We have had some huge changes to our breastfeeding relationship in the last 12 months. This time last year Little Cat was coming up for three years old, and was breastfeeding every twenty to thirty minutes through the day, and around 6-8 times during the night.
Then I was bitten by a tick on a walk in the woods in August, and developed symptoms of Lyme disease. This resulted in a three week course of antibiotics which had a dramatic effect on my ability to feed my son and caused me a lot of pain, which I eventually discovered was down to ductal thrush. It was 8 months before I discovered the cause of the pain, and during that time I had little choice but to start limiting feeds quite dramatically and make them much shorter than we were used to.
I did it as gently as possible and my empathetic three year old worked with me to get through the pain by accepting his less frequent feeds with grace and understanding. It was during this time that he began waking just 2-3 times at night for milk. He even went a few nights with no milk at all, and I started to get more sleep for the first time in many years.
Something which my body didn’t want to give up lightly.
So when I found the answer to my painful breasts and treated the ductal thrush, it came as quite a shock to find that Little cat began to steadily increase his feeds once again. It wasn’t long before he was waking every hour or more through the night for milk. If I refused or even asked him to stop after a long feed, he would scream and scream, becoming more angry than I have ever seen him.
Before the thrush, I coped just fine with these frequent wakings. My body had learned to adapt. But now that I had had a taste of what being rested felt like, giving it up to go back to all night feeding was not so easy.
I began to struggle with my patience during the day. I was snappy and unmotivated. I didn’t want to talk, to go to the park, to play – I just wanted to lay on the sofa and read and rest. I was struggling, and my parenting was too.
Night weaning is something we have tried once or twice in the past, but there was a massive difference then. Those times I did it out of a sense of desperation. I was exhausted and wanted to flip a magic switch which would create more sleep somehow. But I never felt confident in my decision to do it. I knew deep down that he wasn’t ready to give up this massive comfort in his life, and I also knew that if I looked deep within me, I wasn’t ready to stop either.
We were both still so attached to our night time feeds. I was full of self doubt and questioning my decision. He surely felt this too. And so our attempts would fail. At the first sign of distress I would throw in the towel (quite rightly I believe) and give him the milk.
This time it was very different. I had seen him sleep without needing milk. I had seen him settle himself back to sleep with a cuddle or a handhold. The thrush had pushed us to make changes and we had gradually moved away from the intense attachment we both held for our night feeds. I felt he was ready. And more than that, I finally felt OK with letting go. I felt sadness, but not doubt.
I knew it was time.
And so after one particularly bad night on the 10th of June, in a week of minimal sleep and poor daytime parenting, I walked into the room where he was playing in the morning, sat beside him and said, “I am really struggling to be the parent I want to be for you. I am too tired to be a nice Mummy during the day. I have decided that we need to make a change, and when we go to bed tonight I will feed you, but when you wake up in the night we won’t be having any milk, just cuddles and you can drink water.” I said it without guilt or apology, leaving no room for doubt in his mind.
And he replied, “But I can still drink milk in the daytime!” To which I said, “Of course.”
He agreed that it would be better if I were happier during the day, and reassured that he could still have milk when the sun was up, he took the news far better than I had expected. Throughout the day I gently reminded him of the plan, something I had also not done on my previous doubt ridden attempts, and this gave us an opportunity to work through his feelings. He was fairly cool about it all but wanted to know why he couldn’t have milk at night any longer. I said that because he is big and eats lots of food he probably didn’t need milk all night long, which he grasped onto and said, “No, babies need milk all night don’t they?” I remained calm and clear in the plan, and together we accepted what we were going to do.
By bedtime, we were both relaxed and ready. I fed him, showed him where his water was in case he got thirsty, reminded him once more that we would have milk in the morning and then cuddled him to sleep.
He woke once that night, and I felt my whole body tense, ready for the scream, ready for him to cry and fight, wondering if I had been wrong, if he wasn’t ready after all. He pushed himself up in the darkness and leaned over me. He lowered his face down to mine and kissed me lovingly on the cheek. Then he yawned, lay back down and went to sleep.
I was amazed.
I had expected some late night discussion, a reminder of the new routine at the very least. But instead, I got acceptance.
Since that night he has woken occasionally to ask for milk, but never become too distressed when gently reminded he would have to wait until morning.
For the first few weeks he did wake around three or four am some mornings to ask for a snack. Considering the amount of milk he had been consuming during the night time this was hardly surprising, but I didn’t want to introduce a milk substitute, which would no doubt turn into another reason to wake at night. Instead we offered a bigger dinner and made sure to have breakfast much sooner after waking. After a few weeks his body adjusted and he no longer felt hunger during the night.
I must stress that this process has been so smooth for us because we were BOTH ready to move into the next stage of our lives. Had he been firmly attached to his night feeds, or had I felt uncertain about this choice, it couldn’t have worked. It came at the right time, and by staying closely connected with one another we were able to move on gently and respectfully.
I also want to add that this was a process that took over eight months, gradually cutting down his feeds during the time I had ductal thrush, and he had only started to build them back up over a month or two so they were not a habit set in stone.
If you feel that you would like to wean, either for nights or fully in the future, I would advise you to try to make it a gradual process too, slowly adding more boundaries and reducing feeds over a long period of time. I really feel this greatly contributed to our easy transition.
Night feeds have been such an important part of our relationship and it is sad to let them go. But I have a treasure chest of memories I can dip into whenever I feel the need, and when the night is quiet and Little Cat is sleeping deeply beside me, I lie on my side and watch him breathe in and out and know that we have given each other a wonderful gift to hold on to.
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