The delicate dance of emotional weaning

Weaning is about breastfeeding less, but it’s also about navigating all the emotions that come with it. Our breastfeeding educator Sarah Siebold breaks it all down and reminds us that booby blues are a real thing.

weaning toddler

I wrote a piece about supporting the seasoned breastfeeding mother in ways that make her feel respected and encouraged to continue breastfeeding. Since then, I’ve been thinking about those moms of toddlers who are ready to wean, who want their bodies back for themselves and feel exposed when their grabby two-year-olds lunge toward their breasts in line at the grocery store or on a park bench. How do these moms wean their little ones or, at the very least, explain to their toddlers that “milky time” is reserved for very un-public spaces like early morning bedroom snuggles?

I’m going through some of this myself as the mother of a now two-year-old who breastfeeds less and less but still demands it at predictable moments throughout his day. My husband and I went away for a one-night staycation, our first time away — alone — in two years. My breasts, now slim, soft, and squishy versions of their previous selves, never get engorged. I don’t pump anymore, and my son sometimes goes 12+ hours without any need for mama milk. My night away to reconnect with my husband also became an inadvertent experiment in toddler weaning. Would my son ask to nurse when I got home 24-hours-later?

Weaning is about breastfeeding less, and breastfeeding less means breastfeeding less frequently and for shorter amounts of time. Until sooner or later, the child stops putting in the milk order (the “demand” part) and mom’s body stops making it (the “supply” part). The average breast stops producing milk 40 days after the last breastfeed and begins to involute, or shrink, back to its size pre-pregnancy. Some women can hand express small amounts of milk one year after little one’s last feed.

The problem with the medical term postlactational involution, aside from being unnecessarily fancy, is that it only takes into account the physical process breasts undergo as they stop producing milk. Breasts may return to their pre-pregnancy size during this period, but there’s nothing pre-pregnancy about the breasts themselves. They have become discernible breastfeeding breasts, and memes the world over depict the stages our breasts undergo from pre-pregnancy (perky and taut) through breastfeeding (shriveled and pruny).

Similarly, weaning isn’t about returning to what once was, but about graduating to the next developmental step that feels right for mother and child. That’s why weaning isn’t just about breastfeeding less, and advise from lactation professionals to shorten nursing sessions doesn’t entirely cut it. What about all the emotional stuff wrapped up in the act of breastfeeding, both for mom and child? The delicious warmth of bodies pressed together, the protection from the outside world, the feeling of reattachment after a period of separation? How do we artfully take these things away from the toddler who isn’t ready, but for the mom who is?

To those in this precarious predicament, I advise weaning at a slightly slower pace than you prefer. This “slower pace” is ill-defined and doesn’t mean you have to let your little one lead the way entirely. But it does look something like this:

  1. Two steps forward, one step back

When we remember that breastfeeding is more than food — it’s warmth from the cold, reassurance after a nightmare or scraped knee— we can wean mindfully with our toddler’s emotions in mind.

Weaning can often feel like two steps forward and one step back for this reason: we are so desperate to stop and then remember the way our toddler rhythmically grabs our shirt or laughs, nipple in mouth, when we do something silly. So we keep going.

  1. Weaning is happening to you, too

Another reason to avoid abrupt weaning, if possible, is to remember that you, mamma, are going through this, too. For optimal breast health, more gradual weaning decreases the risk of severe engorgement or plugged ducts that could lead to mastitis. For optimal mental health, weaning more gradually means hormonal shifts are taking place at a slower, steadier pace. The Booby Blues is a very real reaction to these hormonal shifts and to the bittersweet end of one chapter and beginning of another.

  1. Acknowledge, Limit Set, Problem Solve

This is a model for so many parenting moments. It helps when explaining to a feisty

toddler that he’ll have to wait for mama milk when he wants it “NOW, NOW, NOW!”  First, acknowledge your child’s feelings: “I hear that you want milky right now and I can see how upset you are that you’re not getting it.” Then, set the limit by explaining why breastfeeding will have to wait:  “but when we’re in line at the market, it’s hard for mommy to pick you up for milky when I need to put our groceries on the conveyor belt.” Finally, offer a solution to mitigate a tantrum: “we’ll have milky together soon, but why don’t you help me now by putting all your favorite foods on the belt, one at a time.” Prepare to give lots of hugs and kisses to sweeten the deal. This is a simple case of redirecting behavior, but it helps to delay breastfeeds until an undefined “later” that feels right to you.

So, what ended up happening with my son, you ask? After I spent my first night away since he was born? Did he ask to breastfeed as soon as he saw me?

You bet he did. We reconnected with much shorter of a feed than I would have expected. It was his way of saying “mom, I’ve missed you!” and it felt so good. But later, when I didn’t want him splaying on top of me in the middle of dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, I responded to his needs, delayed breastfeeding until we got home, and kept my sanity, too.