Mindful Mothering: The Breastfeeding + Weaning Experience

For me, breastfeeding was one (of the many) paradoxical aspects of motherhood that is virtually impossible to put into words. It somehow felt like a long, drawn out stage while it was happening, yet now that it’s over, I’m looking back and feeling like it flashed before my eyes in a matter of seconds.

Kind of like those first few days at home alone with my newborn baby; she had only been on this earth for a matter of days, and every moment of every day felt so new yet so natural and instinctual at the same time.

Those days felt long. I’d factor in little rituals, like 2:00 afternoon coffee and TV time, to help break up the day. I definitely wasn’t wishing those moments away, I loved them, but they were extremely challenging. Although striving to stay in the moment as much as possible, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some days when I was counting down the hours until Ray got home.  

At the time, I could feel the momentous nature of this huge milestone in my life, it was all so intense and real. Although it feels like the newborn stage was just yesterday, somehow it feels as if I’ve lived a lifetime since then. When I see old photos of myself, during pregnancy or in those early months after the birth — I feel like I see a different person.

That’s one thing that I love so much about being a mom — the way it’s so indescribably special. There’s so much wonder in the uniqueness of raising a tiny person, and I’m so blessed to be able to experience it firsthand.

This past week marks a bittersweet milestone in mine and my daughter’s life: the end of the breastfeeding stage. Below I’ve summarized some of the highlights of this stage that took up the last 17 and a half months; how it started, the maintenance of keeping it going for as long as we did, and the weaning process.

Everyone’s journey is different, I don’t intend to give any advice and I truly hope that nothing about this blog post triggers you.

Beginning stages of breastfeeding and the first latch

When I was pregnant, I had a birth plan. I was going to have a fully natural, unmedicated birth. Once the baby arrived, he/she (we didn’t know the gender at the time) was to be placed on my chest immediately to establish a good bond and initiate breastfeeding.

To be honest, I was really nervous about breastfeeding. I had read about many of the benefits of breastfeeding, the challenges that come along with it, and why many women quit sooner than necessary. It didn’t sound easy and I feared failure.

The birth didn’t go at all as planned and my daughter was born via C-section. The moments after she was born, I laid flat and numb on a surgical table while my abdomen was stitched back together on the other side of a curtain. After being held by a doctor, nurse, and respiratory therapist, my daughter was finally held by her father. He held her near my head and I put my hand on her face. It was the only physical contact I could give her and it just didn’t feel like enough.

I was incredibly anxious in those immediate moments. Finally, she was handed to me and I got to hold her for what felt like about 15-20 minutes. A nurse tried to help me breastfeed, without success, while my daughter screamed, and then she was taken away again.

She wasn’t actually handed back to me until about 3 hours after she was born. This is when I finally breastfed her for the first time.

Overcome with emotions and relief, I was finally able to hold her in my arms and everything felt right in the world. Finally, you’re here.

I wouldn’t say that breastfeeding was easy for us (I don’t think it’s easy for anyone), but I was always able to maintain a supply, and the milk naturally came in quickly after birth. My daughter never spit up much or had a lot of acid reflux, another blessing.

Being a working mom and returning to work only 2 months after giving birth is what presented the most challenges for me. My goal was to breastfeed for at least a year but I had a lot of fear that it wouldn’t be possible, given the demands of my job.

Maintaining a supply as a working mom

The first two months of breastfeeding were pretty straightforward, but it was when I started working that it became a roller coaster of emotions. My job was hectic and I had little time to pump during my shifts. I’d run to and from the pumping room that was three floors away, in a haste. My supply definitely fluctuated a lot, but somehow we always pulled it off despite almost running out of pumped milk multiple times.

I started my job with a good supply of milk in our freezer but after about 6 months, that supply was nearly gone since I always pumped less milk than what my daughter would consume in a given day. There were a number of evenings when I got home from work and we didn’t have enough milk in the fridge to cover the following day. I remember crying over this issue many times over. The uncertainty of whether we would have enough milk or whether I’d have to go buy some type of formula was emotionally exhausting.

One day, I called out of work to spend the next day pumping between feedings in an effort to rebuild the supply. Most days, I would pump before work, as soon as I got home, then I’d stay up late and pump again at night so I had milk to add to the supply. I’ll never forget those early morning 5AM pumping sessions on the couch, chugging coffee in a desperate attempt to keep my eyes open. 

Maintaining a supply through so much stress was not easy at all. I worked really hard at this. After my birth plan didn’t work out, I was determined to hang on to anything that I could keep in my control. Breastfeeding felt like a way to make up for the loss of a natural birth, it just felt like something I had to do; for my daughter but also for myself.

Had I not pulled this off, I probably would have been extremely disappointed. I could have fallen into negative self-talk and told myself that I wasn’t enough or capable. I was setting myself up for disappointment by setting extremely high expectations and putting immense pressure on myself to deliver. As a mom, I’ve really struggled with finding acceptance and wanting to be in control all of the time. Although it happened to work out in my favor, I’d try to relax a little more in the future.

Breastfeeding past 12 months + the weaning process

I quit my job around the same time that my daughter turned 1. Once I got to that milestone, I started to consider when I’d want to stop.

I didn’t feel ready to stop quite yet and the fact that I didn’t have to pump anymore made it even better (there was a time during my nursing career when I briefly considered weaning her earlier than my one-year milestone because I was so sick of pumping at work). 

At one year old, my daughter would nurse a few times a day in-between meals, before naps and bedtime to fall asleep, and a couple of times overnight as well. I wouldn’t say that I nursed her round-the-clock but she was still dependent enough that going into the weaning process was daunting.

At some point, night nursing went from: my daughter waking up briefly, 2-3 times in a given night, me feeding her, and us all going back to sleep; to: my daughter waking up 2-3 times per HOUR and only sleeping when she’s latched. I wasn’t able to sleep while she was latched so when that started, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and slowly start the process of weaning. 

In the beginning, we tried to cut her off cold turkey and it didn’t work at all. She’d wake up to nurse and we would try to just comfort her by holding her and rocking her. I’d go lay on the couch for a while and she would scream and scream while Ray tried to comfort her. Eventually I’d cave in and just go feed her so we could all get some sleep. At that point, I decided we needed to try a different approach.

She was about 15 months old when I bought some plant-based toddler formula (it just felt like the best thing to start with in my opinion; I wasn’t really ready to try cow’s milk yet) and decided to start supplementing some feedings during the day.

Also, during this time, my daughter started to go back to her babysitter two days a week for a few hours while I worked. While she was gone, I decided I was no longer going to pump. I’d send her with a bottle of the toddler formula and some food to eat and let this help her get used to less and less of the boob.

Slowly but surely, she stopped breastfeeding during the day. I started by only breastfeeding her when she’d ask for it and offer the bottles first. Sometimes she’d take a bottle, other times she wouldn’t. There was one time when she caught a cold and I digressed and fed her normally for a few days because I wanted her to get the extra nutrients.

Through some kicking and screaming, I was able to get her used to falling asleep for naps and bedtime without being nursed to sleep. This was a huge breakthrough for us and eventually led to her only nursing once during the day, around 4PM, and then over night when she’d wake up.

We maintained this pattern for a couple of weeks. I felt like it was nice to drag it out a bit. That way, everyone got a bit of a break from the stress of weaning before we delved into it even more to tackle night weaning. 

One day she didn’t ask to nurse in the afternoon so I didn’t offer it, and that was it, no more breastfeeding during the day and all that was left was night weaning.

I approached night weaning with a similar approach: I noticed about how many times she would nurse overnight and intended to slowly drop one feeding at a time until she was down to none. In the beginning she was waking up about 4 times.

I started to slowly cut down on how many times I’d nurse her until we were down to nothing. She just got used to being held to be comforted rather than being nursed.

Heading into a post-breastfeeding era

Overall, it took approximately 3 months to fully wean my daughter. For us, it was the perfect amount of time. It was long enough that it didn’t feel abrupt or traumatic and we both had plenty of time to process it.

My biggest fear going into the weaning process was that my daughter and I wouldn’t feel close anymore or that she’d be mad at me for cutting her off from this source of comfort. Luckily, she still crawls into my arms, hugs me and loves to be held by me — we’re just as close as we’ve always been.

On the second night without breastfeeding, I thought to myself, Wow, I’m really never going to breastfeed this child again, and it made me emotional.  

It was surprising that our relationship didn’t feel much different, even though such a huge aspect of it had changed. I also wasn’t nearly as sad as I had expected myself to be, which tells me that the timing was just right.

If I’ve learned anything it’s to take more photos. I’m looking back and feeling like I have hardly any breastfeeding photos, when I thought I had taken a bunch. I know I can’t hang on to every memory, but I still wish I would have documented this journey just a little better. 

Another thing I’ve learned from this journey: patience and determination. There were many times when I doubted my ability to continue breastfeeding for a year, but I somehow made it past all of the obstacles and succeeded at my goal. I feared the weaning process and how it would effect our relationship but I recognized when the time was right, and we made it happen.

Sometimes these types of milestones sit before me and I stand back with fear, but now in hindsight, I realize that the power to overcome has been within me all along. I’ve also been learning to find acceptance when things feel out of my control as a mom, although I’m definitely still working on it.

Thanks for reading.

Xx

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