How my baby dictated the terms of our breastfeeding journey.
"As long as she wants." "Until she's done." Whenever anyone asked me how long I planned to nurse my oldest daughter, Hermione, that was always my answer.
Unlike her baby sister, Portia, who was born a champion nurser, Hermione and I fought hard for our beautiful nursing relationship. Through four brutal weeks of an undiagnosed tongue tie, she couldn't latch and would just scream and scream. But we fought to make it work. I would try and unsuccessfully nurse her and then pump and give her a bottle . This cycle would then repeat every two hours -- for four weeks. Finally, we figured out the problem and got it fixed, and she finally latched on and nursed like a pro. I returned the rented pump, gave away the bottles, and never looked back.
After enduring such an emotional and exhausting start to our nursing relationship, I was in no rush to give it up. I loved nursing Hermione and was sure she would still be nursing as a two or three year old, and I would have been more than fine with that.
After she hit about 15 months, she was only nursing three times a day (down from almost ten at its height): in the morning, after her nap, and in the bath before bed. If she was sick or hurt, she would nurse more. I loved always being a source of instant warmth and comfort for her. I loved nursing her in the middle of the night if she woke up and needed me. Sitting in the rocking chair, snuggling with my sweet baby girl and feeling like the only two people in the world, will always be my happy place. The smell of her hair, her little hands waving around and stroking my face, the sweet way she would say, "milkies please, Mommy" -- I loved and cherished every second of nursing my first baby girl.
And then one day, after 20 beautiful months, she was done. There was no gradual process. I had no idea it was coming.
Hermione woke up from her nap, as she always did, calling for me: "Milkies please, Mommy! Milkies please, Mommy!" I went into her room and got ready to nurse. But this time, as I pulled down my shirt, she started to freak out. She screamed and cried for a while, and no snuggling or cuddling seemed to make her feel better. I realized then that she wasn’t going to nurse. It took 15 long minutes, her favorite green juice and a little help from Sesame Street for her to eventually calm down.
At bath time that night, it happened again. Instead of grabbing me in the tub and nursing for 15-20 minutes, she just stared at me and said "fix it." Fix what? I still had plenty of milk and was confused and saddened about what she thought might be broken. I tried to convince her to latch on as she was clearly agitated and upset, but she simply wouldn't. It was as if she had forgotten how. The whole scene felt very similar to when she was a tiny newborn and wanted desperately to nurse but just couldn't figure out the physicality of it.
The next morning she woke up asking for mommy’s milkies again. But again, she wouldn't nurse and got terribly upset when I offered it to her. The same thing happened after nap time, and again in the bath before bed.
She was done. Despite asking for milk something in her little body was telling her it was over, that she couldn't nurse anymore.
My heart was breaking. If she had seemed happy and not conflicted about her decision, the shock might have been lessened for me. But her inner turmoil was sad and confusing. For the past 20 months, I had met her tears and cries with nursing, and suddenly that no longer worked.
Aside from the emotional shock at the sudden loss of our sweet nursing bond, my body had already started to react physically to this change. My breasts were very sore and engorged -- as they once were, right after Hermione’s birth. My hormones were on a roller coaster ride as they adjusted to not creating or sustaining a baby for the first time in 30 months. I cried randomly. I felt emotionally exposed and raw all over. All eerily similar to the immediate weeks postpartum.
In my head, I knew that breastfeeding Hermione for 20 months was a huge accomplishment. We did it, without pumping or bottles, until she no longer needed it for nutrition or physical comfort. We ended on her terms, as sudden as they may have been.
Once I realized this wasn't a nursing strike and it was really over, the challenge was to create new routines to occupy the time we would have spent nursing. How would I comfort her when she was upset? How would I gently soothe her when she woke up cranky from a nap? It took a long time for Hermione to wake up without screaming and crying. Now she is almost three and a half and simply wakes up and runs into my bedroom, overjoyed to see me and start her day. Most mornings, I am nursing her baby sister in bed when she comes to greet us. She always asks, "what's Portia doing Mommy?" It's amazing how quickly they forget.
Our intimate, beautiful nursing relationship may have ended sooner than I had hoped, but I know those 20 months bonded us in ways we might never fully understand. Even if she is no longer growing in or being sustained by my body, she is still my baby. I her mommy. Her weaning led me to appreciate each snuggle, kiss and hug that much more. More so than any other milestones, it made me acutely aware of how fast children grow up. My baby is now turning into a big girl before my eyes, and it is the most beautiful, exquisite pain there is.