We hear so much about the early days of breastfeeding. The challenges that come along with feeding especially around milk supply. What we rarely hear about is the reality of feeding past the first year, feeding toddlers, feeding beyond 2 years and the emotional rollercoaster of weaning.
I am writing this journal post at the end of the weekend away I took to ‘cold turkey wean’ my 2 and 2 month year old so it will be both anecdotal with some holistic guidance too. It includes the following topics which you can click on to take you directly to the relevant section.
There are a vast range of weaning experiences and the duration of your feeding journey can play a significant part in your weaning experience. I really had my heart set on feeding my daughter until she turned two and then hoped to end our journey then. What I really didn’t know was how and where to start….
To give you some context, my daughter had always fed on demand. I fed her to sleep for every nap since she was born and I put her down to bed each night by feeding. She would feed a few times throughout the night (we co-slept) and countless times throughout the day. 2 or 3 longer feeds but mainly top up suckles and comfort suckles. I honestly couldn’t count how many times she would feed in a 24 hour period. She never slept through the night, although we wouldn’t properly wake up to feed, she would just cuddle up and latch on. She wouldn’t really be interested in food until after 9am most mornings despite being up from 5am and wouldn’t really eat much lunch or dinner.
This really didn’t bother me until after she turned 18 months. Then I really felt like it was time to start moving towards less milk, more food and better quality sleep for both of us. I started trying to reduce night feeds to one feed and saying no to other requests in the night. I would also say no to the relentless day suckle snacks and offer water and delicious nibbles instead.
Some weeks I felt like we were going well and then others we would default back. When she would get sick from daycare I would prioritise skin to skin and feeding as much as she needed. This then put us back to square one. I was in a perpetual cycle of thinking it was fine, she’s only little once and then my period would start and I would get so touched out and irritable. I would really begin to resent feeding and get really frustrated by the old nipple tweak. Then my period would end I’d be back to feeling okay about it.
I should also add here that my husband and I were wanting to start trying for a baby at the end of the year which would give me about 6 months of having ‘my body back’ and also to replenish my stores before I went on the preconception and pregnancy journey again.
Leading up to her second birthday I was umming and ahhing over how to approach this seemingly impossible transition. I started to question my decision to wean again, I felt emotional thinking about it. Perhaps there is already heightened emotion around milestones, the feeling that ‘my baby’ was growing up and stopping breastfeeding her really highlighted that reality.
Of course, days before her birthday, my daughter ended up having a freak interaction with a live bat which she picked up on the beach ‘oh it’s so cute!’ (Thanks Bluey…) Anyway that’s a story for another day… but it did mean she ended up in hospital, having series of injections and was really unwell. We were back to endless feeding which my god I was grateful to be able to offer.
Once we recover from the bat incident I started going back to gently declining feeds in the night. The tantrums were explosive. Lasting at least 20 minutes and happening hourly. By the second tantrum I would be so tired I would give in and give her milk and she would instantly fall back to sleep. It wasn’t just the feeding tantrums thought, they really don’t lie about terrible twos. It was like a switch was flicked and there were explosive emotional outbreaks over absolutely everything. I started to get irritable over the fact that I was supposed to have stopped feeding by now but there seemed to be no end in sight.
Fast forward to now
I was tired and exhausted. I was getting rundown and sick every second week. I had my bloods done and despite eating really well, lots of organic organ meats, bone broths, balanced meals, organic veggies, a dozen oysters weekly, fermented goodness daily.. you name it… spending time in the sun, exercising regularly and consuming high quality supplements, my iron, vitamin D and zinc levels were low. It didn’t matter what I was doing, I was giving too much. I was feeding too much and not sleeping enough whilst also working and entertaining an adventurous, free spirited and milk devoted two year old. My wonderful doctor sat me down and said, you can’t keep doing this. It’s time to book yourself on a little weekend away.
Ironically, following our conversation, it was as though my daughter had broken through her emotional turmoil. Perhaps she was going through an intense leap and just had to let out countless emotions to get through it. She started speaking in sentences and our communication up-levelled. I could rationalise with her a little better and help guide her through her frustrations without there being too much of an emotional outbreak.
It really felt like it was time. I booked 2 nights away and used the week leading up to my getaway to help my daughter understand what was happening. I used lots of phrases like ‘ you are growing into such a big, strong girl now, you don’t need milk’ ‘Milk is for babies and you are a big girl now’. I started wearing a high necked top with a built in shelf bra to bed so she couldn’t get to my boobs in the night. She would ask, I would say no, and instead of 20 minute melt downs, there would be a little 20 second whinge and then she would fall back to sleep.
In the past I would say things like ‘wait until the suns up’ or ‘no lets just have mummy cuddles’ which she found really triggering. So I decided to say ‘no baby, you be the little spoon and mummy will be the big spoon.’ I would turn her around with her back against my chest and cuddle her. The spoon remark took her mind off milk or cuddles and she wasn’t facing my chest so she would forget what she was asking for in her sleepy state and fall back to sleep instantly.
We had three nights of the frequent requests and the little spoon response until on the fourth night, she didn’t ask once and slept through until 4am. I know that sounds early but we have always been early risers. Waking around 5. I did then give her milk at 4 as her morning feed but told her that I would be going away and there will be no more milk for my big girl. Sometimes that would lead to tears but other mornings she would have a quick feed and get up and play.
I really felt like this was the perfect time. The week leading up to my nights away were successful and it helped ease my guilt about both leaving her for the first time and also leaving my husband to deal with the wrath of cold turkey weaning. The day I left we had a beautiful skin to skin feed and I made it clear that this was going to be her last feed. She said no and got a bit annoyed but we talked about how big, beautiful and strong she was now and how she didn’t need milk like babies. We talked about how feeding is her little comfort treat but she can still always have as many mummy cuddles and kisses she needs whenever she feels like it. I’m not sure how much she understood but it was important for me to communicate this with her.
I really needed to leave her to cold turkey wean her as I didn’t want to have her looking at me with her hands under her chin saying ‘mama moot, pease pease pease’. It would have broken me and I would have caved in. I have also been in contact with my husband who has kept her busy and said that she hasn’t asked once. Out of site out of mind. It was defiantly the best approach for both of us and I have never valued solitude more than my first two nights away since becoming a mama.
What women experience when they wean
Weaning is an emotional journey. Whether you chose to wean, you were forced to wean for particular reasons or if your little one chose to self wean. When breastfeeding slows down or ends all together even over time or abruptly, women can experience a significant hormonal shift. Mothers can experience symptoms similar to premenstrual feelings and it can be incredibly intense for some women.
When women breastfeed, oxytocin is released which promotes a sense of feeling good and deep relaxation. So it is no surprise that women start to feel different as they eliminate these regular doses of oxytocin. It can often feel like a withdrawal for mamas. Although the terms are rarely used, there is such thing as post-weaning baby blues and delayed postpartum depression.
- Symptoms can include:
- Anxiety – including nervousness, racing heart, racing mind
- Weepiness – sometimes crying multiple times a day
- Mood swings, irritability
- Lowered motivation
- Disruptions in sleep
- Skin breakouts
- Headaches, migraines and more
I also want to note here that for any mamas who experienced postnatal anxiety or depression. Be mindful that weaning can tigger similar emotions. Studies have found an increase in postpartum anxiety and depression after ceasing breastfeeding. If you are worried about how weaning may affect you mentally and emotionally, I urge you to seek support and guidance through this time. Let your loved ones know that this can be a triggering process.
Supporting your body
It can take several weeks for your hormones to balance back into your ‘normal’ rhythm after your breastfeeding journey comes to an end and it is essential to support this process.
What you eat plays a huge role in your how you feel
Try and start each day of with a well balanced breakfast. Include a good source of protein (pasture raised eggs), healthy fats (cooked in ghee or served with avocado), complex carbohydrates (sautéed greens in lemon juice) and fermented goodness (sauerkraut).
Healthy fats are essential for balancing hormones and balancing blood sugar which directly impacts your mood. I often find that the meal I start my day off with sets the stage and the standard for the rest of my day. You may not realise it but what you put in your mouth for breakfast drastically impacts how you feel in the afternoon.
Try and reduce sugar and caffeine consumption too as they can disrupt your endocrine system. Avoid soy as it has been shown to interfere with oestrogen receptors and disrupt the body’s hormones.
Adaptogens and herbal tonics
Adaptogens and herbal tonics are a wonderful addition for helping your body on this weaning journey. I have incorporated both Maca powder and the Superfeast I am Gaia blend into my daily routine.
Maca – A Peruvian root that promotes homeostasis (balance) in the body. Maca is known for nourishing the endocrine system, balancing hormones, improving mental function, and increasing energy levels.
I am Gaia – a nourishing herbal tonic blend for women to nourish their yin essence and hormones.
Regardless how long you have breastfed for, you have given yourself to your babe through pregnancy and then your breastfeeding journey. Use this time to be the recipient of some love and touch. Book in for a massage which can release oxytocin, got to a bath house or book a retreat. Give back to your body and have someone love and care for you while you end this chapter of your life.
Oh and why not buy yourself some new clothes that are not breast feeding friendly! You can finally get that button free hight necked dress you have been eyeing off!
Holistic support for reducing milk supply
Regardless of whether you gradually wean or you suddenly end feeding, there will be a transitional period where your body adjusts to no longer making milk. It may be a few days or it can be a couple of months. The number one rule to remember is that your breasts are still following the demand and supply principle. Where your breasts keep producing what is being removed. Gradual weaning can make this transition easier but you may still experience a period adjustment.
You will most likely need to gently hand express to relieve engorged breasts and prevent blocked ducts or mastitis. Try to only hand express to relieve engorgement so you aren’t stimulating further production. Stick to hand expressing or a suction pump and avoid an electric pump. Me mindful of how your breasts look and feel. Keep an eye out for red patches, lumps and/or pain to touch.
Cabbage leaves are a great way to absorb fluid from the glands and breast area to reduce fullness. Thoroughly wash cabbage leaves and place them in a sealed container in the fridge. Pop a cool leaf on each breast in your bra until it becomes wilted. Then swap out for a fresh one.
It is recommended to avoid Peppermint whilst breastfeeding as it can reduce your supply. So if you’ve missed your peppermint teat an essential oil then you can safely welcome it back now.
Enjoy peppermint tea for gentle support or an ingestible peppermint oil for stronger support.
See a naturopath or herbalist for a sage tincture to help reduce milk supply
Village weaning stories
My story is just one and there are countless ways to end your breastfeeding journey. There is no right or wrong way to do it. You really need to do what is best for you and your family. When I was preparing to wean I reached out to the village to get some maternal wisdom. Here are some other weaning stories from village mamas.
Start with night weaning
‘Still feeding to sleep and slowly stopped offering during the day. My partner took over bedtimes for about a week and once he started going to sleep without it we alternated. We still lie with him to fall asleep, but they are only little once.’Mama of a 20 month old
Cold Turkey weaning (staying at home)
‘He was only upset for one feed and I was so surprised at how easy it was. I never thought that would be my approach. But I didn’t like having it available sometimes and not others because it was more upsetting for him. When I just kindly explained no more he was happier with that. It was less confusing for both of us.’Mama of a 2 year old
Cold Turkey weaning (They’re broken)
‘I put bandaids on my nipples and told my son they were broken. He didn’t ask again after that.’Mama of a 22 month old
Only fed to sleep weaning
‘Took away all snack, comfort, thirst feeds and only fed to sleep. As her day nap stopped it meant only one feed to sleep at night. Then I gently started talking her off as best I could and told her I would count for 10-20-30 seconds. If she settles I would restart counting and eventually she would fall asleep by me counting. A bit of a guided meditation.’Mama of a 3 year old after a not so successful attempt at 2
‘My daughter self weaned at 12 months and it was a total shock and adjustment for me. I’m having my second soon and I hope it lasts longer.’Mama of a 1 year old
So there you have it, weaning toddlers in not really a nut shell at all. There is a lot involved regardless of how your weaning journey looks. Sometimes its mother led and others its baby led. Sometimes its peaceful and other times it’s really emotional.
Just remember to do what is best for you and your situation and as always, be kind to yourself mama. It’s a challenging and emotional rite of passage and it shouldn’t go past unnoticed.