Extended Breastfeeding: To Wean Or Not To Wean

April 18th, 2011

Around my son’s first birthday I had an experience when I knew that I had crossed a threshold and I was going to continue nursing my son until he decided he wanted to self wean. I was sitting in church and looking around at the other babies in his age group – some older, some younger – and I realized that there was only one other baby in that group who was still nursing. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the moment or the realization, but for some reason that was the moment that I knew I would be one of the select few who participated in what is commonly referred to as extended nursing.

For months before that moment I had been doing research and gathering information about weaning and when to wean and I had known pretty quickly that I didn’t want to wean my son by a year or anywhere near then, but it was at that moment in church when I really realized that I really believed in extended breastfeeding and I wanted to nurse my son until the day when he and I both felt ready to stop.

When I realized that I wanted to nurse my child into toddlerhood, I was prepared for the social and societal reproductions. I expected that I would face the constant question of “when are you going to wean?” I expected stares when I nursed I public, I expected disapproval from some who didn’t understand the physical and emotional benefits of it for both me and my child. I expected quickly reaching a point where I was nursing the oldest child in my circle of friends. What I hadn’t expected or prepared myself for was what actually happened.

Fast forward a few months to January of this year when I found out I was pregnant with our second child. I was honestly ecstatic. I felt ready to have another child and excited to grow our family. I knew right away that I wanted to keep nursing Thaddeus and tandem nurse my children together. I expected that this too would come with it’s own social stigmas and difficulties. I didn’t expect what actually happened.

Fast forward a few more months… Now my son is almost 19 months old and I am almost five months pregnant with our second child. This pregnancy, and life in general, have been hard over the past few months and it’s taken a toll on my body. I’ve struggled to put on weight and wrestled with severe allergies/sensitivities, regular headaches, hives, and frequent nausea. My chiropractor and acupuncturist have both recommended that I wean Thaddeus for the sake of my health and the health of this new baby. My midwife has stayed more neutral, and although she hasn’t seemed to think that weaning was essential right now, she has also said that weaning might be good for me if things get worse. These aren’t mainline medical professionals, these aren’t formula advocates, these are people who believe in breastfeeding and who encourage extended breastfeeding. These are people I wouldn’t have expected to encourage me to wean.

As I face these recommendations I am once again realizing that sometimes unexpected circumstances get in the way of our expectations for how we want to raise our children and the kind of parents we want to be. I am now faced with the question, “to wean or not to wean?” Do I stick to my guns, hold on to my beliefs about extended nursing and press on hoping that the cost to my health and the health of this unborn baby is minimal or none existent in the end? Or do I let go of my ideal and my guilt and wean, as people I trust have suggested? Is it possible that there is some sort of middle ground between the options?

I don’t want to be pig headed and ignore wise advice. I want to get healthy and do whatever I need to in order to insure a healthy and safe pregnancy for myself and this new baby. But, on the other hand my son has recently gone through a lot of change. In the past month and a half we have essentially been living somewhere different almost every week and he is in the middle of one of the most unstable, insecure seasons of his young life. It’s clearly taking a toll on him already. How do I wean him in the middle of all that? How do I wean him gently and respect his needs?

Honestly, the idea of weaning a 19 month old scares me to death and completely overwhelms me. And my son is not an easy going 19 month old – he’s a rather stubborn, undistractable, determined 19 month old with a mind of his own. A 19 month old that currently nurses more times than I can count in a day, and regularly more than 5 times a night for long periods. I don’t even know where I would start when it comes to weaning.

I’m sure there are others who have nursed into toddlerhood and then ended up weaning for medical reasons, or because of another pregnancy? How did you do it? Right now I just feel stuck and wish someone would help me see the best path through this season, the best way to balance my needs and the needs of my unborn child with my toddlers needs. If you have any advice I’d love to hear it. Thanks!

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

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21 Responses

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  5. Lindsey says:

    Oh Beth! How I wish I were better at corresponding through e-mail! It is one of my goals this year and you are one I hope to keep up with better! I have been confronted with the same decision a few times. The first time was when I was ill and was just loosing more and more weight. That time I was blessed to be surrounded by my two dear friends who took over nursing Ziva for a few weeks while I recovered. The second time was in the beginning of my pregnancy with Rivka. I was sick, and struggled with weight. I decided to nurse Ziva every other day until I started feeling well again. Maybe this is an option for you and Thad? I know some moms who only nurse once a week through out pregnancy when their milk is gone, but are able to return to a normal nursing relationship after the baby is born. Hang in there, my friend Love you.

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  7. Callista says:

    You know that was one thing I was thinking of. Is it harder to wean an older child? I realize many who do extended bf practice self-led weaning but for those who help lead the weaning, is it harder? Hmm.
    Callista recently posted..Pressure to Stop Breastfeeding

  8. I’m currently nursing a 4-year-old, 3-year-old, 19-month-old, and I am 31 weeks pregnant with my fourth child.

    I would say at this stage for you it would be easier to continue nursing than it would be to wean a stubborn 19-month-old (are any 19-month-olds not stubborn??).

    At the same time, setting limits has been essential for my journey in tandem feeding. I would suggest based on my experience either setting limits NOW or waiting until the newborn-milk-infatuation phase is over.

    Good nutrition is also key (I take a lot of vitamin supplements and this pregnancy I have added Happy PMS natural progesterone cream), as well as plenty of sleep/rest.

    Whatever you decide to do, I am sure it will be with a lot of thought and love. Hope my experiences help you a little.

    You can see my carnival post here.

  9. Sandra R says:

    Beth, heres my thoughts, and you can disregard them if you wish since I didn’t nurse due to medical reasons… you have chosen to bring another life into the world so that has to be number one… to be healthy enough to bring the little ones life into fruition. Next you must be strong enough to care for That, and if you aren’t feeling good, how well can you do that, or care for BOTH of them? I am chronically ill, this is something I grapple with daily, trying to care for Nikki while feeling horrible and its not easy and I feel so guilty as a parent and I don’t want that for you. I haven’t spent any time around Thad to know his personality but those traits aren’t bad, and you have them… you are headstrong and and determined… and those can be wonderful things to get you through life… you have had an incredible adventure in Prague afterall….so perhaps he might be nursing more just by habit (because its there) and he just needs to learn something else. There is no reason you can’t have the same intimate time together cuddling and bonding, especially since you cosleep… but his whole personality might change if he doesn’t have the “habit” anymore…its just a thought… I have had close friends go through this, and they have just had to substitute the nursing time with something else and it went pretty well… your health comes first though… you wont be able to do anything if you are just laying there weak and unable to do much but nurse, plus your milk supply will suffer, the milk consistancy (protein, fat etc will suffer etc)… its just not going to be good for anyone… I am praying for you

  10. […] breastfeeding TopHot @ the bee in your bonnet: From the Mouths of Babes Beth @ Bethstedman.com: Extended Breastfeeding: To Wean Or Not To Wean Callista @ Callista’s Ramblings:  Pressure To Stop Breastfeeding Amanda @ Postilius: Nursing My […]

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  13. Joceline says:

    It is really interesting to read about how other moms have handled this decision. I thought I would nurse my kids well into toddler-hood, but I ended up weaning Declan about 6 weeks before Eleanor was born (he was 14 months). I didn’t do it because of health reasons, but mental health reasons. I was stressed and exhausted, and totally overwhelmed by the idea of nursing two babies 15 months apart. It ended up being pretty easy to wean Declan (though I thought it wasn’t going to be), by just dropping one feeding at a time (I didn’t schedule him, but he was pretty consistent with the times when he would want to nurse). I distracted him with fun activities when he would normally want to nurse, and it went pretty smoothly. Chris helped by soothing him during the night, if necessary.

    Eleanor mostly weaned by herself around 15 months, when I was 6 months pregnant with Miles. I think my milk supply dropped really low, and she started walking right around then, so she lost interest (my interpretation). I felt guilty, since I had hoped to nurse her longer, but she really didn’t care at all.

    Miles is now 9 months old, and I’m not pregnant again (nor have any plans to be anytime soon), and I’m hoping I can nurse him longer than the other two. Sometimes I wish I had nursed the other two longer, but I think that I made the best decision for us at the time. Eleanor also drinks a lot of raw cow’s milk (Dec drinks just a little), and they both take lots of cod liver oil, and are extremely healthy and growing well. I hope you can make a decision that works well for you and Thad and the new baby!

  14. Laura says:

    Hey there,

    I’m currently nursing a 26 month old (can I still refer to her as x-months, or am I now into the years territory?) and some days, I wish desperately for her to wean. Others, I thank my stars that I have such an easy way to calm this small but mighty mind when all she really needs is sleep.

    I firmly believe that we do not even have a basic understanding of how breastfeeding and our bodies work. The way our child’s needs are decifered by something deep within us and we respond by meeting precisely that is mysterious and beautiful.

    I think that during an awful pregnancy, it is necessary to trust that your body knows best. If you aren’t capable of sustaining the breastfeeding and the preganancy, your milk supply will reflect it. All the wise people giving you advice may not be reflecting on the emotional solace . . . and the simple peace and quiet . . . that breastfeeding gives you.

    Trust your body. Eat your ginger. Hug your toddler.

    xo

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  17. Melissa says:

    I like Laura’s post. =) Are they worried that you are not gaining enough weight? and you shouldn’t be expending your calories on breastfeeding? Is the baby growing well? Are you measuring small? a lot of questions I know ;) its what I do. If you want to talk to a breastfeeding consultant I know a great one that has experience with tanden nursing and such and really helped me and really keeps up to date on research. I’m not sure when you’ll be back but if you want her number let me know. Much love

  18. I hear what you are saying about wanting to nurture yourself, your breastfeeding child, and you growing baby. I think Laura’s comment is spot on. You need to do what feels best for you in your heart. And keep looking for support: qualified people in real life without an agenda (or at least those who can look past it in favor of giving you support), online mamas who have been there and can share their experiences in a way that empowers you, and researching your options. It definitely does not have to be black and white, there are shades of gray that you can explore.

    I’ve breastfed through three pregnancies, two of those during chronic illness. I can tell you that each pregnancy is different and within each pregnancy, there are also changes. I placed limits at times. I let my child lead me at times. It was a very fluid dance. It has been challenging to maintain a connection to what my body needed while ill. Illness can throw off your ability to find what I need, as well as shake my confidence in my body. It does take a lot of investment and only you can decide what will give you and your children the best benefit. I’m happy to listen and help support you in any way you need.
    Zoie @ TouchstoneZ recently posted..My Sons Know Nurture

  19. Nikki says:

    Any revelations or revolutions in the last couple of weeks since your post?

    My little guy turns one this week, and although I’m nowhere near where you are balancing pregnancy and the stubbornness of a 19-month old (whoa mama— you are a tough one!), I feel for your ambivalence. My son sometimes wakes several times a night to nurse and though I’ve tried to limit the daytime feedings (mostly because I’m so tired of pumping at work!), he’s all about mama’s milk as his main source of nutrition and comfort. I LOVE the peace and the closeness to my son that nursing brings me but I’m ready to abandon the pump and maybe even get a few hours of sleep consecutively without waking.

    Anyway, hope all worked (works?) itself out. Good luck!
    Nikki recently posted..What is your exercise mindset

  20. Jennifer Smith says:

    I have always believed with the goodness that breastfeeding brings not only to the infant itself but also with the mother.. Young as we are, taking care of our body should be one of our priorities because when we get old, things will be different
    Jennifer Smith recently posted..Old Age = Drastic Change

  21. Joann says:

    I wish I had good advice for you! I’m currently nursing my 20 month old son. We’re fortunate to get to this point. He had so many food intolerances that I had to cut out wheat, dairy, citrus, nuts, and tomatoes. In the space of 6-7 months I had lost all of the baby weight and then so much that everyone was asking questions about it. My naturopath was genuinely concerned and even suggested that I was anorexic. That hurt the most since I have always been slight frame/weight and kids used to say that to be mean when I was a child.

    Giving my son milk was very important and I had to go with my gut and choose what was right for us. Thankfully, I was able to alter my eating habits (to constant eating) and he has outgrown enough of the intolerances that I only have to abstain from wheat and almonds now. I’m back to my pre-pregnancy weight and now only have to battle people thinking my son is “too old” for his beloved “muhk”.

    It sounds like you are asking all the right questions and know how important it is for you to be healthy to take care of your son and grow your new baby.

    I hope that your right answer presents itself soon and that you and your son enjoy as many nursing sessions as you have left (whether it’s one or countless more).
    Joann recently posted..my hope for my son and my students of color

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