Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mama-led weaning

I don't like to label stuff related to parenting, so when friends asked me if I'd be doing "baby-led weaning" with Natalie, I sort of gave a blank stare, shrugged, and said, "I don't think so? Probably not?"

In all honesty, I still don't really understand what baby-led weaning is or how it is different from just giving your baby food and letting it go to town. I do know that baby-led weaning as a movement seems to be against the rice-cereal-as-baby's-first-food tradition, and it's in favor of babies deciding what to eat, but that's about it. If you want to read more from people who have happily and successfully followed this philosophy and actually know what they're talking about, you can read what Kate has to say here and check out baby Finn's mama here.

Baby-led weaning or whathaveyou aside, I have been most surprised and confused by the fact that the term is really a misnomer. Starting a baby on solid foods, most likely no later than the 6-month mark, does not actually have to relate to weaning. In fact, babies who are breastfeeding are still going to be consuming a ton of milk and that milk is going to provide the vast majority of their calories and important nutrients. At 6 months and even, apparently, 10 and 11 months, the baby is still going to be drinking roughly the same amount of milk as it did at 5 months, even though it's eating three solid meals a day. As your child grows you're going to spend more of your day feeding your child, not less. Yes, hear that, mother of a two-week old. I was naive too.

I never gave myself a breastfeeding goal. Friends would ask, "Are you going to breastfeed for a year?" I'd say, "Maybe."

Here's my final answer: I breastfed for 46 weeks. That's 10 and a half months, if you're keeping track. I breastfed my daughter for the last time today.

How do I know we're done?

Well, for starters, she fed once for about one minute and decided she was done. Yesterday she cried after her morning nursing session. She bit me about a month ago. I've been feeling for a while like we were done. Today just sealed the deal.

Plus, today I parted with a friend and foe of the last 10 and a half months.

No, not my baby -- she is more endearing than ever. My breast pump, specifically the one I've been renting from the hospital, is what I kicked to the curb. I could have kept it until tomorrow. I could have extended the pump rental for about the fifth time. But it was more appropriate than I could have ever planned that the day Natalie and I decided we had had enough I drove us back to the place of her birth to hand over the pump.

Although I said earlier in this post that baby-led weaning is just another name for starting solid food -- and I should add that many women I know didn't see their breastmilk supply change when their baby started solids -- my supply definitely started to decrease once Natalie started eating food. Pretty soon after she started solid food we were down to four nursing sessions a day. Then I would have afternoon and evening commitments that caused me to miss a feeding and she'd get a bag of milk from the freezer. Try as I might, I didn't consistently pump to make up for every lost nursing session. So then I'd see my supply diminish. Then I would get stressed out about not pumping or missing a feeding or whatever because my supply was diminishing. So I'd try to pump more on certain days. One afternoon Matt got home from work to a scene that looked like this: the dogs were going crazy, the printer was jammed, I was running late and desperately needed the printer to unjam, Natalie wasn't taking naps, and I was attached to the breast pump in preparation for my departure. I just thought I couldn't do it anymore. Of course, that was about two months ago, so I clearly kept doing it, but I knew it was reaching a point where we'd be starting to shut down this operation.

A couple weeks ago I tried giving Natalie formula for the first time since she was in the NICU. The first time she took a few sips and then started screaming. The second time she had caught on and knew to reject the bottle. She even became skeptical of the next bottle that solely contained breastmilk. After Googling something along the lines of "how to get a breastfed baby to drink formula" I found two solutions: a few splashes of apple juice in the formula or a dash of Nesquik Strawberry. The apple juice solution worked like a charm and Natalie has been accepting and even enjoying formula. I started with one bottle of formula a day, and then went on to two, then three, and today we did four.

Although Natalie's true breastfeeding days are over, thanks to the many hours I spent attached to the breastpump we still have a stash of breastmilk in the freezer.

I'm glad I breastfed Natalie as long as I did (and didn't choose formula a long time ago), and I will say that 98% of the reason I'm glad is because it's what the medical establishment tells me I'm "supposed" to do. From conversations I've had with lots of other moms it seems like medical/societal guilt is a main reason they do it, too. We want what's best for our children, so we breastfeed. Fortunately, the actual act of breastfeeding was never the problem for me. But the actual act of breastfeeding is only one tiny piece of the breastfeeding experience. So much of breastfeeding, unfortunately, also involves being connected to a pump; pumping into the night when all you want is to go to bed; sleeping uncomfortably at night because you were too lazy to pump before going to bed; sterilizing your pump parts; timing your day in three-hour increments; worrying about what you're eating and drinking; worrying about whether or not your baby is getting enough in terms of ounces and nutrients; literally crying over spilled milk (did this a couple times); running out of space in your freezer thanks to your bags of frozen milk; taking your pump on out-of-town trips; timing outings around feedings; feeling unsexy; wearing nursing pads and nursing tanks and nursing bras; leaking. I could keep going, but I know I'll be accused of treason.

I recommend feeding your baby in whatever safe method works for your family. Breastfeeding worked for us for a time. It was OK while it lasted. Statistically, we beat the odds in a variety of ways. My c-section and Natalie's week in the NICU are two factors that decrease the likelihood of successful breastfeeding. Still, formula is a remarkable invention. It will be our baby's main fuel for the next six weeks until she becomes a sage one-year old.


  1. Weaning is often used globally to refer to the introduction of solid foods, not merely reducing or stopping breastmilk consumption. Solid foods are the beginning of the entire weaning process, which is a gradual shift from an all-milk to all-solids diet, so it's not a misnomer. It seems more common for U.S. moms to use the term weaning only when referring to the final stages of breastfeeding.

    1. Yes, thanks Cathryn, valid point. I think it's in my mindset to refer to weaning only as the final stages of breastfeeding. For what it's worth, I think our pediatrician uses it that way too. Maybe this does speak to our American cultural experience more than the term itself.