Many families practice extended breastfeeding, but I don’t know of many that fully wean and then unwean their toddler months later. This probably has something to do with “the rule.”
What rule? Oh, you know which one I’m talking about. No matter what your parenting style, we all know the unspoken rule parents are meant to follow: never, ever, ever take steps backwards on purpose!
If you’re child starts walking, for instance, you’re not supposed to encourage them to crawl instead. If your child has learned to say “water,” you shouldn’t instruct them to begin calling it “wa wa” again. And equally, once you’ve weaned your child off the breast, you close that door and give them a stainless steel sippy cup.
Well, my toddler was fully weaned and used sippy cups. But then I decided to unwean her. Call me a rule breaker, trend setter, good/bad parent, or just plain crazy, but for our family it was the right decision and I have no regrets.
Breastfeeding didn’t come easily for me with either of my girls; both were preemies that required months of pumping and hard work before they were able to exclusively nurse. I felt motivated to keep going based on healthful reasons and the growing oversupply of breast milk in our freezer that kept whispering, “we got this – don’t give up now!”
By 4 months of age, Clementine (my first) was finally nursing well without the nipple shield. We were in our groove and I was loving it. As she grew more interactive I really started to cash in on the bonding side of things. Times of nursing (which had once been a tedious struggle) became my favorite parts of the day.
Fast forward a couple of months to a prenatal appointment for my back-to-back pregnancy with Darla. I was “high risk,” they said, for another premature delivery and needed to stop nursing right away as it could encourage contractions and stimulate labor. I didn’t totally buy into the idea and decided to wean “slowly” (a.k.a. not at all), but my body had different plans. Within a matter of weeks my supply was barely there and Clementine began taking bottles of previously frozen milk like a champ.
I was crushed. After just 3 months of exclusive, nipple-shield-free breastfeeding, we were calling it quits?!
We did the previously-expressed-breast-milk from a bottle thing for a while and had a couple of months of goats milk formula when the freezer finally ran out. Then, when Darla was born & my milk supply returned, I began expressing milk again for Clementine & offering it to her in a sippy cup (which continued from 13-21 mos of age).
From a health standpoint, the hard work and pumping had been so worth it; I had been able to give Clementine breast milk for the bulk of her life and was on track to continue. But from the bonding side of things, I felt like our time had been cut tragically short, so throughout months 13-21 I would casually offer her the breast before the sippy cup, just to keep the door open.
Then one day she said yes! I offered the boob and she took it!
At 21 months of age (after almost 8 months of trying to un-wean her), Clementine latched on. She has since jumped totally on board and nurses 4+ times a day. I am officially a tandem-nurser!
I broke the parenting rule; I took a major step “backward,” but in more ways than one feel that it has catapulted us forward.
There has been instant change & increase in Clementine’s show of affection desire for touch. We’ve always been “close,” but in the past she didn’t seem to need me throughout her day. I thought this was because of how courageous, independent, & determined she was. But now, my still independent girl comes to me on multiple occasions a day asking for “cuddles” and “Mama’s milk,” and I realize we’ve found a piece of the puzzle we hadn’t even realized was missing.
WHAT UNWEANING A TODDLER ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE
Unweaning has proven to be a really beautiful and intimate thing for us, but to be fair and look at the big picture I have to admit that the fairy-tale of toddler nursing I had created in my mind was a little off base. Here are a few challenges that were thrown our way:
My “amazing sleeper” only wanted to fall asleep while nursing.
This actually was a bit complicated to work through. We believed Clementine was still “young enough” to benefit from the closeness and bond of breastfeeding, and therefore also believed she was young enough to long for the soothing security that only mamas can give. I would have been fine nursing her to sleep if she had been the only baby I was nursing at night and/or she would have made a smooth transition back into co-sleeping with us. Neither of those things were the case, though. Because of this, we had to set a boundary of only nursing before bed with the light on, but not to sleep. Clementine then gets handed to Papa Bear for cuddles while I nurse Darla.
My “amazing sleeper” began experiencing night wakes and would ask to nurse at all hours.
This “challenge” pretty much goes hand in hand with the one right before it. In theory I had no problem with night nursing and began bringing her into bed with us to feed. Realistically, though, it was a disaster. Clementine just couldn’t seem to sleep in our bed. No, I mean NOT AT ALL – we are talking jumping up and down, giggling, karate kicking, singing, wide-awake all night long no matter what we do type stuff.
Somehow we managed to keep trying this every night for a couple of weeks yielding the same results, and finally had to face the facts: (1) No one was getting sleep and we were all becoming unhealthy from that, (2) it was affecting baby Darla’s night nursing and (3) Clementine hadn’t had night feeds in over a year – she did not need them.
With all of that on the table, we drew another boundary: Clementine can nurse any time during the day and right before bed, but at night she stays in her own bed and does not get Mama’s milk. Defining this line may not have been the crunchiest thing to do, but an unhealthy family (when easily avoided) is not natural either.
I started getting really tired and hungry.
Clementine definitely takes more milk breastfeeding than I had been previously pumping for her, so my body had to readjust to the higher volume of calories it’s expelling. In the beginning I had to have healthy snacks in arm’s reach or I’d get light-headed; it kind of reminded me of pregnancy!
The girls began getting jealous when the other nursed.
The easiest remedy I found for this was to nurse them both at the same time. We’d cuddle up on my bed and they’d each get a side, sometimes even holding hands while they drank! Obviously we can’t do this 100% of the time, but it seemed to help them identify with the fact that nursing brings us all together rather than separates us.
I think you get the idea. Our reality isn’t picture perfect, but we see a lot of beauty in it. I’m getting that about parenting; few choices come without some kind of consequence. We all have to weigh up and revalue sometimes. Our family values nursing and, for the time being that means we put weight in unweaning.