Thursday, April 21, 2016

Night-weaning our toddler at 24 months old

It is difficult to write about breastfeeding, about ending such a relationship. I have had this post in my mind for about 3 months now, always dreading to sit and write it. It is a subject so full of feelings that I kept procrastinating. But when I was in the midst of it, I was desperately looking for others' experiences and so here is ours.

I originally thought I would breastfeed 6 months and then continue with solids. I clearly had no idea on how babies work. Our start was not exactly easy, 6 months flew by and by then it was so comfortable and she was growing so well that I was definitely not stopping at that moment. Then I thought I would simply go on to 1 year at which point I planned on trading the boob for bottles of regular cow milk. Except the baby had other plans. We tried several different types of bottles, and they just would not replace the boob. Sure she would drink a bit and fiddle around with a bottle, but it would not ultimately make her sleep or calm her down, it was more of a game or a snack. At that point she was still waking up several times each night. Nothing would soothe her except the breast and only mom was accepted. Rocking, bouncing, shh-ing, singing, reading stories, massage, dim-lights and strict routines did not really help at those moments. I read that at that point babies "didn't really need" breast milk anymore and that it was just a ("bad") habit. I was not convinced, so I followed my instinct and kept on. The World Health Organization does recommend breastfeeding until 2 years old, so I figured there was at least some benefit in breastfeeding (and is there! *), but more importantly I felt that she truly needed it. For me, even an emotional need was justified.


We read that it had to be the non-breastfeeding partner who should be giving the bottle and soothing the baby, but she really would not have it. A year went by, in which she fully stopped breastfeeding during the day, not even when I came home from work, at around 6 pm, after being all day in daycare (the first few months she seemed to need me at the end of the day, just briefly). There were also periods, particularly during a very hot holiday (Sevilla in July, with 40ÂșC temperatures) where she would ask for the breast during the day which was unusual for her at that time. Honestly, I would have liked her to naturally outgrow the nightly wake ups by herself, to wait until she was ready. But it was becoming  very, very tiring and sometimes I felt she was just there because it was what she knew to do, and because she did not know how to sleep otherwise. Naps have never been a problem, but calming down at the end of an exciting day and fully relaxing has always been a challenge for her. At the end of last year we went to the fertility clinic again, to get everything tested before starting treatment again, as nothing seems to be happening on my womb, no matter how much we try. At first the doctor said that the hormonal treatment is not known to pass through the breast tissue into the milk, so in principle, she would be safe, but after discussing it with other specialists at the clinic they decided not to take a risk, as  the impact of breastfeeding on implantation is not very well understood. So even though I was ovulating, we had to wean her before attempting treatment again. It was so bittersweet, I felt like I was betraying her, in some weird way. Like it was a cruel and mean thing to do to her, to take away something that she needed so much. At the same time, I was ready to -maybe- start sleeping full nights again, and she was starting to suck very very hard, making it painful and uncomfortable.

We had heard about a technique where you gradually reduce the time of each breastfeeding session. We tried that, but with her it would not work. If she did not get all the milk she needed, or if I released her while she was soothed but not completely done, she would wake up 15-20 minutes after, or wake up multiple times in a 3 hour interval. At the moment when we decided to really wean her, just before her second birthday, she was breastfeeding 2-4 times a night: around 8 pm when she fell asleep, then around 11 pm, then around 1 am and later, sometimes, at 3 or 4 am. Since she was not going to accept shorter breastfeeding sessions we decided to go cold-turkey on every session, doing 1 session at a time, starting by the first one ( 8 pm, sleepy time) and waiting until that one was assimilated before moving on to the next one. All in all the whole process probably took around 1 month or perhaps it was 3 weeks. It was at once the hardest thing I have done as a parent, and yet, easier than I thought. I think taking the decision and going through those first 3 or 4 days was the most difficult. I was happy to do it at a moment where she could really understand what was going on, where we could explain it to her and she could process it. I did not feel like telling her things like "the boobs are asleep", it felt strange to me to talk of them as a separate entity, not as part of my body, of me. So we just told her that she was a big girl now and that she was ready to learn to sleep without mom's milk. She understood it so well she refused right away and started crying whenever we mentioned it, but she did accept to try. We also told her that we would always be there to soothe her if she needed it.

We decide not to have Mark soothe her while I went away to another room, because it felt like we would be taking away two things she wanted, the milk, and me, and she would totally lose her shit. It was something we had to do together. So on day one we explained what was going to happen and I just started rocking her, without breastfeeding. She cried and cried. I did as well, silently, while Mark was holding my hand and signed to me that it was ok, that we could go through it. I think the intense crying lasted no more than 1 minute, but it felt so long, it was so heartbreaking. At one point she would accept the pacifier and fall asleep. Those days I would still breastfeed at the next wake ups. We did this for about a week. I think she only cried the first 3 days, and those were the hardest. Once sleeping without breastfeeding was settled, we moved on to the next session, normally 11 pm. Those times normally Mark would pick her up from her crib and try to soothe her or offer water. This second session coincided with an antibiotic treatment, so she would get it at that time and since it was a sweet "treat", sometimes she would just settle down with a bit of rocking. There were times where she would want to sleep on top of my chest or where she would ask for water or milk (in a glass). This again, took about a week. Then she started skipping the 1 am session on some days, sleeping for longer stretches. If she would wake up we would explain again that she could not have breast milk, but she could be with us, and we offered water, milk or the pacifier. When this seemed settled we tackled the last wakeup (3-4 am). This time, since we were well in the process I told her she would have breast milk for a definite amount of time (10 minutes), and then we would stop. She understood it and accepted it. The next day I told her we would do it for 9 minutes, then 8, then, 7, and so forth. The day she had 2 minutes was the last time she woke up to ask for breast milk. I think two or three times after that she asked around 5 or 6 am, which was rare for her (she had not being doing that since the baby days), but since it was so close to breakfast tine and since I did not want to be inconsistent (that would seem mean to me, why would I sometimes say yes, and sometimes deny it), I would explain that she did not need it anymore and we would just cuddle. It was hard, but I was afraid it would just mess the process and it seemed cruel to go backwards when we were almost done with the process.

I really could not believe it, but since we night weaned her she started sleeping longer stretches at night. Sometimes she does still wake up in the middle of the night, but a bit of shh-ing and soothing usually brings her back to sleep. There are days where she looks at my chest, points at it and says that milk is for babies, that she is a big girl. Or she role-plays it with her cow and calf figurines. It was hard, but I think it was the good decision for both of us at the moment it happened.

Have you gone through something similar? How did you do it?
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* This fascinating article summarizes it well
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