As a first-time pregnant mama, how did you anticipate breastfeeding would go? I think a lot of us have an ambivalence about it—some fears mixed with some excitement and a healthy dose of lofty ideals. “I’m going to nurse my baby until he’s two. At least two. It’s going to be beautiful.” We all find out, soon enough, that it is beautiful—sometimes—and mostly a lot of work. Around maybe three or four months many moms have hit a groove, but by the time baby starts rolling, crawling, and walking, distracted nursing takes over and moms start to wonder, “Is my baby weaning already?”
Is she? Is she rejecting the breast (and the mom behind it) in favor of bottles, solids, and the wide world around her? Probably not, especially if the caretakers in baby’s life are using paced bottle-feeding methods and following baby’s appetite when it comes to solid foods. But even our now adjusted-to-reality goal of breastfeeding for a year seems to hang in limbo. Baby is dropping feedings left and right and her interest in nursing seems to be waning. What’s a mama to do?
The second half of breastfeeding is hard in a way that is different from those early months. Many moms feel like they are scrambling to get enough milk into their distracted nurslings to make it to a year, when babies can rely primarily on table foods to sustain them. And then—what of that perhaps naïve goal of nursing into toddlerhood? What about those moms we’ve seen who somehow did make it, whose latched-on toddlers look up into their mamas’ faces with a depth of love unimaginable? Those moms have reached a point in their breastfeeding relationships where the love that goes into nursing no longer feels so one-sided, where breastfeeding communicates from child to mother, too. How did they get there?
I’ve gotten there three times now, and I’ll tell you, it hasn’t come easily. With Walter (baby #3) especially, I wasn’t sure we’d make it here. He has been, since his earliest days, my least interested nursling. Alongside having the most challenging oral anatomy of the three, his disinterest in comfort nursing and his absolute love of solid foods had me worried that he might wean way before I was ready for him to.
But we did it. He’s months past his first birthday and he loves nursing now. He plays cute little baby nursing games, like blowing surprise raspberries, sending himself into a fit of giggles. He comes to me to nurse when he’s upset about something and especially when he’s tired.
I pushed Walter to nurse past the distractions. I often fed him lying down in bed in the dark, even when it wasn’t nap time. I let him have unrestricted access to the breast overnight to make up for all those nursing sessions he couldn’t be bothered with during the day. I didn’t offer him a cup until he was closer to one so that he at least had to nurse for thirst.
And I waited. I waited for the magic nursing window. There’s a point in time shortly after baby turns one when he has a nursing epiphany. The initial sign that it’s coming is usually when baby develops a name for breastfeeding. Moms can hear for the first time the affection with which their children identify this old familiar activity. As babies can express through words and tone the emotions they experience surrounding breastfeeding, it becomes less about eating and more about loving.
Around 14 or 15 months, babies are usually hooked. They are here to nurse for the long haul. If you can make it to this magical point, you’re well on your way to making jokes about weaning “definitely before middle school” or “well, she might take me to college with her!” During the toddler years, it is often mom who is ready to wean before baby is, spinning the early weaning fears of the first year backward. Then, new challenges arise, but one question remains: When is the right time to wean?