talk to him during his feedings.
Kim Kain of Cranford, NJ, can’t explain why feeding her baby was so problematic. After her son, Max, was born, they got off to a great start. But in the second week, she says, “Max would nurse for five minutes, then push me away in a fit of tears.” Upset, Kain talked with a few lactation consultants, to no avail. Their only advice was to try lying down to nurse Max or cradling him in the football hold, and to cut gassy foods from her diet (such as broccoli and beans) that could be upsetting his stomach. Nothing worked. Instead of sucking, Max howled through every feeding. “I felt like I was fighting with my own baby,” says Kain. Emotionally drained, she expressed her milk so her husband, Larry, could take over some of the feedings. “Max took to the bottle more easily than he did to the breast, but I still felt guilty that he was missing out on the breast contact.”
Finally, Kain’s doctor convinced her that she didn’t have to breastfeed to bond with her baby. “I was so relieved,” she says. “I just needed to hear, ‘You tried your best.'”
No matter a new mom’s experience, weaning shouldn’t feel forced. “Weaning marks the end of a special relationship between a mother and her baby,” says Huggins. “In her heart, a mother knows when it’s the right time to move on.”
Laura D’Angelo is a writer based in New York. This is her first article for Parenting.