When you hear the term ‘baby-led weaning’ (BLW), some think of the magical time when baby starts to eat solids foods, usually after 6 months of age, and after certain milestones have been reached. Others consider ‘weaning’ to be the time when baby stops nursing completely. Though some of the terminology overlaps, I’d like to clarify that in this particular post, I am referring to the time when baby stops breastfeeding completely, rather than the time where solid foods are introduced.
In the ‘crunchy mama’ circles, BLW refers to the practice of continuing to breastfeed a baby well past infancy, until the child no longer wants to nurse. BLW means that baby sets the pace, and the mother continues to breastfeed until baby decides that s/he is done. Many babies continue nursing for a couple of years, some even nurse for what it termed ‘full term breastfeeding’, which is based on the biological norm of somewhere between 4-7 years, as Katherine Dettweyler’s research indicates. It’s hard for a new mom, with a precious squishy newborn, to imagine but as your ‘baby’ grows you don’t see the baby turning into a toddler. Breastfeeding becomes such a normal part of your day, and of how you mother, that discontinuing seems odd. ‘Mothering at the breast’ is what La Leche League calls it, and there’s ample research to back breastfeeding for several years. As the child gets older, it’s also referred to as ‘child-led weaning’ (CLW).
I was fortunate, in that breastfeeding was normal for me. Growing up, I’d seen my mother and aunts nurse their babies, so when I was pregnant with my first child, I knew that I was planning to breastfeed. Normal though it was, it wasn’t easy right off the bad like I’d been expecting. I had trouble during the first 4 weeks of so with my son’s latch. I was discouraged, and in pain. I wish I’d known then that breastfeeding has a learning curve, and what I was experiencing was normal, in that it was a common problem, but relatively easily fixed with the right knowledge and support. Once I found that support (through my area’s La Leche League peer support group), breastfeeding was much easier, and enjoyable.
As I learned more about breastfeeding, it became more of a passion. I had wanted to breastfeed, but education about it outside of LLL was severely lacking in my area. I knew that I wasn’t the first mom to plan on nursing, only to have a lack of knowledge on my part compromise my success. I heard time and time again, new mothers say that they were planning to ‘try’ breastfeeding. Overwhelmingly, the attitude was one of defeat before the baby was ever even born! It was so common here to expect to fail at breastfeeding that I was prompted to get involved. I read everything I could find on breastfeeding, from humour to published medical research. I studied the anthropological and economic histories of breastfeeding. I went to LLL meetings and connected with other LLL Leaders all over the US, and finally, I went through the process of becoming a LLL Leader while I was pregnant with my second child (during which I continued to breastfeed my older son, and then tandem nursed for some time after my new babe was born). Along the way, during all of my studies, I formed some pretty intense personal ideals of what breastfeeding ‘should’ look like. I wasn’t as keen to push those ideals onto others, but I am sure they leaked out now and again.
I share that bit of history to illustrate just how much of a breastfeeding advocate I was. I was absolutely dedicated breastfeeding my own children, and to helping moms know the joy of breastfeeding their own babies. Looking back, I am sure I was overly zealous, even annoying, with my crusade to help. But that’s really where my enthusiasm came from; a desire to help. I knew how much mis-information was out there, and how awful it feels to think that breastfeeding won’t work out for your baby. For every mom who was exasperated with my determination to help them succeed, there were ten who were intensely grateful for the support. It wasn’t until I really began working with moms who were having issues that were unrelated to education that my ‘intensity’ began to wane. Seeing moms who really, really gave it their all without success was heartbreaking. Working with moms who eventually had to decide between being a happy mom and being a nursing mom was really eye opening. Time and maturity works its magic, and I learned so much from the moms I worked with. But even recognizing that desire isn’t the only factor in breastfeeding success didn’t temper my own goals and ideals for my plan to nurse my own babies until they were done, rather than according to an external timetable.
I have to admit that during the time, I was also dealing with some fairly serious depression and anxiety issues (though both conditions would remain diagnosed for quite some time yet). Despite how bad it was internally, I managed to put on a happy face and keep on keepin’ on. But nursing two babes was hard – harder than I would have admitted back then. It’s stressful on your time, body, and nutritionally. I did what I thought was best for my family at the time, and while I don’t regret making that choice, it was really hard to admit it when I realized that I didn’t want to nurse both of them anymore. I’d been such an advocate of child-led weaning, and now, here I was changing my mind about it? It was unthinkable!
But that’s the reality. I did change my mind about it, because prior to making the decision to follow child-led weaning, I wasn’t in a position to find any fault with it. But as a touched-out, tandem nursing mama with serious depression, I wasn’t doing myself, or my children, any favors by continuing to stick to an ideal that didn’t work within my family dynamic anymore, regardless of how well-intentioned that ideal was. So, because I am me and research is my thing, I started reading. What I found was a pretty big division between the ‘strictly child-led weaning’ set and the ‘wean on Mom’s timetable’ set without a lot of in-between. I didn’t fit into either camp – I still ‘believed in’ child-led weaning, but only so long as it works for both mom and baby/child. In my case, it didn’t. I needed to wean my older child so that I could continue to nurse my baby. And so that’s what I did. Over the course of 6 months or so, I slowly and gently weaned my oldest and continued to nurse my baby on-demand.
But that didn’t make it any easier for me to let go of the feelings of guilt and failure that came with not following through on an ideal that I was so whole-heartedly committed to in the past.Thankfully, our local breastfeeding support community, which was La Leche League of Beaumont at the time, and is now the Beaumont Breastfeeding Coalition, was very supportive of my decision to wean as it suited my family’s needs – or in this case, my personal needs, because my needs matter, too.
The biggest issue I have with the CLW ideal is that it doesn’t take into consideration mom’s needs while she’s nursing. For some women, nursing is a huge tactile issue as baby gets older and bigger – more squirmy and active at the breast. As fertility returns, some moms get antsy or start feeling ‘touched out‘ while nursing, leaving little desire or tolerance for intimacy with her partner. Some women become pregnant, and their choice in the matter is stripped away as their bodies focus on growing a new baby. Some moms, including myself, needed to go on medication, or have medical procedures that preclude nursing, or that would interfere too much with breastfeeding. There are myriad reasons why women need to wean their babies, and yes, sometimes, it may be just because Mom is *done* – and that’s OKAY. Breastfeeding is a relationship, not a task. As nursing mothers, we are in partnership with our babies while they’re breastfeeding. Though babies under one year very seldom wean themselves, if at any time, breastfeeding no longer works for mom, especially once Mom’s goals have been reached, she should be able to wean without feeling guilty for it.
So, child-led weaning didn’t work for me, but that’s okay. I still nursed my boys far longer than the national average. I met most of my nursing goals, and learned to make other milestones and goals as a parent. Though it may seem silly to quibble over something like how/when baby weaned, that was the first time that I truly had to put what I *thought* out of my head and go with what worked for me. And that’s what all moms should feel confident in doing.