by Kasey Stacey
I was about half way through my pregnancy with Brigid and I just couldn’t take it any longer. The constant night waking. The desire to be latched on the whole night. The non-stop need for physical contact with mom. Nursing aversion was hitting me hard, I wasn’t getting any sleep, and something had to give. I really felt like I was going insane. Vinny was around 15 months old and my husband and I decided that for the sake of our entire family, we needed to night wean. The process would impact the whole family, so Mike and I had to come up with a plan together.
I had taken Katie’s Weaning Gracefully course shortly after I had found out I was pregnant. I didn’t know I was expecting when I signed up for it, but the timing was fortuitous, since I wanted to prepare for the possibility that my milk would dry up and Vinny might wean altogether before I was really ready.
In the packet for the course, I read about different scenarios that might work for night weaning. I talked over some ideas with Mike and then… nothing happened. I was too afraid that night weaning would lead to total weaning, and I wasn’t ready for that.
At the same time, our night time routine was getting more and more frustrating and I was becoming angrier and angrier. I forget exactly when it was, but without a firm plan in place and without clearing it with Mike first, I decided that I was done. I had nursed Vinny for what felt like the thousandth time that night and I just wasn’t going to do it anymore. The aversion was too intense and I was too angry.
Vinny started rustling around to nurse again. This time, instead of obligingly plopping my breast into his mouth as I had night after night since his birth, I said no. “Nursing is all done until morning.” I signed “all done.”
Vinny was awake now, actively asking for milk. He opened and closed his tiny toddler fist, signing for me to nurse him. He called out for “num-a-num,” his adorable first word for my milk, quietly at first and then with gusto. He signed and signed. Each time, I’d lay him back down and tell him that it was time for sleeping. “Milk is all done,” I said and signed over and over again.
As I should have anticipated, Vinny was confused, sad, and maybe scared. He tantrumed like I had never seen him tantrum before. But I was still so angry. I was exhausted and not in control of my emotions. Instead of calmly helping my little boy through a difficult new stage in our relationship, I growled at him. I yelled. I told him that I was so sick of nursing him all night, that I couldn’t take it anymore, and that he needed to go back to sleep and leave me alone. There we were, two toddlers, screaming at each other in a torrent of emotional dysregulation.
I asked Mike (who, being right in bed next to us, was obviously awake) to go get a sippy cup to see if that would appease Vinny. It didn’t work. In a most pathetic and heartbreaking display of desperation, Vinny tried to nurse on the cup’s spout. He wailed. He screamed as though he had been mortally wounded. Snot poured down his face and he signed furiously for milk and cried out “NUM-A-NUM!” as if that which he loved most in the world had been fiercely and permanently ripped away from him. Nothing Mike said could calm Vinny’s inconsolable cries.
I turned my back to him, partially because I didn’t have anything else left to say to him, but mostly because I couldn’t stand to see what I had done to my son. I did this. I let my anger take over and I destroyed my boy’s sense of security and comfort because I couldn’t get a hold of my own emotions.
After two hours of Vinny’s raging tantrum, I gave in. “Fine,” I said begrudgingly and perhaps with malice. “You win this time, but we are not going to keep doing this every night!” I nursed him. His sobs grew softer and he finally fell back to sleep.
And then I felt like not only the world’s worst mother, but the world’s worst human being in general. I tried to make it up to Vinny the next day. I just wanted him to know that that crazy lady overnight was not who I really am and that I love him to the depths of my soul, so much that it often physically hurts.
And I know that one bad night does not totally destroy a child’s sense of security and comfort. I know that one parental mistake will not define the whole of my relationship with my son. But the lasting memory I have of my first attempt at night weaning is that Vinny never signed for milk again after that night. For probably days afterward, I tried desperately to get him to open and close those cute little fingers just one more time, but he never did it. More than a year later, it still breaks my heart.
Mike came home from work the next night absolutely exhausted. He was kind about it, but he rightly expressed his irritation that I hadn’t discussed my plan to begin night weaning with him. I apologized. I hadn’t planned it; it had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, but it was inconsiderate and wrong to make such a decision unilaterally when it involved all three of us.
I shelved night weaning for a while. With such an inauspicious beginning, I knew that we all needed some distance from that night before we tried again. So I kept nursing Vinny overnight for a couple months. The aversion didn’t get any better, but the memory of that one horrible attempt kept me going for a while longer.
I think Vinny was around 17 months old when we finally went through with it. I was scared. I didn’t want a repeat of the first go. But this time would be different. It would still be hard, but it would be done with a calm sense of confidence, instead of a frantic need to escape the suffocation of aversion. And, really, most of the work would be Mike’s. With the plan we put in place, the hardest thing I had to do was sit in another room and try not to intervene. (Which, don’t get me wrong, was hard. Under most circumstances, I respond to my children’s cries immediately, so sitting still while my child cries in distress is not something I do cavalierly.)
Here was our plan:
We probably started on a Friday night, when no one had to be anywhere the next day. I would explain that this would be the last nursing session until the sun came up. After I nursed Vinny to sleep that night, Mike would respond to Vinny every time he woke up, even after I had gone to bed for the night. Mike would remove Vinny from the room if necessary. Mike would offer a sippy cup of water in case Vinny was thirsty and would hold Vinny to comfort him until he fell back asleep. Meanwhile, I would sit in the living room. We’d repeat this each night until Vinny stopped asking to nurse overnight.
I remember the first night. I remember Vinny waking up and his cries escalating. He yelled for “num-a-num!” and “Mama!” and I remember Mike, armed with that sippy, trying to comfort him. I remember sitting at my computer, saying to myself, “He is with his Papa. He is fine.” It took all my effort to stay in my seat and not march into that bedroom with my all-powerful milk bags. I recalled Katie’s mantra from Weaning Gracefully: “Crying in-arms is not cry-it-out.” I’d also read a similar notion from Dr. Sears, whose writings have shaped much of my parenting when I’m not being a nursing-averse crazy lady, so I was confident that Vinny’s needs were being met (even if his wants were being denied).
I don’t remember the rest. After a few nights, Vinny was sleeping more or less through the night. He wasn’t asking to nurse. He was night weaned. The end.
Mostly. After Brigid was born, he woke up at night asking to nurse. I gave in a few times during those first two wild postpartum weeks, but after that I went back to telling him that we’d nurse again when the sun came up. He’s had a few periods of time where he’s half awoken and asked to nurse overnight in the months since Brigid’s birth. I always tell him something like this: “We’ll nurse in the morning. Mama is here with you. It’s time for sleeping. I love you. Goodnight.” Our overnights have been less dramatic and less frustrating since night weaning. Barring the nights when he has a nightmare or he isn’t feeling well, Vinny is now a good sleeper. Overall, I’ll call the night weaning experience a success. Even that first horrendous attempt has borne some good fruit: firstly, I certainly know how not to night wean a child, but more importantly, I am reminded that to be successful in my mothering goals, I need to be more intentional and less reactionary. It’s a daily challenge, but when I think of that night, I remember the type of mother I don’t want to be. Carrying that difficult memory with me is a good opportunity for continual growth.
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