I have written before about how I struggled to establish breastfeeding with both of my boys. There is a lot on the internet about how hard it can be to start breastfeeding, but something that gets less attention is just how hard it can be to stop breastfeeding! This is a time that can be difficult emotionally, physically and practically.
Emotionally – because it’s a little sad to move on from that lovely physical closeness with your baby.
Physically – because you have to stop feeding gradually to avoid engorged breasts and complications like mastitis.
Practically – because you worry whether your baby will be getting enough nutrients elsewhere / whether baby will take a bottle or cup / whether baby will go to sleep without the comfort of the breast.
I fed my sons until they were 18 and 16 months old, respectively. When I stopped with each of them, I was definitely ready to move on. At least in my head I was ready to move on. My heart and the rest of my body was not quite so convinced. There were several stages of stopping breastfeeding and at every point I worried and worried.
Going back to work
Obviously if you want to go to work, you have to find a way to be able to leave your baby for a full day without receiving any breastfeed directly from you. I know that lots of mums worry about how to do this and I was one of them. I was mostly okay with my first son because I already was combination feeding him, so he was happy to take a bottle full of formula in the day. I had more trouble with my second, who downright refused to take a bottle or any formula.
Many mums manage to express milk to be fed to their children in their absence via a bottle or cup. I was not one of them. When I went back to work with my youngest he was 9 months old. I halfheartedly suggested to his nursery that they could offer him a cup full of formula in the day. He never would drink it. Eventually, he just got older and didn’t need that milk in the day anyway.
He happily started drinking cow’s milk from a cup when he was 1. So everything just worked out. I worried a lot but it seems my baby just got on with things. I want to tell mums not to worry as much as I did – that your baby will find a way to get on with things without you physically there to feed, regardless of whether you’re expressing / they’ll take a bottle / cup / formula, etc. But you probably won’t listen to me and worry anyway. It’s okay to worry.
There eventually came a point in my feeding, when each boy was about 1 year old, that I thought they were just taking the mickey with night feeds. They were definitely eating and drinking enough in the day, and yet at around this age they started waking more than ever and demanding milk every couple of hours. So I decided to “night wean” them, meaning no more milk in the middle of the night.
My decision to do this was fraught with guilt and worry. First of all, I worried that they wouldn’t go back to sleep at all if I didn’t feed them back to sleep. I worried that I might be depriving them of something they needed. And I felt sad about moving on from those sleepy middle-of-the-night cuddles.
But at the same time I was exhausted from getting up multiple times in the night and feeding for at least half an hour each time. I was certain they were getting enough food and milk in the day. I was desperate to be able to sleep a whole night and let my husband settle them for me if they woke. Or even more exciting, to feed them to sleep at bedtime and then go out for the evening without needing to feed again until morning!
So I tried settling them with sips of water and pushing the length of time between night feeds by 30 minutes each night until they were going all night without a feed. It took ages before they adjusted to the change, but it did work eventually. Both my babies actually slept better when they weren’t having milk all night. I wonder if maybe it gave them upset tummies to feed all night.
Dropping the last feeds
So at some point I got to the stage when the only feeds my babies were having were 1 in the morning and 1 before bed. I did things quite differently with my two at this stage.
With my first, I decided to cut out the evening feed first, because I wanted to break the association with breastfeeding and going to sleep. It took a long time for him to learn to settle without the breast, but eventually we got there. I think carried on with the morning milk until one day he rolled away from me and giggled in the morning instead of latching on. So that was it. I was a little sad about moving on, but it seemed like the choice had been his, so I was at peace with that.
With my youngest I was less organised and less patient. I had such trouble night weaning him, that I just couldn’t face trying to cut out that last nighttime feed. So I just wandered off! I went on a work trip and left my husband to deal with the fallout. As it turns out, with my boobs in a different country, my baby went to sleep just fine with cuddles from daddy. Go figure. I brought my breast pump with me in case of engorgement, but it seems not much milk was in there anyway as I didn’t feel like I needed to pump at all.
So the reason I thought I’d share my story is because I was emotional, worried, and sometimes even guilty throughout the process of stopping breastfeeding. And I remember googling “stopping breastfeeding” to try to find reassurance, but there wasn’t much out there.
So what I’d like to say is:
- it’s okay to feed for as long as you like
- but it’s also okay to stop whenever YOU want or need to
- it’s okay to feel emotional
- but you and and your baby will be fine.
If you really need some extra support, consider talking to your local NCT breastfeeding counsellor or visiting a breastfeeding support group. They will be able to offer you personalised support and advice, and many will be able to relate to what you’re going through.