By April Wallace, mama writer
My son was 11 months old before I realized that I had given no significant time into researching how to wean him from breastfeeding.
I knew I would wean gradually. I wanted to be sensitive to what this change could be like for him, but to be honest I had spent all my energy on continuing to breastfeed to the big milestone: one year.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t make it. Not quite. We just missed it by a few weeks. I know with complete certainty that we could have. But at 11 months, I was exhausted, stressed out and spending most of my day trying to salvage as much breast milk as I could (more on that here.)
As a result, I was missing out on being able to interact with my baby, who was more playful and responsive than ever before. I wasn’t able to make time for myself, or spend quality time with my husband either, at least without being grumpy from all the effort.
To make matters much worse, I had been under constant pressure from my son’s pediatrician and nurses since the 7-month mark. They felt he wasn’t at a comfortable place on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) infant growth chart, which is based largely on data from formula-fed babies.
I was done fighting. Any sense of enjoyment and peace Henry and I had had about the whole process was long gone. And my fiercely independent, curious little baby was already walking. He didn’t want to be lounging with me on the couch 6-8 times a day to eat anymore.
I had been fantasizing for a few weeks about how much better I was going to feel once breastfeeding was behind me. Finally, I took the advice of a friend who had been there: If it isn’t working for one of the two involved parties, it’s time to quit.
In the end, our weaning process was simple because we were both ready.
I read tons of posts by other mamas who weaned earlier than they had planned to, whether because their milk supply suddenly dropped, a medical issue arose or they got pregnant again (pregnancy hormones change the flavor of breastmilk, which can make it off-putting for the baby who is currently breastfeeding). Most of the posts were titled something like “The Sad Day My Breastfeeding Journey Came to An End.”
I put off weaning for so many reasons. Of course I wanted my baby to have “the perfect, complete food” for the first year of his life that would build and foster immunity and brain growth, and help us bond, among many, many other benefits. Pride was a huge factor. I wanted my husband and the women I respected in my life to be proud of me for making it to a year.
But reading other women’s accounts of weaning made me realize a couple of important things.
I really was afraid that it would be sad for me, too. Before other people got involved in our process, breastfeeding had been a mostly easy, natural-feeling process for Henry and me. I didn’t mind it, dread it or wish for it to stop soon. But once I was tasked with increasing my supply with a medical audience awaiting numbers and reports of progress, it lost all joy and intimacy.
So, that was it. My sad day had already happened. I was going to be just fine moving past the phase of my life that was all stress and wondering whether they would blame me alone for my baby’s physical well being—whether outright or with secret judgment.
Unless Henry struggled with weaning, there was no more sadness for me. On the contrary.
I thought back to all the awkward moments. The first and greatest hurdle was having to figure out how to breastfeed modestly while my pre-teen stepson was in the house or with us on vacation and could walk in at any moment. I wouldn’t miss that.
And unless you plan to confine yourself to the house for an entire year, you’re going to breastfeed in public. I did. I used a cover, but it still led to our fair share of awkward conversations and situations.
→ I can’t tell you how many times I started to breastfeed Henry in a doctor’s office waiting room and the nurse would call us back just as I had finally gotten Henry situated, the feeding cover on, the shirt up, the bra opened, the breast finally out. “Oh. Give me a minute to do all this in reverse.”
→ While at one of my stepson’s cross country events, an acquaintance approached us as I was breastfeeding and asked where the baby was. “Under here,” I said, motioning to the cover. “Oh, he’s sleeping.” Yeah. Sleeping. If that’s what you want to believe. If that’ll make you feel better, sure.
→ Once when we were meeting another couple out for dinner at a fancy restaurant, I started preparing to feed Henry and the woman turned to me nervously, clearly uncomfortable and unsure of how to ask me politely whether I’d be using a cover or baring my breast proudly like other crunchy mamas. Don’t worry, I reassured her as I donned my cover.
→ We travel a lot, and breastfeeding made everything about that easier. But shortly before we boarded a plane in Portland, the security guard carefully questioned me about whether I had any liquids in my bag. No, sir. “No liquids at all?” “None.” “Not even for the baby?” He was trying not to come out and ask me whether I had pre-mixed some formula for the flight, but he was pushing me to the brink. I nearly patted my boobs and told him with a smirk that I had it all stowed away…elsewhere. Thankfully he dropped it just in time.
→ At a Christmas celebration, my husband stepped outside to retrieve my nipple shield so I could feed our baby, who was teething at the time. My dad, bless him, was just curious what a nipple shield was and why it was necessary for breastfeeding. Though I’m not usually clammed up about the topic, it’s just one of those things that doesn’t make for a comfortable conversation with, you know, your dad. Please. Let me breastfeed in peace. Don’t talk.
→ While covering city meetings for the newspaper, sometimes I would bring Henry with me and breastfeed him in the back row as I listened and took notes. Occasionally another new mother would rush up to me and ask something like “What are you doing here?” Me? Oh, working. And breastfeeding. You know. Can I carry on now?
→ Some of the most awkward times are really just uncomfortable for other people. My friends without children had it the worst. As an old college friend visited me in the spring, I was still breastfeeding Henry at 9 months. I fed him under the cover as she complained to me about women who breastfeed in public. “Do you realize what I’m doing right now?” I wanted to ask. Maybe she just wanted me to stop while she was there? Who knows, who cares. My baby was hungry.
→ Others did it to themselves. Like the wildlife rescue man we hired to get a raccoon out of our chimney, but didn’t announce himself when he arrived and started checking out our property. One morning I was on the couch breastfeeding Henry without the cover since I thought we were alone. When I looked up, there was Mr. Wildlife right outside the window. He’d gotten an eyeful when he thought he was just doing his job. Once he came to our door, he promised to announce himself at the next visit. Gee. Thanks.
So, goodbye to all that? Heck yeah!
Over the course of a few weeks, we slowly replaced breastfeeding sessions with formula, cow’s milk and solid foods. We replaced a feeding every few days, though it’s perfectly acceptable to replace one per day. I went slow because I wanted time to judge whether it had any major effect on us. Weaning can be emotional for both mama and baby. That, and I didn’t want to end up with a clogged duct.
But it was so clear for us: Henry was loving the extra time he could now use to play and interact with us. In two short weeks he went from unsteadily toddling across a room to walking confidently around the Botanical Garden without taking my hand.
Meanwhile, my husband and I started a regular Sunday night date—a huge benefit of the independence of no longer breastfeeding.
Our first dinner out, I had an entire glass of Sangria. All. By. Myself. (praise hands) I could eat whatever I wanted, pasteurized or not, and enjoy it without mentally calculating how much I could safely have without affecting Henry’s milk.
I began, for the first time in nearly two years, to feel like my body truly belonged to me again. I started fitness training harder and entered a few races throughout the summer. In short, I was able to enjoy being myself again and that made my marriage and other relationships get better, too.
The biggest benefit of all was being able to tell for the first time since he was born when my baby consciously chooses to snuggle with me. While you’re breastfeeding, you assume he’s hungry or he needs something. But now I know. We’ve already fed him, and now he comes to me, arms outstretched, just wanting my mama love.
I wrap him up as close to me as possible, breathe in his fuzzy baby hair and feel grateful for our new chapter together.
Want to read more from April? She’s written about cutting the cord on C-section guilt, breastfeeding tips for the first year of your baby’s life, what it’s like to be a stepmother on Mother’s Day, and multiple Northwest Arkansas park reviews.
April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to a beautiful and curious baby and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her baby while he’s still a baby. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction.