Friday 22 January 2010

The evolution of the nursing relationship

"When my son was only a few days old, it morbidly occurred to me that if I knew my son and I had only a few more minutes together (end of the world, certain death, impending separation, what have you), I would want to spend those few minutes breastfeeding him. It is (during his less distractible sessions) our quiet bonding time. He is happy, content, peaceful. He snuggles in, grabs my breast with both hands, sometimes pats one hand gently against my neck. I love his grin-around-the-breast when I smile down at him. It is our peaceful way of drifting off to sleep at night and before naps.

There is simply nothing else in our day that makes him so content and makes me feel so much like a Mother."

~ Ode to Breasts blog post, Oct 07

My little boy is really and truly weaned now.

I don't know when he nursed for the very last time, which makes me a bit sad, but done he is. This realization has left me reflecting on the past two and a half years and the unique way in which our nursing relationship evolved.

It was a wonderfully precious time for both of us, with all of its physical, emotional, and relational benefits. He latched on as soon as he was placed on my chest, and he never looked back. This child loved his milk.

I, meanwhile, was slathering on the Lansinoh. It was an uncomfortable beginning for me. I was happy to do it, grateful to be able to provide this nourishment and comfort to my child, but that didn't make the cracks, blisters, and "toughening up" period any less painful. Add to that the pins-and-needles letdown, and I pretty much gritted my teeth through the first several sucks each time he latched on.

As the days went on, the bleeding stopped, the blisters disappeared, and the wonderfully soothing Lansinoh eased any lingering rawness. Soon, rather than grimacing as I sat down to feed my son, I looked forward to our quiet time of nursing and bonding. Days turned into weeks; weeks turned into months. I loved his eager expectation and the way he came to excitedly sign "milk" - much improved over his previous method of jamming his head into my chest or trying to lift up my shirt!

As with any relationship, there were ups and downs. One moment I would be melting at a silly mid-session grin, while the next I'd be plunking him down on the floor after being bit. One morning I would laugh at his frantic rooting as I prepared to feed him, while the next I would sigh over yet another shirt change as spit up ran down my side or milk leaked down my front. Some days I would delight in his sweet looks and gentle pats as he nursed; some nights I would swear I couldn't handle being woken up even one more time to nurse a hungry baby.

I had some particularly difficult moments when he reached his first birthday. I couldn't even begin to imagine weaning him at that point. He was still my baby, and there were still all of those physical, emotional, and relational benefits to consider. None of that changed just because he turned one year old, nor did I want to wean him. What I did want, though, was a little brother or sister for my sweet boy, and thanks to breastfeeding, that wasn't happening for me.

At one year, his diet was mainly breastmilk. We had introduced solids at six months, but those first several months of solid food were more for play and experimentation than anything else. Believing in a baby-led-solids approach, he was offered food that he could self-feed. Just as feeding on cue had, this allowed him to follow his natural appetite in choosing when and how much to eat. It wasn't until he was about 15 months old that he was eating significant amounts of solid food.

When he was 18 months old and no longer relying on breastmilk as his main source of nutrition, I began to cut back on the number of his nursing sessions. Still infertile at this point, I was beginning to resent breastfeeding and knew that it was time to make that change before our nursing relationship was adversely affected. I gradually cut back on our daytime nursing sessions until he was nursing only three times a day - morning, before his afternoon nap, and at bedtime. It was a slow and gentle process with little upset, but it was a difficult decision to make nonetheless. Even in hindsight, I am not convinced that it was the right choice to make, but neither am I convinced it was the wrong one. It simply is what it is.

I was positively giddy when, 21 months after my son was born, my period finally returned. I began to truly enjoy nursing my toddler in a way that, until then, had been clouded by frustration over its corresponding lack of fertility. I had love the warm snuggliness of nursing a newborn, the sweet silliness of nursing a happy baby, and the precious bonding of nursing a yearling, but this business of nursing a toddler was something entirely different. There were the breastfed dinosaurs and cars. The sly requests for milk when he knew the answer would be no, and the laughing attempts to latch on anyway. The sleepy cuddles while nursing in the morning. The relief of being able to nurse a sick child who would eat and drink nothing else.

When we found that we were joyfully expecting our second child, I was grateful for each week that my milk supply remained unaffected. I temporarily returned to work full time, and while I was sad to leave my son, it was a good four months of bonding between him and his dad. Because I left before he woke up, he no longer nursed in the morning. For a while he would nurse when I came home for lunch - and then one day he didn't. As my sensitivity to nursing grew along with my stomach, I nightweaned him, which he accepted with relative ease. In this way, he went from three nursing sessions a day plus nightwakings, to only one nursing session at bedtime. He was a little over two years old at this point.

Then my milk supply disappeared, and the pain while nursing increased. I began to shorten the length of time for which I would nurse him at bedtime, replacing that nighttime routine with other methods of comfort. By the time he was two and a half, he nursed for only a minute or less at bedtime. Then it was mere seconds. Then it was less than a second - not even a real latch on. I joked to my husband that he was just "kissing them goodnight" by that point. One night, instead of wanting milk, he asked to lay on them, leaning against my bare chest for a short while before climbing in bed. Then...nothing.

Not that he ignored them. Not at all! He just seemed to transfer their possession to his yet-to-be-born little brother. He had been aware for a long time that he would have to share mommy's milk with the new baby. Now that he was done nursing, he was content to hand them over entirely. Any mention of them was done in conjunction with the baby. He no longer asked to nurse, but he would occasionally state that when the milk came back after the baby was born, he could have mommy's milk again.

And yet here the baby is, one month old, and still no mention of him nursing again. While he often watches the baby nurse and comments on the baby having mommy's milk, he has never once asked to have any himself. Now that I know this, now that I know I won't be tandem nursing, I can say it officially - my little boy is weaned.

He's growing up.

I'm not disappointed that he has no interest in resuming nursing, but it is a little bittersweet, nonetheless, to realize that he is really and truly done. It was a precious time. Its comfort has been replaced with other comforts, its bonding has been replaced with other activities, and its nutrition is no longer relied upon. While I still question the limits imposed at 18 months, and wonder how long he would have nursed if not for the pregnancy, it was done, for the most part, on his terms and in his timing.

While I do choose not to actively wean my toddlers, nursing boundaries are definitely put in place along the way. Babies may not “twiddle”, a distracted baby will be given an opportunity to nurse at a later time when s/he is more focused on eating, and a biter will immediately be set on the floor for a few seconds (and possibly be startled by my involuntary gasp or yell). Older babies and toddlers must ask politely rather than tug on Mommy’s shirt for milk, and toddlers no longer get to nurse on demand – sometimes Mommy’s busy, and sometimes she just plain doesn’t wanna nurse you, hon. Because of my body’s sensitivity to nursing as far as fertility goes, I do limit nursing for toddlers slightly more than I perhaps would otherwise – morning, naptime, bedtime, nightwakings (though increasingly discouraged the older they get) and occasionally at one or two other moments during the day, but this is a gradual and gentle process that evolves along with the individual child.

And here I am again, beginning from the start, a sweet little baby to nurse over the next months and years. More darling gazes, more tiny hands patting my side, more lovely milk breath; more spit up, more wet shirts, more laundry; more nourishment, more bonding, more comfort. No pain this time around, though - I'm happy to leave that out!

I look forward to watching the evolution of another nursing relationship, with its myriad of benefits and its own beautifully unique path. What a perfect system God has designed for a mother to nourish her child!

(And to all you sickos out there - here ya go. Another entry with the word "breast" in it, so you can fill my stat counter with hit after hit of "breast" searches leading to my blog. I'm sure you all have highly admirable purposes in mind. Probably searching for articles on breasts. Perhaps digging up information on their use, or their structure, or how the whole milk-making thing works. Yeah. That's probably it.)


  1. your note at the end cracked me up!! lol

  2. This was a lovely entry. This bond seems so strong :) I can't wait to have that one day.

  3. nice post. thanks.