Weaning had been on my mind for a while.
In January I shared my thoughts about nursing — and potentially weaning — a toddler.
In March I weaned Oliver’s morning feed, leaving only a single feed before bedtime. The process didn’t go as well as I’d hoped it would, and I was filled with regret about the way I chose to do it.
About a month later, things started to improve. Oliver’s protestations after night feedings diminished from several minutes of truly upset crying, to just a few seconds of half-hearted fussing. I began to gradually scale back the length of his feeds, until they were only 10 to 15 minutes long.
Then Oliver started ending his own feeds. He would nurse for a few minutes on one side, pop off and ask, “Other side?” A few minutes after switching sides, he would declare, “All done,” before scurrying down from my lap to try to get into some pre-bedtime mischief.
I was really hoping Oliver would simply lose interest on his own. And perhaps he would have eventually, if I’d given it enough time. But alas, I reached my limit of squirming, kicking, scratching, throat punching and painfully abysmal latching. I chose May 14th, Oliver’s 21-month “birthday,” as our final day of nursing.
On May 12th, I began to prepare Oliver for the impending weaning. At bedtime, just before nursing him, I pulled him into my lap and said to him, “Oliver, listen very carefully. Mommy has something important to tell you. Soon we are not going to have milkies anymore.” He began to cry.
I continued, “Tonight you can have milkies, tomorrow night you can have milkies, and the next night you can have milkies, but after that, milkies will be all finished.” Then I reiterated, “Tonight we will have milkies.” He stopped crying and nursed, cutting himself off after less than 10 minutes.
The next night, I repeated the process, and he didn’t cry. Again, he nursed for a short time and then cut himself off. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, he had actually internalized from those preparatory conversations.
On his final night of nursing, we started his bedtime routine early, just in case, but I suspected it would largely go the same way as the previous two nights. More than anything, it was the following night — the first night of no nursing — that I was worried about.
Once again, I sat him on my lap. “Oliver,” I began, “Remember what Mommy told you? Tonight is the last night we are going to have milkies. After tonight there will be no more milkies, but we can read stories and cuddle and sing songs.” He didn’t even flinch.
He started nursing, and continued for about 15 minutes before finally asking to switch sides. He nursed about another 15 minutes on the other side, then asked to switch sides again. I realized at that point that he understood exactly what was happening, and that he was going to continue nursing for as long as he possibly could. Unfortunately, while I thought I’d left plenty of time, I had a sleep consultation booked for 8:00 PM, and after another 15 minutes, I was running out of time and I had to cut him off.
On his last night of nursing, I had to cut him off before he was ready to finish.
I wished with all my heart that I had thought that through more carefully, but I honestly didn’t expect that Oliver would want to nurse for more than 10 or 15 minutes. So with a heavy heart, I told Oliver, “We have to finish up now. I’m going to sing Baa baa black sheep, and when I’m finished singing, we have to stop.” It was pretty much the slowest and saddest Baa baa black sheep I’ve ever sung, and it took everything I had to keep from bawling, knowing that these were Oliver’s last few seconds of nursing… ever.
As soon as I stopped singing, Oliver began to cry. Not just his usual cry, but a distinctly pained, mournful and desperate cry. He knew it was over for good. I held him and cried too. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see him so upset, but I knew that going back on my word would only make things worse at this point. The best I could do was be there for him, hold him, and try to take the weight of his emotions.
We cuddled and cried for a while, and then in a very sad voice, Oliver told me that he was hungry. I didn’t believe he was actually hungry (I figured this was another way of asking for milk), but by his third request, I decided to humour him and offer half an avocado. We broke all of our household eating rules as Oliver ate his avocado in his bedroom, seated on J’s lap, after having brushed his teeth. He devoured the first half, and then asked for more.
As much food as Oliver eats at supper, I guess he has always been saving a little bit of his appetite for his pre-bedtime milk, and he got caught off guard.
When I initially decided to wean, I thought it might be easier for both of us if I were to be out of the house for the first few days during Oliver’s bedtime. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that leaving was just was a cop-out — a way to avoid dealing with the tough stuff. Weaning was likely going to stir up some strong emotions for both of us, and it was most important for me to be fully present to support Oliver and allow all of his emotions to be processed.
The following evening (the first official night of weaning) we had more tears, as Oliver faced his new reality. When I came into his bedroom, he immediately gathered all of the toys he used to hold during nursing, as if having those items in his hands would somehow ensure the return of his beloved “milkies.” It, too, was a sad and difficult night, but not nearly as heart-wrenching as the first night. Once Oliver finally settled down, we cuddled and read a few stories.
On the second night of weaning, he asked for “milkies” again, but fussed only briefly before quickly settling into my lap for some stories. On the third night, he didn’t even ask, and skipped straight to the stories!
I knew enough not to expect this to be the end of the ordeal, but I must say that I was caught off guard on the fourth night, with Oliver’s very sad and ernest request for, “Only one more milkies, Mommy?” This kid really knows how to pull at my heartstrings.
On the whole, as difficult and emotionally wrought as the process was, there were many things that went well. Obviously I have some deep regret about not having been able to allow Oliver to nurse to satiety on his final night, but I am proud that I set a limit and lovingly enforced it, while being entirely present to support Oliver through his emotional processing.
Compared with weaning the morning feed, Oliver’s reaction has been night and day. I haven’t seen any clinginess or unusual behaviour during the daytime — he has been 100 percent his usual self — so I feel that we have managed to help him deal with the stress in a healthy way.
It is done. Oliver is weaned.
And as we close the book on that particular chapter of Oliver’s babyhood, I feel a mix of sadness and satisfaction. I think 21 months was the right amount of time for us.