A Word on Weaning

Guest post by Jessica Lang Kosa, IBCLC

“I wondered if you could give me some advice about weaning?” asks the mom on the phone.  Her voice is slightly tentative, like she isn’t 100% sure that weaning is something she can ask a La Leche League Leader about. Actually, I love talking about weaning.

“Absolutely!  Tell me a little about your situation.”  If I’m lucky, she’ll volunteer her child’s age, and enough context for me to give useful suggestions.  The best weaning strategy depends on the circumstances.

I won’t ask her point blank “How old is your baby?  Why are you weaning?”  The last thing I want is for her to read criticism into my questions, and I know that’s a possibility.  I want mom and baby to have a positive weaning experience, whenever it happens, but mothers can go into defensive mode at the drop of a tiny hat. (“He’s only 5 months, and I know the pediatrician said a year, but I have to go back to work, and I tried pumping. I really tried hard, but . . . .”)  She may assume that I think everyone should nurse forever, no matter what, and feel like I’m judging her.  She’s probably heard the “nursing nazi” stereotype.  If I inadvertently say something that feels critical to her, I’ll confirm it.

The root of the problem, though, isn’t her expectations of me but her expectations of herself.   A new mother often has a voice in her head telling her “A really good mother should . . . .”   Making a choice – however reasonable it might be – to stop breastfeeding, can bring up all kinds of self-doubt.

Mommy guilt of course can pop up in all kinds of decisions, but breastfeeding is especially fertile ground for these feelings.  For one thing, it’s all on mom.  Partners, grandparents, friends, and caregivers can do a lot to make a nursing mother’s life easier – and that support often makes a big difference in how long she nurses – but ultimately nobody can do it for her.  Also, you can’t opt in some days and out others.  I can make a healthy homecooked dinner when I have time and energy, and order a pizza when I don’t.  Breastfeeding does get much more flexible as a child gets older;  but still, it’s not something you can do only when you feel up to it.  On top of all this, in the last generation or two, our society has gone through major changes in gender roles and parenting norms.  We as a culture want to include mothers in the workplace, and fathers in parenting, and we haven’t quite figured out how pregnancy and breastfeeding fit in.

What I would love to tell this tentative mom is:  Hey, relax.  No mother does everything under the sun for her child. All parents make judgment calls about what we can and can’t manage, and it’s different for everyone.  And no matter what parenting choices you make, someone somewhere is writing a blog post about a journal article that says that you’re doing exactly the wrong thing and it will mess up your child.  Learn to ignore them, or they’ll make you crazy.

Some of your parenting choices will turn out really well, and some won’t.  Nobody – not you, not me, not your mom or your doctor or your friend or the bloggers – can predict which will be which.  But in general, your best parenting will happen when you feel peaceful and reflective, not guilty and fearful.

I hit on a semantic solution.  I ask, “Do you need to wean within a certain time frame?”  Then the caller always responds with her reasons.  “No, I’m just feeling ready to be done.”  Or “Yes, I’m going on a trip for work next month.”  Then I can tailor my suggestions.  Sometime she mentions a specific problem that could be dealt with another way, and then I can ask “Would you prefer to keep nursing, if that could be solved, or are you feeling ready to stop?”  That can go both ways.  Sometimes she’s thrilled to hear that she could keep nursing, but sometimes the given reason (“I need to take allergy medication”) was just easier to say than, “I’m ready to stop. I want my body back.”   Some mothers feel like they need a “good” reason, and are relieved to hear me acknowledge their underlying feelings.

I truly don’t criticize or judge mothers about their breastfeeding.  I’m way too busy criticizing doctors who give poor advice, formula companies that use unethical marketing practices, and the hospitals that participate in exchange for free formula ). Oh, and clueless politicians or pundits who oppose reasonable policies that could help mothers nurse in public or at work.

It’s no secret that I nursed my kids well into their walking-and-talking years.  But I get that not all mothers can or want to go that route.  If a woman has a weaning experience that gives her practice in gentle parenting, in respecting both her own needs and her child’s, and in trusting her own judgment, I consider that a success story.

What’s your weaning story?

Jessica Lang Kosa is a board-certified lactation consultant in private practice in the Boston area.  You can visit her site at Motherfeeding.com, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @motherfeeding.

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3 thoughts on “A Word on Weaning”

  1. This is so good. You hit the nail on the head with the “mommy guilt”, “self doubt”, and “a really good mother should…” I struggled with that so much in the beginning (and still sometimes!)

    You are so respectful of every mother’s wishes and circumstances. Mamas are blessed if they call LLL and talk to you or consult your private practice!

    Thanks for the post.

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