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Breastfeeding: When is the Right Time to Wean?

The decision about whether to stop breastfeeding or continue can feel momentous. For me it was further complicated by the fact that I felt like I had been pressured to stop breastfeeding as soon as my son was around nine months old and I was returning to work. Colleagues, friends and family suggested that now was the time to wean my son off the breast although I loved nursing him and he found so much peace and comfort at the breast. In fact, it was external pressure to stop breastfeeding that inspired this very blog. The thought alone of weaning prematurely broke my heart and ultimately, we ended up breastfeeding for a total of three years and nine months. I had previously wanted my son to wean naturally (allowing him to stop in his own time), but the decision to stop breastfeeding was mine in the end.


I cannot tell you how much peace it gives me to know that I breastfed my son for as long as I wanted and not a day sooner. Having experienced baby loss and a traumatic labour, breastfeeding was incredibly empowering and even life-affirming for me. It is my sincere hope that one day, every mother is able to breastfeed for as long as she chooses. Whether you originally wanted to breastfeed for six weeks, six months or six years, I hope that you too are able to do so on your own terms, empowered and supported at every stage. The following questions are designed to help you decide whether or not you are ready to stop breastfeeding so that you too can feel confident in your decision - whatever that may be.


Do you Want to Keep Breastfeeding?


This is undoubtedly the obvious question, but it can be difficult to know what you want in a world that does not actively support your choices. Do you enjoy nursing your child? Does pumping feel worthwhile to you? From a nutritional standpoint, breast milk remains the international global gold standard in infant feeding and it has been proven to continue to adapt to your child's evolving need for at least 4 years (1). So in the event that you are being misinformed that breast milk stops being nutritious after a certain amount of time, quite frankly, that is complete nonsense. This article is not about arguing the benefits of breast milk; they are abundant for as long as you and your child wish to continue. The question is, do you enjoy breastfeeding? If so, there is no other justification or reasoning required. You do not need anyone's permission - besides your nursling's - and you should absolutely keep going for as long as it continues to serve you and your child(ren).


If you are struggling to block out the voices of critics to even know if you are still enjoying breastfeeding, I recommend minute journaling. To do this, spend just a minute before bedtime writing how you have felt about breastfeeding on that particular day. Continue this for at least at week and you will have a clearer understanding of what breastfeeding means to you.


Is Work the Reason you are Considering Weaning?


As aforementioned, this is an incredibly common reason why many mothers think that they have no choice but to stop breastfeeding. In reality, if your baby is younger than six months old, they will need expressed breast milk (or formula) if your paid employment will take you away from them for more than a few hours at a time. If your baby is 6 months or older and is drinking water and consuming solids, you may not even need to express breast milk for them when you are apart, as long as you continue to nurse on demand whenever you are together. The practicalities of continuing to breastfeed upon your return to paid employment will vary significantly depending upon your role, your baby's appetite, your working hours and how often you are able to express milk at work (if required). In isolation, returning to work alone, is no reason why you must stop breastfeeding if you simply do not want to. For more detailed information, read my top ten tips for being back at work and breastfeeding, here.


Is Sleep a Factor?


A lack of sleep Is the number one reason why mothers reach out to me about night weaning. I hate to disappoint those who get in touch by explaining that night weaning or weaning completely may not necessarily mean longer stretches of sleep overnight. Because breast milk is recommended as a baby's primary food source for at least the first 12 months of their life, I also do not recommend night weaning before this point. Night nursing is important for maintaining a good milk supply throughout a breastfeeding journey. This is because prolactin - the hormone responsible for breast milk production is mostly produced at night. Breast milk is also 50% fattier at night. That is not to say that in the majority of cases parents should wake a sleeping baby to feed them if they are sleeping long stretches overnight. It is a reminder though that nursing on demand remains important for maintaining a good milk supply throughout a breastfeeding journey.


Are you Being Pressured to Stop?


Being pressured to stop breastfeeding is another top reason why some mothers consider weaning prematurely. If this is the case for you, I urge you to have very frank and open conversations with those pressuring you to stop breastfeeding to explain to them that you will not be doing so a day before either you or your child(ren) want to stop. Outline how your breastfeeding journey would be so much easier with their support, but it is not a requirement. Anyone who does not support your decision to breastfeed for any period of time needs to consider why it is that they feel it is appropriate to tell you what to do and how to mother. The onus is not on you to justify giving your child the very best possible start in life.


For me, an unexpected side effect of breastfeeding for almost four years, was incredibly thick skin. Whilst I practised parent-led weaning, the choice was mine and mine alone. As such, I have no regrets about our breastfeeding journey and I hope that this same can be said for you too one day.


Is your Health (or your Family's Health) Suffering?


If your health or the health of your family is suffering because of breastfeeding then I urge you to seek professional medical advice to help you with whatever physical or mental challenges you are facing. You deserve as much love and care as your precious child, particularly if you are also nurturing them in such a selfless way. Shortly after the time that I returned to work, I collapsed with exhaustion as I attempted to do the weekly food shop. I found out later that my body's levels of potassium, magnesium and calcium were worryingly low. Breastfeeding was contributing to my low nutrient levels, but only because I was so poorly informed about how many additional calories, vitamins and minerals my body needed for as long as I was nursing.


I share this example not to scare you, but to make you aware that if your health is suffering whilst you are breastfeeding, stopping breastfeeding need not be the only way to take care of yourself. If you are advised to stop breastfeeding by a medical professional, you have every right to ask for a second opinion or for alternative treatment which does not interfere with your breastfeeding journey. I write this with the caveat that whilst breastfeeding may well be best for your baby, having a happy and healthy mother is priceless. Learn more about how to eat well whilst breastfeeding, here.


How Would you Feel if your Next Feed was your Last?


Finally, this question can be particularly telling. What was your first gut reaction to this? Grief or relief? Heartbreak or excitement? Whatever you feel about the prospect of having your last feed, honour that feeling and give yourself permission to own it. Breastfeeding is a dyad - a relationship and a dance between two people - one of whom is you. Whatever decision you make is the best decision for you and your family because there is no-one more qualified to make it.


This article was inspired by, 'Weaning with Love,' my hour long webinar and 33 page guide to stopping breastfeeding gently and responsively.


Buy lifetime access to the webinar and get the guide free using code BOGOF. Get yours here now.


With love,

Danielle

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