Bye bye breastfeeding, a special phase of motherhood

A work trip recently pushed me (or maybe helped me) to accelerate an otherwise difficult decision: to stop breastfeeding León, who is now a year and a half.

It wasn’t easy to decide to travel alone for the first time ever, and to do so without having first officially weaned him. But Nacho, my husband, managed to get him to sleep in his arms — León adapted quickly to the new rhythm, sleeping deeply through the night (when he would usually wake up to breastfeed), making us envision that he was ready to join Lorenzo in the children’s bedroom.

With Lorenzo, my first-born, I struggled for a long time to figure out when and how to wean him. There was the theory (“I would love to make it to two years of breastfeeding, to help his immune system, especially through the winter — he is a February baby”). The Covid factor also helped — no trips or possibility to be outside the house. I was struggling so much to understand how I would stop breastfeeding even if I was starting to feel aversion — when breastfeeding triggers negative emotions or intrusive thoughts. I did not understand what I was experiencing until I interviewed Zainab Yate, a biomedical ethicist and researcher, for this very newsletter. She wrote a book about breastfeeding aversion, and our chat helped me understand that the time had come for me to let go.

(When I did make up my mind, the process was so much easier than I had previously imagined).

So, why do I struggle so much with an apparently simple decision?

For some, I breastfed way more than they would have. For others, I may have weaned León too early. In such cases, the external world does not offer help, but only increases the confusion we may have as parents. Confusing messaging may have to do with when you send a child to daycare, how to put them to sleep, whether or not to give them a dummy… But let’s take breastfeeding as an example.

A lot of information out there

There is some science out there to guide us in making decisions; there is also science that is far from conclusive. Here are some examples of the range of information you may find online if you go looking for it:

U.S. economist Emily Oster has dedicated herself to deciphering some of the research for parents, though she is not an expert per se on breastfeeding. For example, she debunks the idea that breastfeeding improves a child’s IQ, saying that studies do not account for the fact that higher-educated and wealthier mothers tend to breastfeed more. She also tends to reassure mothers that they shouldn’t lose their sleep over breastfeeding, if they don’t want to.

Other experts, like Prof Amy Brown at Swansea University, warn that minimising the benefits of breastfeeding, as Oster does, does not take into account the multiplier effect of relatively small benefits for an individual baby on the wider public health system.

And still others like Dr. Cara Goodwin, a psychologist who runs the newsletter Parenting Translator, look at single studies with more insights, as she does for example with new research on levels of carbohydrate present in human milk, and its link to early cognitive development. Journalists such as Melinda Wenner Moyer take a science-based approach to what they write about parenting, as in this article about whether it is OK to drink alcohol while breastfeeding (the short answer is yes), even if she doesn’t get into the wider argument.

Yes, a lot of this advice stems from North America, which is a problem in and of itself because it does not reflect different cultural approaches to family bonds or other socioeconomic elements. It is also a good example of how confusing it is to make up one’s mind with all this (often contradictory) information out there.

I am aware of a lot of these debates because I have spent a lot of time writing about issues such as human milk. I understand that it is an incredible superfood and that being able to feed León with it has many advantages. But of course, one’s decisions are not — and should not — be based on some empirical evidence.

A special connection

As I search deeper, I realise that if I am struggling to stop breastfeeding León, it is because it is very unlikely that I will have another child. So ending breastfeeding now means putting a full stop to my life as mother of a baby. It means that I am about to tie up my personal experience on the first 1,000-days timeline.

And as I say goodbye to this phase of my life, and mourn further the miscarriages I experienced, and the thought of the larger family I could have had, I doubt whether I am ready to let go of that beautiful connection that I feel when León is attached to me, when he becomes calmer, sleepier and more well-fed through me.

When I came back from my trip, after eight days away, León was taking his afternoon nap. When he woke up and saw me, he was angry. He would not look at me, and held on tightly to Nacho instead. Only after half an hour, did he start smiling again, and relaxing. And after a little while, he searched for my boob. It was hard to say no, and to do so calmly. Even more so when nighttime arrived, and he started crying.

He was still angry at me. I explained to him that I still loved him, but that my milk was now over. It was hard to stand my ground, but I did. A voice inside me was asking if I was being too selfish, if he needed this deeper connection more than I needed my physical freedom. But unlike when I struggled to stop breastfeeding Lorenzo, I have now learnt more about the importance of looking after myself, and how important that is for my entire family, especially for our children as they grow up. And the time has come, I know, for León to be set free to sleep without being physically attached to my body, as I try to regain some more space for myself and to grow further.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences of weaning and your struggles to prioritise your own well-being against research you may have read. Please reply to this email, or leave a comment below this story on the website, if you’re a paying member.

What I’ve been reading

“Our maternal mortality rate is twice as high as that of non-Indigenous parents; our children are far more likely to be taken by the foster care system… It’s important to talk about these injustices. But it’s equally important to talk about Indigenous parenting as a joyful and hopeful practice…. also our connection to all the ancestors who had come before us, who had lived and loved and survived so that we could be here together.”

This is a great story about an Indigenous woman in the United States and how she worked on reintegrating native customs into birthing practices. Two Spirit nurse midwife Rebekah Dunlap grew up on Minnesota’s Fond du Lac Reservation. Her family had lost touch with traditional customs generations back — part of the colonial legacy of forcing children into Catholic boarding schools to strip them of their customs. The story is part of a series written by Indigenous journalists for motherhood-focused site Romper.

What I’ve been listening to

I finally started listening to The Trojan Horse Affair, an eight-part podcast by Serial Productions and TheNew York Times. It came out in 2022 and it’s been on my list since, partly because it caused quite a controversy. It tells the story behind a strange letter that appears on a city councillor’s desk in Birmingham, England, in 2014, laying out an elaborate plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The podcast investigates what is behind the letter which causes national panic. What’s intriguing is that the podcast itself ended up making headlines since its content was disputed by the government officials involved in the handling of the original plot.

What I’ve been watching

The trailer to Guillermina, a short documentary film by Aida Esther Bueno Sarduy, an Afro-Cuban anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, caught my interest. It is based on a true story of a white boy who emigrates, leaving behind the black woman who raised him, Guillermina. I am very interested in the idea of invisible mothers, nannies from different cultures who raise children around the world and are then forgotten and left behind. The full documentary is not online, but I have contacted the filmmaker, so I hope to report on the story soon.

Who’s been inspiring me

This poem by British poet Hollie McNish, dedicated to friends who are far away, really got to me, especially these lines:

I can’t tell if that light
is a star or a wingtip
either way
I just wish you were closer
either way
I just wish
you would knock on on my door
while I’m working
throw a stone at my window
and wake me
so that we could sit on the pavement
and talk about nothing
and everything
and throw balls at the curb
and never have left

Her new book, “Lobster: and other things I’m learning to love”, came out last month. It features her unique take on parenthood, breastfeeding, periods, UTIs and vulvas.

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Nabeelah Shabbir.

📷 Didssph on Unsplash, blue matrioskas

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2 thoughts on “Bye bye breastfeeding, a special phase of motherhood

  1. Ciao Irene,

    Oh, I can’t tell how deeply this post resonates with me. I’ve been on a breastfeeding journey for four years now.

    My eldest son, Piero, is four years old, and I breastfed him until he turned 3. Currently, I’m still breastfeeding my daughter Lisa, who will be 2 in July. I continued nursing Piero during my pregnancy with Lisa and tandem breastfed them for 9 months.

    Then, I reached a point where aversion set in (that was most likely the time around which I discovered your writings), and I couldn’t keep breastfeeding Piero: I experienced physical discomfort and a strong aversion exclusively with him, to the point I kinda avoided propice-breastfeeding situations to happen. It was a difficult time, he didn’t hear any reason cause he seemed not ready for stopping, and perhaps he didn’t understand why his sister would keep taking my milk (even though I explained she was still very little –couldn’t have proper meal yet, didn’t have teeth either– which seemed to make sense to him).

    I once heard that breastfeeding is a two-sided adventure, and it must be wanted by and a nice experienced for both sides to keep going. And that was not the case anymore, not for me. Despite being hearthbreaking to see him so desperately crying, I explained him that a new phase awaited us, and that we could still cuddle, just in a different way. On a side note, Piero never ever cuddled with me while breastfeeding (beside the moment he would take my milk, he wouldn’t hug nor kiss). He started to do so when that phase was over, and he’s now such a snugler 🙂

    Lisa is now almost 2 years old. She would cuddle regardless of nursing, she kisses and hugs a lot, and from time to time she forgets to ask for milk. I feel it’s a completely different breastfeeding experience. On my side, I feel I am emerging from the early stages of motherhood, my career is regaining momentum and my body is slowly back in shape as well. I wouldn’t be surprised nor disappointed if Lisa decides to wean herself, but since it’s still manageable for me I don’t feel like putting an end to this adventure myself.

    I’m taking this time to cherish these last months (whether it’s 1 or 18!) of breastfeeding, fully aware that this phase is fleeting. Days are long but years are short, isn’t it? However, I feel I am ready and willing to embrace the next chapter of motherhood and all the new adventures it holds with my little ones.

    Sending you warm hugs and gratitude for putting words where words are so much needed.


    1. Simona, thank YOU!
      I love the idea of thinking about breastfeeding as “a two-sided adventure” — totally spot on. And I think this is why the idea of breastfeeding aversion resonated so much with me, and this is why I respect so much the experience of those who decide not to breastfeed because it is not for them. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy, far from it, and if one of the two parties is hating the experience, then why do we still push them to do it??
      One question for you: did you experience negative comments around you for breastfeeding when Piero was “older”?
      Good luck on your fleeting last months — however long they do last, and many thanks for being here!

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