Breastfeeding can be a contentious topic, and so can the conversation around when and how to wean a breastfed baby. It can make the decision to wean early a difficult one for some mothers. Some moms may even be forced to wean before they are ready due to medical situations or complications or work situations. From the outside pressure of others’ opinions to our own emotional entanglements, it can be a struggle to know when it is time to wean your little one.
Let me preface this article with this note: I wanted to breastfeed my children but due to complications (first baby and second baby), I ended up a pumping mama who occasionally supplemented, at various times, with formula, goats milk, and donated breastmilk.
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastmilk until an infant is 6 months old “with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.” (Source)
However, one thing that no one told me before I had my first child is that breastfeeding challenges are actually normal! Many mothers, especially first-time moms, have a hard time. With guidance from a mom, friend, doctor, or lactation consultant, many of these challenges can be overcome. Unfortunately, in some situations (like mine), there may be other issues at play that prevent breastfeeding from the tap (aka nursing).One thing that no one told me before I had my first child is that breastfeeding challenges are normal! I had no idea I would be exclusively pumping in order to provide my children with any breastmilk at all.Click To Tweet
Originally, I planned to exclusively breastfeed via nursing and only intended to pump two or three times a day after I returned to work full-time. I had no idea I would be exclusively pumping in order to provide my children with any breastmilk at all. Let me be very honest, pumping is hard. With my first son, born with a severe tongue tie, reaching the coveted one year mark was next to impossible. I worked very hard and prayed even harder to make it to ten months. By the grace the God, we made it.
Then during the tenth month, my milk dried up on its own after conceiving our second child. Because my son was actually nursing on occasion by that time and my body was naturally producing less milk each day, the weaning process was very natural and smooth over the span of two weeks.
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With my second son, I wanted to make it to ten months as well. I managed it once before so, surely, I could do it again. But things did not go according to plan.
Three weeks postpartum, I almost lost my milk supply completely and had to work especially hard to get it back up. During this very challenging time, I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, exacerbated by severe sleep deprivation and the anxiety of not producing enough milk.
Two and a half months after Pickle was born, my mom received confirmation of our worst fears: she had stage four breast cancer that had already spread to bones (from her clavicle down to her lower lumbar). She began an intensive treatment to slow the cancer’s growth, but we all knew that her cancer was terminal. Our whole world was rocked to the core, and all of my dreams of the future with my mom in the picture were shattered.
With barely time to process the news, I went back to work, full-time outside the home. I was blessed to be able to have a three-month maternity leave, though only half of which was paid. Then there was a mix up with my paperwork so I ended up not receiving my first paycheck. (It was resolved over a month later.)
As you might imagine, we went through a significant portion of our savings during those nine weeks without pay and I did not have any paid time off left either. I used it all in the days before my son was born because maternity leave only begins on the day the child is born and does not take in consideration the days before the baby’s birth when a woman may be experiencing the lead up to labor.
When my son was six months old, my mom had emergency surgery due to a perforated colon. She barely survived the surgery… the surgical team actually stopped the surgery halfway through, put a wound vac on her, and sent her to ICU for the night in hopes her heart would stabilize enough to continue the next day. Praise the Lord, she survived and the surgery was completed. She spent five days in ICU sedated and intubated. The next three weeks in the hospital was filled with ups and downs, good days and bad ones.
Unfortunately, though my mom was recovering well from the emergency surgery, her cancer took the opportunity during this time without targeted treatment to spread aggressively. On August 21, 2018, my mom decided to enter into home hospice care. I then had to figure out how to split my time between caring for my own family, being there for my parents, and working as my family relies on my income alone.
Throughout all of these challenges, I somehow managed to pump every 3-4 hours and maintained a daily output of 30-ish ounces. I pumped in the waiting area of the operation room while my mom fought for her life. I pumped in many hospital rooms on many floors, with aides, nurses, doctors, and visitors coming and going all the time. I pumped in single occupancy bathrooms while attending a series of all-day training sessions for work. I pumped in my parents’ breakfast nook while streams of visitors came and went after my mom returned home. I pumped late at night when I could barely keep my eyes open. I pumped in the very early morning hours if I had accidentally fallen asleep too early the night before.
But I was not happy.
In fact, I was miserable. I felt as if the majority of my time at home with my husband and sons was spent trapped in a chair and hooked up to the double electric pump. My older son would beg me to play with him or read him stories, but I had to pump. My younger son would cry and fuss, needing attention, but I had to pump. (Have you ever tried holding a wriggling baby while double pumping? Milk will spill everywhere. Trust me, I know.) The words “I’m sorry but I have to pump.” was coming out of my mouth far too often.
And I was not happy.
Every day it was a struggle to keep to my pumping schedule. As a chronic under-producer, if I deviated from my schedule even slightly, my daily output would drop within 24 hours and it would be another struggle to bring it back up. Each day I stressed over how much milk I was expressing and how much Pickle was eating. I admit that I cried a lot… much of it had to due with processing my mom’s situation, but some of it was because of feeling unable to keep up with pumping. I also was getting to the point where my frustration would boil over at the littlest, most insignificant things.
Even with a cup or two of my favorite lactation tea a day, I was not happy.
The final straw came a little over a week ago. It was late. Peanut was asleep in bed, my husband was showering, and Pickle was playing happily on the living room floor. I started pumping.
Five minutes in, as usual, Pickle began screaming. He wanted to be held by his mama. I sat there for maybe 30 or 45 seconds debating what to do. His cries broke my heart.
I turned off the pump, took all the parts off, placed the partially filled bottles on the kitchen counter, and picked up my baby. I took him back to the master bedroom, laid him on the bed, and quietly cuddled with him until he fell asleep.
As I gently rubbed his back and sang him a song, I made my decision.
I was ready to stop breastfeeding (via pumping). Pickle was barely seven months old, but I just could not do it anymore. Pumping was taking up my valuable time with my children. I was stressed, overwhelmed, and miserable. I was done, and I was surprisingly ok with it.I just could not do it anymore. I was stressed, overwhelmed, and miserable. I was done, and I was surprisingly ok with it.Click To Tweet
Unlike the first time, though, my body was not quite ready to dry up. I would have to take it slower this time around. I began stretching the time between pumping sessions from 4 hours to 5, then 6, hours. After a few days, I was able to drop two sessions altogether, going from a total of 6 to just 4 a day.
As I write this, I am a week into the weaning process. The frozen stache is now gone… The last of it thawed and used two days ago. Baby formula is purchased and ready on the counter. I am more relaxed and less stressed than I have been for many months. I no longer feel rushed, chained to the pump, or inhibited by a rigid schedule. I have been sleeping better, too.
Most importantly, I am able to spend quality time with my husband and kids. I can hold, cuddle, and play with the baby to my heart’s content. I can build block towers, read books, tickle, and bathe the toddler.
In spite of everything else that is happening outside of my control, I am happy. Laughter has returned to my heart and my home.
You are not alone
This experience has taught me a very valuable lesson. We may set plans or goals, but we need to retain a certain level of flexibility. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances arise that we cannot anticipate, and we need to re-evaluate our goals.
In the grand scheme of things, providing breastmilk for my son — as wonderful as that is — was adding even more stress and anxiety to an already overwhelming situation. No one anticipates their otherwise healthy mom to be diagnosed with terminal cancer at the young age of fifty-seven, to have life-and-death surgery, and to enter into hospice care all within a five-month span of time.Whether for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, any amount of breastfeeding is a success. You are a wonderful mother!Click To Tweet
Perhaps you are a breastfeeding mama who is contemplating weaning your child earlier than you originally planned. Your situation may be completely different from mine, but that does not make it any less valid. Perhaps you have breastfed for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. The duration does not matter any more than the reason. I share my story to let you know that you are not alone in your decision.
You are a wonderful mother. You fought a battle that only you truly understand. Do not let others belittle your choices or bully you into thinking you are doing something wrong. It is okay to wean early. It is okay to switch to formula.
What is most important is your health — including mental health — and the health of your baby.
You have done well, Mama.
If you are a breastfeeding mama considering whether or not to wean or perhaps being forced to wean due to circumstances outside of your control, then here are some resources I have gathered that have provided me with encouragement and information.
- Five Things I Wish Somebody Told Me About Weaning
by Amalah at Alpha Mom
- Deciding When to Wean: Breastfeeding Beyond One Year
by at Happy Mothering
- How to Stop Breastfeeding (and Keep Baby Happy)
by Lisa Milbrand at The Bump
11 Reasons Why Weaning Early Doesn’t Make You A Bad Mom
by Danielle Campoamor at Romper
- How to Wean from the Pump
by Amanda Glenn at Exclusive Pumping
Have you decided to wean early? Was that decision made for you? Are you trying to decide on your own? I want to hear from you! Share your story, your frustrations, your victories by commenting below, emailing me personally, or sharing on my Facebook page.