With both of my children, I imagined allowing them to nurse until they decided it was time to finish, and though they both nursed until they were two years old, the decision to stop was mine, not theirs. It broke my heart. Both times.
When my daughter was eighteen months old, we decided starting to try to conceive a sibling. When it wasn’t happening, I started cutting her down from nursing on demand to nursing three times a day. A couple of months later, it still wasn’t happening, so I cut it down to once a day or so. Then one day I had some bleeding between cycles so I went to my OB/GYN to check it out. I discovered that it was just ovulation bleeding (who knew?) and while I was there I casually mentioned to the doctor that I was trying to conceive and also told him that my daughter was still nursing. He told me that if I was going to take conception seriously, I had to wean. My heart dropped. I knew of plenty of people who got pregnant while nursing, but I also knew that just because it can happen doesn’t mean it would happen for me. I cried the entire drive home and prayed aloud as I struggled between my desire to continue nursing my two year old and my desire to give her a sibling. Weaning her would be a gamble. What if we weren’t fertile? What if we were never meant to have another child and I gave up that precious bond between us? What if I gave it up never to have it again? By the time I came home, I had decided. I had to try for another child and she would eventually have to give up nursing one day anyway. I didn’t want to give up what could be my only shot at getting pregnant again. I lay down in her bed with her and my husband took photos as we nursed for one of the last times and I explained to her that we were going to stop nursing now. She was a big girl and she didn’t need it anymore. I still remember the feeling of her warm, snuggly body next to mine as she smiled, nodded, with her eyes latched on mine and her mouth latched on my breast. She was an early talker and capable of very full conversations at this point so she understood what I was telling her and she accepted it. The weeks passed and every once in awhile she had a moment where she really needed to nurse and I had a moment where I wanted to cherish that one last time one more time. I think she nursed a total of five times throughout the remainder of that month. If I remember correctly, her final time was on my sister’s couch while one of my siblings commented on how old she was to keep nursing.
When I finally conceived my son, I knew that it would be different with him. I would never, ever force him to wean. Ever. He would nurse until he was eight years old if that’s what he chose. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe not. But I surely envisioned nursing him until he was at least three years of age. So, while he was nursing five to eight times a day, often choosing my milk instead of meals if he was feeling particularly picky, I was utterly and completely surprised to discover that my body was capable of conceiving while nursing. On demand. Nearly full time. I was shocked! The boy nursed so much that I was dropping weight by the week. I was constantly getting compliments on my efforts to trim down, and I never exercised or watched what I ate. My boy was just increasing his calorie intake and I wasn’t keeping up. I dropped below my first prepregnancy weight and had just enough time to get into a flamenco dress that had fit me during my semester abroad in college when I realized I was five days late and took the test. All that nursing and losing weight and I’d still managed to get pregnant. I know I should have been overjoyed. I know that many women can never conceive and I should have been delighted at my quick and unexpected success, but I was filled with fear. Crippling fear. Flash backs from the murky days of hyperemesis gravidarum from my son filled my senses and I grieved as I watched my unsuspecting children playing and depending upon me, not knowing whether I would have the strength, energy, or health to continue caring for them in the coming months. My son was asking to nurse constantly and I had never once denied him that. But because of my fear and my sudden need to hoard my calories, I started denying him the one thing he loved more than anything.
“Nurse?” he walked up to me all sweet and innocent, wanting more than just the milk, but the connection we shared when he nursed. “No, baby. Not now.” I said, in tears, the fear and trauma of my last pregnancy filling my senses. “We can’t nurse as often anymore,” I responded. He threw his head back and screamed. Then he asked again. And again. When I continued to say no he forcefully tried to remove my shirt and get to the milk himself and my heart broke for him and for me. But my fear was so powerful. I knew what could happen from experience. I knew how quickly a very sick pregnant woman can drop the pounds and I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to nurse at the same rate through that sickness. I didn’t cut him off completely, I hoped that I could just cut him back and get through the first trimester or however long it took to start feeling better and then resume nursing on demand. I also did some research and found that many women who suffer hyperemesis gravidarum find relief when they breastfeed through it. So, I rationed him to 1-3 times a day. The problem was that when he nursed, I became terribly hungry and hungry for someone who has severe morning sickness means more, severe morning sickness. That, and the fact that I was over salivating and vomiting 24 times a day meant I was struggling to stay hydrated. One day as I attempted to teach, my vision started disappearing and I got very dizzy. I talked to someone at my OB/midwives’ office and they suggested high blood pressure from dehydration. I went to the school nurse, and sure enough, that was the case. I only started seeing clearly again when I was able to keep water down, which was so hard when drinking made me sick, I always had to spit out the extra saliva, and I’d nursed my son on top of all that. It felt like such an impossible situation. When I nursed him, I could feel that there was nothing left for me and I was too sick to try to rehydrate or eat more calories. Eating or drinking more sometimes just made me vomit more which left me with even less of what I needed for myself and the baby. I often would cut him off after only a few minutes. He hated it, but learned to accept it and slowly stopped asking for it as much. While I was feeling so terribly, this was a relief. It meant no more fighting him.
Then, around twelve to fourteen weeks, I experienced something I’ve never experienced this early in a pregnancy before—the morning sickness subsided. It was nearly non- existent. I actually felt better throughout most of the day. I still struggled with a little nausea caused by heartburn in the early morning and early evening, which was when Baby Bear wanted to nurse the most. I nursed him anyway, but if he forgot, I didn’t force it. In addition, my nipples were suddenly more sore than normal. When he latched, it hurt like I was nursing for the very first time. By halfway through my second trimester, though, I almost felt like I wasn’t pregnant at all. Whole days would pass and I’d feel so normal that I’d have to remind myself I was pregnant. I was ready to nurse again. I was ready to give my little guy all the milk he wanted from me. Unfortunately, he had gotten out of the habit and didn’t really want to nurse anymore. In the evenings, he rarely asked to nurse anymore. If I asked him if he wanted to, he normally said yes, but I was almost always the one to initiate it. And sometimes, he said no. I noticed that when he had a bad diaper rash and I tried to squirt breast milk on it, nothing was coming out. My milk supply was seriously dwindling. This was also weird to me, since during the twelve months that we were trying to conceive my son after I’d weaned my daughter, I had never run out of milk. I’d come to the conclusion that maybe my body intended to lactate eternally. Yet, here I was, not yet weaned, and I had barely any milk. One sad day, my son said to me, “No more milk. All gone.” He still nursed, but he wasn’t doing it for the calories anymore and it was obvious he wasn’t able to get much actual milk from me. Nursing was now for the comfort and the bonding.
Soon after this, he seemed to forget how to latch or simply chose not to do so, yet he still attempted to nurse. He would ask for it or I would offer and he’d put his mouth on my breast, but he wouldn’t suck. It was like he wanted to keep doing it but he had forgotten how. I remember the last time he actually latched on and sucked. It was before a naptime shortly after switching him to his big boy bed and I was snuggling him. He couldn’t calm down to fall asleep and in desperation, he finally decided to suck. He nursed himself to sleep. It hurt so badly I curled my toes in reaction to the pain, but it was so sweet that I didn’t dare stop him. In the days that followed I asked him a couple of times a day if he wanted to nurse. Sometimes he said yes. Sometimes no, but when he did, he never latched and eventually he said no more often than yes. A little after his second birthday, he simply stopped wanting it and I tried hard not to be heartbroken about his forced decision. At least this way I wouldn’t have to figure out tandem nursing.
Theoretically, my son chose to stop nursing. It was his decision. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I never had cut him off so abruptly during my first trimester. Those first two months of pregnancy were miserable and nursing just seemed like too big a burden to support in addition to everything else, so I staunched his supply. After fighting me for weeks, he gave in and decided he was comfortable with the new normal and didn’t want to go back.
Now I’m almost into the third trimester with my third child and again, I’ve resolved that this one will wean when he or she decides to do so. I have dreams and plans of nursing well past the point of “if they’re asking for it, they’re too old for it,” because I don’t want to have to break off this sweet bond so early. Nursing a toddler is exhausting, it’s tiring, it’s wiggly and it’s a wrestling match, but it’s still oh, so sweet and as a mom who is no longer nursing, sometimes I am grasping for ways other ways to give comfort for boo boos and disappointment and sickness. I really hope that with my third child I will be able to leave the decision to wean entirely up to my child.
Becca is a long-time Diaper Junction blog contributor and cloth diapering mom.