This will be emotional. Here goes…
The last time I breastfed my second (and last?) baby was the morning of Friday 18th September 2015. He was 13 months old, or 11 months corrected age (his age as calculated from his due date).
It was the last day of our holiday in Wales. I fed him in the morning. We drove home. When we got there, I sat down to give him his usual afternoon feed, and he gave me a look that I had never seen before: ‘No, mummy’. He never breastfed again.
I offered, and offered, and offered. He refused. He cried and yelled and struggled to get away from me. Every time he came anywhere near my breast, he started to scream. I expressed for a few days, but the amount I got was tiny and, in any case, I couldn’t face another stretch of tormented weeks of expressing such as I had had at the beginning with both my babies (you can read about that here).
After about a month, I had to face it: my baby had finished breastfeeding.
With retrospection on my side, I can see why it was OK that he stopped. He was eating plenty of food (and continues to out-eat his older sister and sometimes me on a daily basis). He no longer needed to nurse to sleep. He had been offered plenty of opportunities to nurse again, and he just didn’t want to. Above all: he was happy.
Me? Was I happy? No. Not at all. I was under a cloud of sadness and desperation. I joined support groups on Facebook that I thought would give me a magic solution to get my baby back to the breast. I had nursed my older child until she was 18 months (and only stopped then because of a harsh second pregnancy), why not this one? All I could think about, all day long, was that my baby had rejected my milk and – by extension – rejected me.
All the resources I read told me that babies under two years old rarely self-wean, and it must be a nursing strike. I asked myself what I had done wrong. Was it because I jumped in pain when he bit me? Was it because – feeling out of other options – we had left him to cry at night a few times? What was the cause of this bump in the road?
For several weeks I persisted with the belief it was just a strike, and he would come back. I had to grieve this loss. I had wanted to nurse him until he was at least two years old. But… but… he didn’t want to. It was the end of breastfeeding.
Looking back, I know we had a good run. We managed to breastfeed against the odds of a premature birth and a six-week stay in the neonatal unit. After that, we enjoyed a trouble-free breastfeeding relationship (aside from a brief strike at about eight months old). We never encountered any unkindness from strangers when we were feeding out and about. We made it past the one-year mark. It was wonderful and beautiful. And then it was over, and we moved on. It was him who decided to stop, I hadn’t forced it. We found other ways to enjoy each other’s company, and we still had loads of cuddles. Cuddle is now one of his three first words (along with ‘cracker’ – food – and ‘papa’). Just because we stopped breastfeeding didn’t mean we stopped bonding.
I did have to leave the Facebook groups, though. The constant stream of breastfeeding selfies with toddlers and older children in them was too much for me. I had wanted that to be us. I didn’t feel judged for stopping when I did, but I did feel sad.
On the flip side, after three years wearing maternity and nursing bras, I finally got to go to Marks and Spencer to get new ones. That was the silver lining to the cloud!
Breastfeeding is a contentious topic because there is so much stigma and spin and misinformation surrounding it. Both breastfeeders and formula-feeders can face criticism and hostility, and it can be so hard to navigate through that when you already feel parent guilt and the paralysis of worry that every parenting decision you make is likely to be wrong in some way. Let me state for the record that while I am so thankful for the help and support I received to be able to breastfeed, and think it would be wonderful if every new mum had the detailed and professional care which could enable them to feed successfully, I am in favour of fed babies and happy babies and mummies. Let me also state that I do not think that breastfeeding for four years is the rubber stamp of a healthy or happy relationship between a mother and child. My own experience shows that the bond of love only grows and grows over time, whether milk is involved or not.