Long before I had children, I had lots of ideas that later turned out to be false. For instance, I remember thinking that my kids would sleep through the night at a young age, that my kids would never behave badly in public, that I wouldn't want to be a stay-at-home mom, and that having kids wouldn't have any impact on our sex life. Regarding breastfeeding, I remember saying something along the lines that, "If they are old enough to ask for it, they are too old to be breastfeeding!" Now that I'm older and more experienced, I've had the joys of learning that so many of my ideas were wrong and advocating for some of the very things I was so wrong about.
My First Time Weaning
While I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought that two years would be a good length of time for breastfeeding. After she was born, despite many of the usual early nursing problems, I fell in love with breastfeeding. The closeness it promoted, the ease of nighttime feedings, the sheer wonder of my body producing a perfect food: I absolutely loved breastfeeding! As my daughter neared two years old, I knew that my arbitrary plan to wean by the age of two was unnecessary. Why should we stop doing something that we both enjoyed so much, and that was so healthy for my daughter? Breastfeeding was so much more than I thought it would be, and instead of feeling like I couldn't wait to be done, I found myself thinking of how sad it would be when we were done.
And yet. As she neared two years old, my daughter was still nursing several times every night. How I longed for an uninterrupted night's sleep! So when my daughter was 22 months old, I decided it was time to night-wean her. I spent three miserable nights trying to comfort my daughter in every way I could, except the one way she really wanted: breastfeeding. Over those three days, it became readily apparent that my daughter was not ready to be night-weaned. She cried for long periods during the night (even though she was still in our bed and being held by me), but even more troubling were the differences that I noticed in her daytime behavior. She became increasingly clingy and very insecure. Anytime I tried to put her down or leave the room, she was upset. And then she became ill, and I realized that this attempt at night-weaning was not working, for any of us.
So I backed off, and let her once again nurse at night. All was well. My daughter's behavior returned to normal, and we got back into our previous routine. About 6 months later, I decided to try night-weaning again. It was a breeze! There was a small amount of resistance from my daughter, but I was amazed at what a difference 6 months could make. There was no negative effect on her daytime behavior, and it was obvious that she was developmentally ready for night-weaning at this time. This illustrated one of the most important lessons of parenting: every child is different and trying to fit my daughter into a mold of what she "should" be doing was not good for any of us. By balancing my own needs with my daughter's needs, we were able to advance towards weaning at a time that worked well for everyone.
My daughter was 26 months old and still nursing fairly frequently when I became pregnant with my son. By the middle of the pregnancy, my milk disappeared completely, and nursing my daughter got to be so uncomfortable/painful for me that I really didn't enjoy it anymore at all. I think my daughter could tell that I felt this way, and she self-weaned herself by around the 4th or 5th month of my pregnancy. But, at the same time, I could tell that she wasn't really "ready" to be weaned, as she started having temper tantrums for the first time ever, as well as other signs that the milk had been very beneficial for her (such as less immune resistance to illnesses). I think she would have benefited from nursing for longer, if I had been able to do that. After her brother was born, I let my daughter try to nurse again, and was surprised to find that she had completely forgotten how to nurse.
My Second Time Weaning
Right now I'm in the process of weaning my son, but this is a much different experience because I am letting things develop more on their own (since I am not pregnant this time and am able to do things much more gradually). Ten years ago, I never could have guessed that I would someday be nursing a 3&1/2 year old. But life has a way of showing me that I am not always right, especially when it comes to "planning" the way I will do things that I have no experience with.
This time around, I wasn't even thinking about weaning as my son neared 2 years old. Why? Because he had sleep problems, starting from birth, which got gradually worse and worse over time. By the time he turned 2 years old, he was waking every hour, every night. Getting 3 hours of sleep in a row was a very rare treat for me. Around this time I also suffered from strong adrenal fatigue, which was exacerbated by the lack of sleep.
My son could not sleep away from me, and if I tried to let him go back to sleep on his own during the night waking, he would just become more and more awake, eventually getting out of bed even if it was 2am. The only way I could get him to go back to sleep easily (without having to carry him around for 30-45 minutes each time) was to nurse him back to sleep. If I could respond quickly enough as soon as he started waking up, I could even get him to go back to sleep in less than 10 minutes, whereas if I was too slow, it would take closer to 30 minutes of nursing to get him back to sleep. Weaning was not on my radar as breastfeeding was the only resource I had to help us try to get more sleep.
Around the age of 3, I talked to my son about how we would no longer be nursing when we were not at our home or grandma's house. Because of his age, he was able to understand these new rules and he was fine with them. It was no issue whatsoever. A few months later, I established that his only daytime nursing would be at naptime; this was again accomplished with hardly any resistance from him (and no behavioral changes to show that he was not ready). And then last month we stopped the naptime nursing session, again with only minimal resistance.
Over the last eight months, my son's sleeping problems have had a dramatic improvement through his constitutional homeopathic treatment. His sleeping pattern has changed from waking every hour to sleeping straight from 9:30PM until 4:30 or 5AM each morning. Since he is sleeping so much better now, I have been able to transition to only nursing him once a day, when he wakes up around 4:30-5am. Retaining this one daily nursing session allows my son to go back to sleep until he can wake up at a more "normal" time of 6:30-7am. Without nursing, my son would be getting up to start the day at 4:30-5AM every morning.
Fulfilling the Child's Needs While Weaning
While weaning both of my children, I have tried hard to make sure that I still meet their needs. Breastfeeding certainly provided my children with excellent nutrition and immunity, so I made sure that their diets were nutritious and wholesome as they stopped nursing. As my children grew older and were eating plenty of nutritious foods, I found that their main need for breastfeeding stemmed from the desires for closeness, security, and comfort. Making sure that I still spent plenty of time snuggling and cuddling with my children even when we were not nursing really helped to meet these needs.
Weaning Should Balance the Needs of Both the Mother and the Child
Through my experiences in weaning both of my children, I have learned much about parenting. Trying to impose my own arbitrarily chosen timeframe on the process of weaning was counterproductive and did not work. Even though my daughter was over two years old and may have been considered too old for breastfeeding when she weaned, it was still apparent that she was not ready to be weaned in terms of her health or her emotional development.
Because the timeframe has been so much more relaxed with my son, I've been able to see just how un-stressful weaning can be. Since we have been able to wean gradually, there has not any big effect on his behavior or his feeling of security, as he still feels like his needs are being met. And allowing him to nurse well beyond the "normal" timeframe has allowed us to survive through his years of deteriorating sleep.
Of course, every child is different. I've heard of lots of kids who weaned or even self-weaned easily at around 1&1/2 to 2 years old. My kids just didn't fall into that category, so I had to adjust my own expectations to match their capabilities. Being able to meet each of my children's individual needs requires me to be willing to do some things in an unusual way, but they don't deserve any less.