Saturday, October 15, 2005

Weaning, Part I

I call this "part I" because I am certain that it will be the first of many discussions I have with myself (and anyone else who cares to get into my brain) on the often-controversial subject of weaning.

Weaning is a prominent issue on my mind these days, as I am still happily (well, most days, anyway) nursing my almost three year-old daughter but facing the pressure and questions from the world at large about when Anna might stop. Nursing Anna can be hard some days, because I am also nursing her 13-month old brother, Simon…but in my mind, I can’t really imagine how I will relate to Anna when she stops asking for milk or announcing “milk time!” before we go settle down in bed together for the night.

If you ask me about “when” to wean, I cannot come up with a definitive answer. I used to think that one year would be a good, full term of breastfeeding a child. I guess I still do think 12 months is terrific, from a nutritional standpoint, anyway, but I believe that breastfeeding is about more than just food. As that one-year mark approached and Anna was showing no signs of giving up her “bock” (Anna’s primitive word for mamma-milk), I realized I had to reframe my ideas about when to wean her. Anna was slow to take solid food (and she has lots of food allergies) and was always a petite little girl; she nursed every 90 minutes or so through the night until she was 18 months old. In my quest to convince my husband that putting an arbitrary time limit on my nursing relationship with Anna was a bad idea, it started to occur to me: there is really no appropriate time limit, not one year, not three years, not any amount of time that I can forecast now and say “Anna will be done.”

That’s not to say I don’t fantasize, sometimes, about the day she will be finished with mamma milk. When I was toward the end of my pregnancy with Simon, I dreaded every nursing session with Anna, the contractions it gave me, the discomfort and even the mental anguish nursing her brought to me. I had several escapist methods, only one of which limited Anna herself – sometimes, I would count to 10 aloud, which she knew meant the end of the nursing session. Anna nursed even when there was no milk in my breasts. She was, of course, thrilled to pieces when the milk came in for Simon – and she promptly swore off all solid food (much to the chagrin of my visiting mother-in-law) until Simon was about 4 months old. She has since transitioned back to the eagerly eating little girl she was before Simon’s arrival.

I do set limits on Anna’s nursing now that she is more verbal and we can talk about her desires and mine, as well. The fact that, most days, it’s not difficult to dissuade her indicates to me that she is ready for this move. There are days that she insists on “one milk, mamma, ONE mamma milk, please” (while holding up one finger and looking directly at my face) – on those days, I oblige her request. Anna gets “wake up milk” first thing in the morning, and on some of the mornings I go to work, she gets “bye bye milk.” The first word out of her mouth most days upon my return home from work at noon is “milk?” That usually ends up being her “nap milk” while I chat with my friend Lisa, who is her caregiver while I’m gone (she is usually nursing her same-age daughter, Abigail, at the same time). Some days, she is groggy after her nap and needs some more “wake up milk,” and, if the rest of the day is a good day, without tantrums or disappointments, she’ll have “night night milk” after her bath. Most nights, Anna will wake up to use the potty between midnight and 2 a.m. – until a few weeks ago, I’d nurse her back down, but lately, my husband and I are encouraging her to accept him at that waking to go to the potty and climb into bed with us. I used to save my left breast (the slow-flow side) for her all night, because she used to use her arrival at my bedside to announce “milk time!” Now, she just climbs into bed and is content to hold a few strands of my hair between her thumb and forefinger to soothe herself back to sleep. I will admit, I look forward to her arrival in the night now, because I still miss having her there beside me. It doesn’t matter that Simon’s taken her place physically.

Do the limits I’m setting mean I want to wean Anna? I don’t think so, not yet. I do know I was looking for some relief a few months ago, when I felt a little bit like Anna was greedy. I felt guilty for thinking that of her – after all, it wasn’t her fault we spaced her sibling so close to her – but that was the reality. I couldn’t tell a 2-year old “you don’t know how good you have it!” because she doesn’t know that most kids her age were weaned against their will many months ago.

And that’s when it hits me, my incredibly protective sense about Anna’s nursing. Am I protective of it for my sake, or for hers? I’d have to say both…on her account, I know Anna still relies on nursing as a pick-me-up and as a definite way to have was a classic toddler, pushing away from me and coming back several times each day – forging her independence but needing reassurance that Mamma is still there for her. Now, as a pre-schooler, she is proud of her independence but still relies on those re-connection times each day. I’m happy to be steady in meeting her needs. As for me, like I said earlier, I’m not sure I can imagine relating to a non-nursing Anna just yet. We’re so at home nursing after a tantrum or when she’s stressed out. She drifts off for her nap so easily most days, just from nursing. I’m happy to still have this “trick” when we’re out at a restaurant and Anna’s about to “expire” just before dessert arrives (though she hasn't needed to nurse in public in a pretty long time). I also feel like our continued nursing relationship helps make up for the hours of separation we experience while I work outside the home, hours I spend feeling awful for being away (more on this in another essay). It is my desire to be pregnant again next year, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to tandem nurse two children while pregnant. I know, then, that Anna’s weaning or not weaning will be a determining factor in how our family planning progresses, until the time arrives that I feel that my desire to become pregnant outweighs her need to still nurse. I feel confident that I will know this time has arrived, if it ever does.

I do not presume to know another mother’s threshold for the discomfort accompanied by nursing while pregnant, nor can I assume to know whether a mother can negotiate the demands of continuing to breastfeed after a return to work outside the home. I cannot decide for another mother that her child is too old to still nurse or that she should honor her child’s wishes to breastfeed after his second birthday. I can only relate how I have personally dealt with these circumstances and I can hopefully find a way to share that Anna’s well-being hinged on my ability to put her needs ahead of my own – a concept I think any mother can understand and connect with on some level. I hope my example speaks to the idea that our society’s common “excuses” for weaning did not influence my feeling that breastfeeding is more than nutrition and a child’s need for nursing is very real.

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