I’m a huge breastfeeding advocate, but naturally that very precious time eventually reaches its conclusion, and the mother/baby (or toddler) dyad evolves. But how do you know when the right time is? For some, it will be when the child decides but, of course, breastfeeding is a relationship between both parties, and sometimes the mother will be ready first, especially if she experiences breastfeeding aversion and agitation (BAA).
I’m compelled to write about this topic because after a very long and eventful – but ultimately successful – breastfeeding relationship with my youngest daughter, I have finally weaned her.
While I’m extremely vocal about my support for breastfeeding, my own situation is something I’ve largely stopped talking about. For the first and second year I was fiercely proud. Into year three I felt confident that my daughter would begin to self-wean sometime soon, and I really, really wanted that for her.
When her third birthday came and went and preschool was on the horizon, I really began to feel ready to move things along. I’d previously resisted any and all pressure from others, first ignoring and then simply refusing to engage about the subject.
But I knew in my heart that Elfin would not willingly wean for a long time, and therefore the time had come.
Was I experiencing breastfeeding aversion? Not precisely, but I was ready to have my body back. My daughter was not a baby any longer; she was extremely demanding to the point of occasionally embarrassing me in public; and she wasn’t gentle either!
I have very mixed feelings about having weaned my last baby. I did, for the most part, love breastfeeding my girls. It’s been a hugely rewarding part of my life for so long that I can hardly get used to the idea of no longer doing it.
But thanks to our backward culture I was definitely trying to retain privacy around the fact that I was still nursing. And while I mostly resent the ignorance of the people who would have made me feel uncomfortable had they been aware, I am aware that resentment was also creeping in towards my beautiful little girl, who knew nothing else and absolutely didn’t deserve that.
So, perhaps I experienced a mild aversion to nursing. Either way, it was no longer something that felt ‘right’, and so I had to take action.
What is Breastfeeding Aversion?
Breastfeeding aversion, also known as nursing aversion, is the phenomenon of a lactating mother experiencing negative feelings about feeding her infant or toddler, and sometimes also intrusive thoughts, for the duration of suckling. BAA disappears when nursing ends and the baby is no longer latched on to the breast.
Symptoms of Breastfeeding Aversion
The feelings associated with nursing aversion include:
- Skin-crawling sensations,
- Anger / rage,
In almost all cases the mother would prefer to be continue a mutually joyful breastfeeding relationship, which may lead to confusion and also explain experiencing feelings of shame and guilt. Many mothers who experience nursing aversion have no real desire to end their breastfeeding journey, yet this will sometimes be the only viable outcome.
Intrusive Thoughts Associated With Nursing Aversion
- Being ‘touched out’,
- Feeling trapped by a lack of bodily autonomy,
- Urge to pinch the child to end the nursing session,
- Desire to run away to escape breastfeeding ‘duties’.
Intrusive thoughts that can accompany BAA may include but are not limited to the above.
What Causes Breastfeeding Aversion and Agitation?
Due to a paucity of research there’s a lack of definitive information about BAA, however there are several theories about what may lie behind it:
Many women who experience an aversion to nursing are able to find a correlation to their menstrual cycle, or a subsequent pregnancy. This indicates a likelihood that the phenomenon is hormonal. It may be that the toll of pregnancy and lactation on the mother are too great, and aversion is the body’s way of initiating weaning.
2. Tandem Nursing
Often nursing an infant alongside an older sibling can lead to breastfeeding aversion. There could be a similar mechanic at play here to that outlined above.
Everything feels harder when you’re sleep deprived. Plus society has put unrealistic expectations on families for what infant sleep should look like, which adds an unhelpful dimension to this theory – not only do women struggle, but they also feel inadequate because they’re led to believe that their situation is not normal.
Just to be clear – it is.
Babies don’t sleep all night. That’s part of their job description, and it’s an innate protective behaviour. Those that do are the exception to the rule.
That said, when your toddler is waking repeatedly through the night for milk they don’t need, it can quickly get old. I’ve been there, for literally years. I get it. And yes, undoubtedly these are the times that the pleasure is removed from breastfeeding my little person.
In addition to the above point, there’s comes a point as your baby gets older that you become ready for some bodily autonomy and a little freedom. That’s normal and healthy – for you and your toddler.
When your two or three year old resists, and perhaps even regresses to nursing more frequently, behaving like a newborn and hanging off your boob at every opportunity, it can result in exactly the same feelings as excessive nighttime feeding, ie. increased stress.
Here’s the really interesting bit: cortisol levels in the mother transfer to breastmilk, and it’s been suggested that nursing aversion may be a protective measure to initiate weaning and protect the toddler from that excess cortisol.
How to Manage Breastfeeding Aversion
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding aversion it’s worth first appraising your situation to see whether any of the above apply. And then considering whether this is something you wish to overcome or if, perhaps, the difficult but ultimately right decision would be to wean your child, as was the case for me.
If none of the above reflect your personal circumstances and BAA is causing you significant distress, please see your GP.
If you can recognise yourself in one of these scenarios and wish to continue nursing, the following may help:
- Practice self-care so you have some time to yourself when your body is your own,
- Try cognitive distraction techniques during nursing, such as reading,
- Consider gentle night weaning, or dropping specific feeds in the day to regain some control.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when breastfeeding an older toddler is that this is a two-way relationship. Feeding on demand may no longer be appropriate, and while they may initially protest, initiating some healthy boundaries around nursing may be key if you wish to avoid weaning.
Likewise, should you decide to wean, that’s okay too. So, how do you know when to stop breastfeeding? It’s a very personal decision, but this is a good rule of thumb:
You cannot pour from an empty cup and your child needs you at your best, even if that means ending your breastfeeding journey.
How to Wean a Baby or Toddler
If and when you decide the time is right to do this, the age of your child will likely play a part in how you proceed.
The gentle option will always be to start by no longer feeding on demand, instead introducing times of day that are off limits (such as nighttime), or by reducing feeds and allowing only a morning and evening feed, for example. Depending on your baby’s age, you may need to replace breastfeeds with expressed milk, or with an alternative if you prefer.
In our situation, my daughter had already turned three, so supplementing is not necessary for us and neither is expressing.
How to Stop Breastfeeding
If you’re preparing to wean an older toddler, you may have already cut back – or attempted to. Certainly in my case it was appropriate to not simply drop feeds but to stop breastfeeding altogether, and because I’ve been attempting to gently initiate weaning for a long time but to no avail, there was really only one option left.
The harshest but only viable way forward in these circumstances is to go cold turkey. It’s what I’d tried to avoid for such a long time, and it brings its own challenges, both emotionally and physically. But it’s the only way to give your older child a very clear message without confusing them.
To ease the process I gave Elfin a three day warning, and reminded her every morning and evening of how long she had left before there would be no more ‘milkies’. This was to prepare her for the huge change, and so it wasn’t a big shock. It didn’t make the transition completely smooth, however I’m confident it helped make it as easy on her as possible.
I am currently on day four of no milk as I write, and my little girl is still clawing at my top regularly, however, she is relatively easily distracted compared to day one, and she’s not – thankfully – distressed.
Update: at two weeks post weaning, she is still sometimes asking for milk, but she is adjusting well.
She would absolutely continue to nurse if I allowed, which certainly makes it difficult to remain steadfast, but I know how detrimental it would be to ‘give in’ at this stage. We’re close to being past the worst of it, so I remain determined – despite the fact I’m a little sad about it!
I know it’s best for us both to say goodbye, so I’m holding this limit firmly but compassionately.
That said, be prepared for bedtimes to be a challenge if you’ve always nursed to sleep. Just as I did with Pixie until she was older and ready to go to sleep by herself, I’m staying with Elfin until she drops off. But this is not a simple or easy process right now.
Elfin has never had to go to sleep without milk before, unless I’ve literally not been in the house, which has been rare. She’s having to learn a completely new skill, and it’s tough on her. There’s a lot of resistance to sleep at the moment, with refusal to stay in bed, requests for twenty stories, sudden urges for the toilet, desperate needs of food and drinks, etc. It’s hard knowing that a simple breastfeed would have her sleeping in two minutes flat, but I must not confuse her.
Also be prepared to deal with blocked ducts, but don’t empty the breast to the point of stimulating milk production. It’s a fine balancing act and a little uncomfortable while your body regulates itself.
The Benefits of Stopping Breastfeeding a Toddler
One of the difficulties we’ve had with me nursing for so long is that Elfin has always preferred me for any help, comfort, etc. I like to think that as our relationship evolves perhaps she’ll become more accepting of her wonderful daddy.
And the newfound affection and cuddles!
My eldest, Pixie, and I have a special cuddle we do, and I’m going to create something similar for Elfin (husband’s suggestion – he does occasionally have a good idea). My hope is that even when she’s feeling unhappy about the transition to no longer nursing – which, by the way, I’m not expecting to last too much longer – I can replace ‘milkies’ with our own special thing. It will be her new comfort, and it will be one that can endure and continue for as long as she wishes.
Elfin has had such a strong attachment to my breasts for such a long time, that she’s almost needed to be shown, quite literally, that we can still have lots of lovely cuddles that do not include milk! I tell her regularly that yes, ‘milkies’ is gone and it’s okay to be sad about that – but we can still have our big snuggles.
She’s beginning to embrace it, and so am I.