How to end breastfeeding? Learn from everything I did wrong, that’s how. It’s been more than two months since I last got to cocoon my baby boy on my lap, help him settle into position and nurse him quietly while caressing his little hand and smoothing back his little tufts of hair. I can’t remember now what that last nursing session was like. Was I nursing him to sleep? Did he need a bit of a break to recharge his baby batteries? Was he seeking comfort? Or was he just a little thirsty and needed a mini-snack?
But when I try to, when I begin to recall what it felt like to feed him and how hard it was to stop, or how much I miss that relationship we shared, I tear up. Without fail, I have to choke back tears and forcefully stop myself from wallowing.
My biggest dilemma in all this: will I ever feel better about saying goodbye to breastfeeding? Will I ever stop missing it with every fiber of my being? Is it normal to feel this way, or am I some kind of psycho mother who just can’t let go?
My son was 20 months old when I weaned him, and as so many people like to tell me, it was time. He had gotten all he needed from me and there was no reason to continue. The longer I nursed him, I was told, the harder it would be to stop. Weaning was placed on my to-do list and it felt like there was no way out.
But the experience, to be honest, was a catastrophe, and I went about it all wrong. Here are the mistakes I made.
I succumbed to pressure
My son could clearly articulate with gestures and movements when he wanted to nurse. Some – all Arabs, strangely enough – found this horrifying. Then a Westerner would come along, and treat me like some kind of hero deserving of a medal when learning that I had been breastfeeding exclusively for 20 months.
Neither reaction made sense to me: I was just doing what felt right for myself and my son. I never intended to nurse for this long, but I also never expected to have a child who refused all other forms of milk and turned away from every bottle or sippy cup or drinking device I offered him. Nursing was the crutch he used to sleep, and I knew no other way to comfort him. Nursing was the easiest thing to do – convenient, portable and instantaneous – so I kept on doing it.
But the comments kept pouring in, from well-meaning individuals, including my husband, my mother and close friends, about how it really was time that I weaned the baby. I caved, despite secretly hoping to make it to two years, knowing there was no harm whatsoever in doing that. I didn’t stand my ground, and instead I weaned my baby when I was not prepared, mentally, emotionally and most certainly not physically.
I stopped cold turkey
Physically, you should gradually drop your feeds and cut back, bit by bit, to adjust the supply of milk that your body produces. I didn’t think that applied to me, since my son was so much older and eating four meals and multiple snacks a day. “He barely even nurses during the day,” I said to myself. “I only nurse him in the daytime sporadically, he’s not even on a schedule, so how can I drop a feed?” What he does, instead, is nurse every few hours through the night, and I figured there’s no way to drop those feeds as he will sob and rant for them regardless, ill-equipped as he was to go to sleep in any other way. Stopping cold turkey made the most sense to me at the time, and felt like the only way I could stick to my resolve when saying no began to feel too cruel.
What happened, instead, was pain unlike anything I have ever experienced. My right breast became so engorged that I was no longer able to hold my baby, nor hug my older child; the hint of a touch would have me screaming in pain. That lasted almost a week, and set the foundations for a miserable weaning experience. Gradually stopping could have made all the difference.
I didn’t visit a doctor
I could have done with some advice on how to wean, or a warning that mastitis could develop if I stopped cold turkey (it didn’t, but I was just lucky) and a heads-up on the rollercoaster of emotions that would follow. After giving birth, mothers experience the “baby blues,” where they burst into tears at the slightest provocation, or for no reason at all. Weaning felt almost the same. I couldn’t stop crying; it was the kind of “down” that I couldn’t talk myself out of or control. I couldn’t fathom that I had reached the end of something I had treasured so much and it felt devastating. The smallest thing would set me off, and for weeks afterwards, I experienced sudden mood swings: everything from sadness and irritability to white-hot rage, resentment and an overwhelming sense of grief.
From a hormonal perspective, it makes sense. Breastfeeding stimulates the production of hormones such as oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” In its absence, especially after abrupt weaning, a mother’s mood may plummet. A doctor could have told me that my hormones would be all over the place.
I took too long to ask Facebook for help
I wish it had occurred to me early on in the weaning process to ask other mothers how they got through it. There’s so much help out there for women who want to breastfeed their babies; help that’s available well before the baby is born. There are lactation consultants and breastfeeding experts, books and resources, videos and tutorials, manuals on the different holds when it comes to guiding your baby toward the breast, manifestos written on the benefits of breastfeeding — absolutely endless amounts of material. Next to nothing, though, on how to wean your baby and end the breastfeeding journey once it’s time for it to come to a close.
But these days, there are Facebook groups, and when I posted on a few relevant groups that I was in extreme pain from engorgement and that three days had passed already and I was still full of milk with no respite in sight, dozens of women offered advice that made all the difference.
I took the medication too late
Instead of seeking medical help, I bought cabbages, froze them and applied cabbage leaves to numb the pain. This worked, but only for about a half an hour. The women on Facebook told me that had I gone to a doctor, I would have been prescribed a medication that would help dry my milk, meaning less pain for me and less of the beckoning scent of milk for my baby. When I found this out, I rushed to a pharmacy and bought the medicine anyway, known as Dostinex. It comes in three tiny pills. Had I taken the pills as soon as I decided to stop breastfeeding, it might have been easier. But three days after I had already been suffering meant that it was another three days before the pills began to work. What they do is suppress the release of prolactin, which in turn can actually cause depression and a grief reaction. So once I began feeling better physically, I was feeling much worse mentally.
I didn’t indulge in enough hot showers
Because I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for what weaning would entail, I didn’t change anything in my busy schedule. Shepherding the children all over town to school and nursery and extra-curricular activities while juggling my own work commitments and deadlines meant I rarely had the downtime to hop into the shower and ease the pain with warm water. When I did, it made such a difference. But any mother will tell you: long, hot showers – let alone indulgent baths – are a luxury far removed from our everyday.
I threw out my pump
One piece of advice I received repeatedly from other mothers was to ease the pain of engorgement by using a pump to express a tiny amount of milk. It would relieve the pressure of trapped milk, and gradually you pump less and less as your milk dry up. However, I gave away my pump more than a year ago when my baby began refusing to drink milk from bottles and I had no reason to pump anymore. Big mistake.
I underestimated the mental anguish
It took seven days for my milk to dry up and for the pain to go away, but much, much longer for the blues to recede, and I had no idea I would be grieving for so long. Everyone tells you that you should rejoice when you’re done nursing: you’re free, you can wear whatever you want, you can toss out the nursing tops and nursing bras and reclaim your body. I couldn’t relate to that, and it made me feel lacking, or just plain wrong.
What I did right
I drank plenty of sage tea and even took some sage pills, after reading that the herb would help dry up milk, and I think that helped. I prepared my husband for how difficult it would be to hear our son sob through the night.
Without my husband there to carry our distraught baby and soothe him all night long, I couldn’t have done it; I physically couldn’t hold my baby from the pain in my breasts and I emotionally would not have been able to hold out and stick to my plan.
It took three nights of intense sobbing before my baby boy stopped begging for milk incessantly, but it took close to two months before he stopped asking, in his own way, if he could nurse.
What truly surprised me, though, was that it took less than a few hours on our first day of weaning before he climbed onto my lap, of his own accord, and indulged in a few moments of cuddling, which almost brought me to my knees in gratitude. I had always been secretly terrified that giving up breastfeeding would also mean giving up my precious bonding moments with a second child who doesn’t often get the attention he deserves, because life gets in the way.
He proved me wrong, and it’s that, I think, that helped me get through the low points and the mental anguish. I was still his mother; he still needed me. We’ve made it to the other side, and I’m finally okay with letting him become his own, big boy – and for me to gain a little bit of freedom, too.
Hala Khalaf is a freelance journalist and mom of two living in Dubai, who has written extensively about health and diabetes.