My heartfelt thanks goes out to the smart and loving mothers who shared their experiences with me. Out of deference for their privacy, I have changed their names and any identifying information about their families; however, their stories are very real.
“That’s it. I’m going to night wean this kid.”
It was early one October morning, the house still dark, and my sweet little boy was up to nurse…again, and again…and yet again. This had been a hard night for me; four times he had roused to tiredly whimper “booooby” and make very sad sounds until he was silenced by the act of suckling. I was tired and cranky and the owner of his Two Most Favorite Things in the World, which made me even more cranky because he didn’t really want me, I thought, he just wanted The Boob.
A lack of sleep can make us all feel a bit victimized, and I’m no exception. Having always needed my full night of rest even before Baby J came along, all things considered, I'd been doing pretty well for the last 18 months. Sure, I’d had a few of those days when I didn’t even know my own name, but had weathered the exhausting first months of near-sleepless nights better than I could’ve hoped for. It helped that our son had always slept in bed with us since Day One, and even more marvelously, we had already purchased a king-sized bed prior to his birth to accommodate just this sort of night parenting. So, when his tiny stomach called out in the wee hours, I loved being able to roll over and nurse him without getting up from our nice warm bed. Especially wonderful in the winter, we kept the covers light and used a mineral oil radiator in our room to keep off the chill. Our little boy won’t keep the blankets on, so some soft cotton pajamas and a mom full of warm milk are perfect for keeping him comfortable.*
And things had been going along just fine until a stretch of several days in early October. I eyed the calendar and saw my 38th birthday creeping closer, which prompted me to seriously ask myself if I wasn’t getting too old for this “all night milk bar” nonsense. Sure, I’m not taking Geritol yet, but I’m not one of those sprightly mothers of boundless energy who can knock off half their “to do” list while their kid naps. I’m a more sedate mama, the kind who finds that lounging on the couch with a good book and cup of tea is a very worthwhile way to spend a little quiet “me” time. Or I’m trying to string the words together in a rushed haze of “90 minutes before he wakes” and focus on getting some writing done, like I am right now.
In any case, after a grumpy morning’s worth of examining the idea, I called my dear partner to drop the bombshell. We were most certainly going to start night weaning the second week of November, during our planned stay at home vacation. The time off from our working lives would give us a chance to sleep in and trade off care. I envisioned resisting my son’s little grabbing hands and heading downstairs to sleep on the futon in his room, leaving Joe to comfort the cries I was certain would come with this process. It was going to be hard, but I’d have a kid who would leave me alone at night, right? My tired brain was deluded; I was convinced of the utterly naïve idea that night weaning would actually ensure my son would sleep through the night, despite all I already knew about kids not reliably doing that until age three—how easily reality flies out the window when we feel desperate! How could having a well-rested mom be a bad thing for my son? This was certainly a justified question. A full night’s sleep was beginning to seem more and more like winning the lottery: sure, the chances were slim, but it was something to hope for, wasn’t it?
Day after day, we drew closer to Night Weaning Time. I was excited at first. Not necessarily “happy excited” but more like “I’m going to go have a surgery which will hopefully make my life better” excited. I told my sister and a few friends, determined that I was going to make this happen. I asked for advice and learned that these women had undertaken night weaning in a variety of ways, some with more support from their partners than others, and their children made the transition with differing degrees of ease. Listening to these mothers, one thing was certainly clear: they had all seriously thought about this decision and had come to the conclusion that night nursing wasn’t working for them any more.
I admired the way in which these women owned their decisions, and no two reasons for night weaning were quite the same. Sara felt exhausted and invaded by her son’s constant need to suckle. Every time the breast popped out of her little boy’s mouth, he would rouse and could not be comforted until he’d latched on again; don’t even ask if they’d tried a pacifier. Both her need for space and sleep being invaded by her son’s desire to suckle, Sara felt like a human lollipop. Nights without the boob weren’t an easy transition for their son, and the weeks spent night weaning were a challenge for both Sara and her husband, who took their son out to sleep on the sofa bed with him. Eventually, though, their son was able to content himself with daytime nursing. Though he still wakes at night for company, he’s happy just to hold onto a finger before falling back to sleep.
Jessica said that she and her husband had agreed it was time for their littlest, a near-two year old, to move from their bed into her crib. After two children, they were ready to have their privacy and their love life back. She decided to use an upcoming trip out of town as a chance to start night weaning, using the change of routine (including new bedtime stories and songs) and the pleasant distraction of being in a new place to its fullest advantage. Once at home, she kept up their new ritual and her daughter adapted to bedtime without nursing to sleep rather quickly. Looking back on it, Jessica reflected that it was obvious they were both very ready to make the transition. It was interesting to note, too, that she allowed herself the flexibility to nurse her daughter at night when she was ill or when other needs arose, even after this period of night weaning. This willingness to be responsive to her child’s needs and put aside the usual parental consistency is unusual in the stories I heard, but certainly worked for their family.
For some women, their husband’s desire for them to stop nursing was a real catalyst for weaning, and the act of weaning their children was part of living a larger set of convictions. For many couples, what most explicitly defines the care of the family is putting the needs of the marriage first. Sophia’s husband was uncomfortable with her continuing to nurse their daughter, who was well past her first birthday. Although she was deeply saddened to make this break, for Sophia this was about honoring her marriage and she did what she set out to do. Being a committed wife and mother is a difficult balancing act which every woman manages differently, and I watched her do it gracefully, with tears and an ability to find other ways besides nursing to keep connecting with her little girl.
Sometimes, too, other people besides husbands have a say in the matter. Clarissa initiated night weaning her son because he was waking up each night to nurse at midnight, two and five-thirty. At first they dropped the two o’clock feeding, then the midnight one and finally the early morning feed. When her son woke to nurse, she took him to the rocking chair and serenaded him softly until he fell back to sleep. While her night weaning was self-motivated, it was at her pediatrician’s urging that she decided to fully wean her son. Her boy was growing in height but not gaining weight. Just as children can easily tank up on liquids before mealtimes and then feel too full to eat more than a few bites, her son was loading up on breast milk. And as he was well past a year old, the milk was lacking the fats and nutrients it had once contained. With a loving mother’s concern for her son’s health and development, she chose to follow the doctor’s orders and stop nursing. Although Clarissa didn’t choose to wean for her own personal reasons, she doesn’t miss nursing. In fact, like many women, she was happy to have her breasts back to herself again. True to her Zen attitude to life, she’d done the very best she could for her son, and now it was time to move on.
And then there were those other mothers I knew, those whose children had just decided they were done nursing, day and night, period. They slept through the nights without needing whatever some of our children need—the food or the connection—and their mothers let them sleep. What I heard in their stories traveled across a broad spectrum of relief, pride in their children for having grown a little more independent, some pride in themselves for giving their children a great start, and a bit of nostalgia for that special feeling of togetherness some of us experience when we nurse; perhaps this was because weaning wasn’t their choice at all, but one made by their children. The hallmark of these mothers was the ability to let go and respect their child’s needs.
Aside from learning what worked for each mother, in these conversations it became quickly apparent that no two mothers felt the same way about nursing, or about ending it. Some women revered the connection nursing brought and mourned its loss while others were completely pragmatic about it. When it was over, it was over. Even those of us who really enjoy and appreciate nursing have those moments of mind-numbing paralysis on the couch, when you settle in to nurse and only then realize that you have nothing to do; no magazine or book on hand to read, the remote is across the room…nothing. We can only gaze at our child adoringly for so long, and then we need some other distraction. Or along comes that moment when our little one squeezes her tiny fist in a pulsing “milk sign” motion and we wonder “Why on earth did I ever teach her that?” followed by that exasperated sinking feeling of “Not again!” Nursing isn’t all roses and sweet baby smells and those ‘baby love’ hormones. Sometimes nursing is not getting the laundry folded, not going out at baby’s bedtime, or not wearing our cute dress to the party because there’s no boob access and there’s nowhere to go with the baby and hike your dress over your head.
Nursing brings up a lot of feelings.
Time passed and our vacation was coming upon us. Surely, that very Sunday night we would start the process, right? I began feeling as though I was steeling myself, making myself do something I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do. Weeks ago, during a few tough nights in a row, I had wanted to night wean. I’d even been working on giving my boy some regular nursing times during that day that he could rely on in the hopes that this would help him feel more secure as I took away the nighttime milk. After some deliberation, I sat down with Joe for a talk: were we going to do this or not?
We listed the pros and cons. Yes, I might be able to get more sleep, eventually. That was a definite pro. But as we talked, I realized that all those little nagging thoughts in the back of my head weren’t just nervous mom chatter, they were actually empathetic concerns. Developmentally, our son was now a very curious toddler, into everything, and consequently being deprived and distracted from a lot of things he was very interested in. Much of our walks outside were spent guiding him back to safe areas, away from the street or rotten apples lying on the sidewalk or standing water in which worms writhed. I felt like I was redirecting a lot more, earnestly offering substitutions to eating the cat food or taking an inventory of the refrigerator or climbing up on everything humanly possible to climb on. He wasn’t old enough to understand the idea of safety (or parasites in the wormy water), and I could imagine that for him, some days felt like a long frustrating series of deprivations, one after the other. Somehow, the idea of taking away his very favorite snuggly comfort items seemed rather too much in light of how much else he wanted—really, truly wanted—and couldn’t have. Not to mention that I wanted him to have a way to tell me how he was feeling about night weaning, and his only way of expressing disappointment, sadness or anger is tears. I want him to be able to tell me how he’s feeling about such a big change.
Perhaps that last point was the bridge to my realization that I didn’t actually want to start night weaning. This might be the heart ruling the head, but my intuition told me that if I was coming up with so many reasons not to do it, we weren’t truly ready to take the night feeding option off the table. My goal as a mother has always been to go at my son’s pace, not to force him to “grow up”, and Joaquin has not given us even a remote sign that he’s ready or desirous of giving up the milk at night. That being the case, we’ve decided to wait a while and revisit this in a few months.
In the meantime, what to do about my need for sleep? Truth be told, if I went to bed earlier instead of staying up reading and writing, I’d probably feel a little more awake in the morning. Getting more exercise would also help me sleep better. Amazing what I could come up with when I decided to accept a little personal responsibility.
Strangely enough, we haven’t had so many hard nights as that one week that started the whole process of all this questioning. He’s waking up an average of twice now, around 3-ish and 5-ish, and I’m getting a big chunk of sleep at the beginning of the night. Funny how these things turn around and become very do-able again.
I sometimes wonder what I would’ve done about all of this had my life been different. If I was pregnant again, or planning on having more children? Perhaps I would’ve given him that push, knowing I would be nursing another child in the future and feeling less precious about the nursing itself. Or what if I was working outside the home and had to be up early each morning? Or if I was a mother with a physical disability or health issues that relied on my getting a full night of sleep? Who am I to even know what my life would be like with a different partner, in a different country, or in a different moment in history? The possibilities are endless.
If each woman’s life is her own world, then there has to be a whole universe of very unique and beautiful worlds, all working in their own way. I’m content to be one individual planet in that incredible universe, and I know that one day my little satellite will not need me in the night at all. Instead, he’ll sleep until morning and wake full of words, bursting to tell me of sweet dreams, all his own.
*For more information of safe cosleeping practices, check out this link:
Cosleeping isn’t for everyone, but if you do choose to sleep with your baby, please be an informed, safe cosleeper and share this information with your partner. Your baby’s life depends on it.