Why did no one tell me how hard it is to stop breastfeeding?

There's plenty of info out there about how to breastfeed successfully. But when it comes to stopping, where's all the help?

Photo: iStockPhoto

“Baboo! Baboo!” my daughter cried, reaching her open hands toward my breasts like a teen boy who wanted to honk them.

At sixteen months, she could toddle, she could babble, she could eat solid foods and drink milk from a cup, but she still wanted to breastfeed. And I wanted to stop.

Every discussion I ever heard about breastfeeding revolved around stuff like “Are you breastfeeding?,” whether breast is really best (fed is best, by the way), the health benefits of breastfeeding, the dangers of not doing it and the mental health benefits and problems of breastfeeding.

Once in a while you might hear someone talk about how difficult breastfeeding is, what a pain in the neck pumping can be and how hard it is to reach the one-year mark recommended by pediatricians.

But not once—not when I decided to breastfeed, despite my mediocre supply, my tongue-tied toddler, my sleepless nights—did anyone tell me how impossible it would be to stop.

I wanted to stop breastfeeding so I could consider getting pregnant again, so I could resume running and so I could let someone else (my husband) enjoy my breasts again.

Before I stopped the nursing train, I asked around for tips from friends and family. But no one was much help.

“Oh, my son just lost interest at about six months,” said my closest mom friend—you know the type for whom everything seems to come easy: she was never engorged or had supply problems, her son falls asleep in ten seconds flat, etc. I wish I had it that easy!

My girl had refused the bottle at about five months and didn’t look like she was going to lose interest in my nipples anytime soon. “Are you going to be one of those women who are nursing a five-year-old standing on a stool?” my husband asked, referring to the infamous Time magazine cover. He’d been a big supporter of me nursing, but thought I should wind it down after a year. He wanted me to get more than four hours of free time, a full nights’ sleep, and more bonding time for him with our daughter.

He and I were in complete agreement that it was time for me to stop breastfeeding. There was only one person not on board: the baby.

How ever was I going to wean her?

A funny thing happened as I searched for answers in a popular book that promised to be a “guide to weaning.” The authors refused to say how to wean, instead they heaped on guilt and fear, even to someone weaning a one-year old.

Premature weaning can cause “diseases” like “anger, aggression and generally disorganized behavior,” the book warned. They cite an anthropologist’s study finding adverse reactions to weaning a child between 13 and 18 months (my situation!). Maybe you “should wait till [they’re] three or four,” the book advises, because “children rarely initiate weaning between one and four.”

ARGH! They were like my Jewish grandmother, who would never let me leave. “What? You just got here! Stay another hour,” she’d say although I’d already been there for four.     Photo of a mother breastfeeding    
   What nobody ever told me about breastfeeding

I couldn’t even take the book’s meager advice, that if I must wean, to do it gently, gradually, one feeding at a time: not while my daughter was wailing and shrieking and pawing at my tight, no-access shirt.

Oh, I felt so cruel. I’d worked so hard to give her everything for so long—early motherhood seemed to be all about splaying myself on the mantle of sacrifice. And now was I supposed to start withholding? It felt much worse, taking something back for myself.

My husband saw my wavering and knew I was in trouble. Our tot’s cries didn’t turn a screw in his soul like they did to me. To be honest, I really loved a lot about breastfeeding—how we’d lock eyes, this magical creature and I, how we’d trade body fluids, and how each of us ended up nourished. Maybe the books were right, and I should just continue…forever?

“It won’t get any easier,” my husband reminded me. I’d heard this about parenting in general, how it doesn’t get easier, but I didn’t believe it. What could possibly be harder than those water-torture nights where I’d be awakened just as I’d finally relinquished myself to sweet slumber? What could possibly be more terrifying than being solely responsible for keeping alive a creature who couldn’t communicate except by excruciating screeching? A teenager’s sullen sneers—oh puhleez.

In the end, what kept me to my promise was the certainty of my “unsupportive partner” (as the nursing book called anyone who called for weaning). He reminded me how I’d dragged my foot at every milestone—making the baby do tummy time, moving her to a crib, letting her cry herself to sleep. “Will you even let her go to college, when it’s time,” he jokingly asked.

It was time. I couldn’t distract the kid; I couldn’t go for a walk and hope she’d “forget” because she’d smell my leaky boobs and need her fix; I couldn’t stop her by putting mustard on my boobs—she just suckled through it; and I couldn’t “talk” her out of her fixation.

Her fixation was me, so I had to leave. Cruel, cruel mama. Mama went away—on an airplane, where she couldn’t be tempted to drive home—and took her baboos with her. Baby was sad. Did baby miss mama or did baby miss mama’s baboos? Was there even a difference?

All those terrors the books had warned me about—pain, engorgement, mastitis, the end of the world—they all failed to materialize. Also, I didn’t ruin my daughter’s life. Sure, she did paw and claw at me for a few days when I returned, but I stuck to my no-second-base rule because I knew she’d been four days without her baboos and survived.

It changed our relationship, though, but in some really nice ways. She almost immediately let me to snuggle, kiss and hug her more (nursing had seemed to be enough physical contact before). I swear she also started walking—no, running!—more, farther and farther away from me. Whole nights alone were also spent with her father.

A year later and she’s still very attached to me, just not to my body. Actually, my little motor mouth thinks it is sooo funny when I tell her about nursing. “Milk? From your boobies?” as she now calls them.

Parenting, I see, is not necessarily getting easier—not with an exuberant, opinionated girl on my hands. But with each milestone—crib, walking, talking, toilet training—I get a little stronger and readier to move on.

Maybe at this rate, I’ll let her go to college…by the time she’s 25.

Read more:
Why this lactation consultant told a new mom to stop breastfeeding
7 breastfeeding tips every nursing mom has to read

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