Surprise, I’m Weaning!

by Gill Damborg

How my baby weaned himself and I didn’t even realize it was happening.

Wean: a verb
weaned; weaning; weans

1: to accustom (a young child or animal) to take food otherwise than by nursing
2: to detach from a source of dependence

Note: I’ll be using the term breastfeeding in this post as it’s what I identified with at the time I was feeding my baby from my body. At Brood we use the term nursing as it is more inclusive of all people who feed babies, including pumping. To learn more about the language we use and why, visit this post.

Many people who have a baby know that breastfeeding can be really hard. Like, really, really hard. Sure, some people have a baby that comes out of their bodies and almost climbs up to their chests and immediately start nursing but it’s not the norm. In fact the National Library of Medicine states that “around 70.3% of parents experienced nursing difficulties, reporting cracked nipples, perception of insufficient amount of milk, pain, and fatigue”. Not to mention latching issues, or mental health challenges. You’ve heard the term “breast is best”, and although it’s true that milk from our bodies is full of nutrients and it even changes to meet your baby’s needs, providing antibodies (so cool) it’s also not for everyone, and isn’t even possible for everyone who wants to. Sometimes it’s a choice, and sometimes it’s not.

I began my feeding journey on April 7, 2020 when my child Sunny was born at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, BC, Canada. We had a planned caesarean birth as I had placenta previa and two very large fibroids blocking the exit. Because I had been living with endometriosis for the better part of my 35 years, none of this was entirely surprising to me. That baby was NOT going to come out of me any other way (thank you modern science and medicine for saving me and my baby). I’ll get into my belly birth another time as I believe there is a wild amount of stigma around caesareans, especially for those who really wanted a vaginal or “natural” (read: unmedicated) birth (spoiler alert: all births are natural). The surgery went well, and because it was within the first weeks of the pandemic, I was discharged quickly and home within 36 hours of giving birth to our beautiful baby boy.

Because I had a belly birth, it took longer than expected for my milk to come in (oh, 7 days longer) and provided a difficult start for me and my baby. In retrospect, I could have tried antenatal hand expression earlier and more often, to get my milk production going and to collect colostrum in anticipation of my birth. But I didn’t. It was the first few weeks of lockdown and to be honest, I forgot about it there were a few other things on my mind in early 2020. Because of this, we had to feed him formula using an SNS (supplemental nursing system). It was so heartbreaking, because I was not only worried about my tiny new baby getting the nutrients and food he needed, but I’d also had a vision of what this journey would be, and this certainly wasn’t it. 

It took a total of ten weeks for us to figure it out, and honestly I wanted to give up so, so many times. The combination of my hormone crashes, deep baby blues and postpartum anxiety feeding challenges and my caesarean surgery recovery made all of it feel so impossible. But with the help of my doula Emma (one of Brood’s co-founders!), encouragement from my partner and some support from my friends, we got there in the end. After a week of pumping and hand expressing, and eating all the lactation cookies, my milk finally came in (hellooooo engorgement!). Sunny’s latch was another challenge, but once I started using the miraculous nipple shield, we began to get into a rhythm we were finally breastfeeding.

About 6 months into my postpartum and feeding journey, my partner and I decided we wanted to introduce bottle feeding once in a while, as a way for us to create some independence for me, and some extra bonding for them. I was beginning to feel a little “touched out” even after all of the struggles to get here, I knew I needed time to myself so I could do things like go to the gym or run errands or to spend some time with my friends… alone. So we spent a weekend getting Sunny to take a bottle (pro tip: leave the house so they can’t smell your milk!). It worked! A couple weeks later I was able to take my first 36 hours away from them and spend some quality time with friends, filling up my soul cup. I pumped while I was away, and my partner had a great night with our baby that made him feel even more capable as a parent. The cherry on top? Sunny even slept through the night for the first time.

Life went on like this for another couple of months, and I continued to pump and store up milk and feed him from my body as well as from the bottle. I was even able to donate milk to a single trans parent in my community who needed donor milk. Being able to give back after struggling so hard to get to that point felt great. I knew we would wean one day and was planning on it around the 11 month mark, just before I would be going back to work full time.

Then something happened. Seemingly out of the blue, I had an anxiety attack. My bestie (and one of Brood’s co-founders) Lizzy went into labour with her first child and instead of the expected feelings of excitement (the good kind) I began experiencing deep worry and fear, losing sleep and having repetitive negative thoughts. It felt like I was back in my first few weeks postpartum and those evenings of baby blues. It took more than a week, a therapy appointment, and some serious body detective work to figure out what was actually going on.

It was so gradual that I didn’t even know that I was weaning. For some lactating parents who are weaning, it can be so slow that there isn’t any engorgement or soreness, or any of the other classic signs and symptoms. I wasn’t feeling the many physiological changes, but I was certainly feeling all of the emotional and hormonal ones. 

Once I was able to pinpoint what was going on, I felt so much better. Going through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum is full of these emotional highs and lows and hormonal swings, and it’s hard not to gaslight ourselves and feel like we’re… losing it. It was so helpful to know that I wasn’t alone, and that these changes and experiences were completely normal, even if I didn’t “feel normal”. I was able to make a plan to move forward, and I decided to fully wean Sunny from breastfeeding and milk from my body to bottles with formula. It wasn’t in our plan, but then again what part of this entire experience had gone as planned? 

Having a baby during a pandemic robbed me of so many opportunities to celebrate and share in my pregnancy and parenting experience with my community. My baby shower was cancelled, my parents and friends weren’t able to hold Sunny for weeks and months, and I never went to any parent and baby classes. I was tired of moving through these milestones and moments without ceremony or celebration, so I decided that I needed to do something to mark this transition with those who had been there with me for the past 10 months. So, on the suggestion of my doula Emma, I decided to have a weaning ceremony. Yes, it was still on Zoom (thanks Covid-19 strain #4,096), but at least I would be able to hold space for myself at that moment. I hired a friend who ran events of this nature, to lead me and a group of my friends through a weaning ceremony.

Because I felt quite destabilised by the unexpected weaning process, I needed to feel supported and seen by my community and my care providers. I was lucky and able to pinpoint what was going on, and I know that’s not easy for everyone to access. If you are able to, naming these feelings and experiences and being witnessed by others can be an important step to moving through this stage. The weaning ceremony allowed me to feel connected to myself, and my care providers were able to support me in setting a physical and mental health plan in motion, which for me included prescription medication. Being a parent and new mom can be so isolating, and the most important lesson I learned was that I couldn’t do it alone. Resources and information on weaning are lacking, along with so many other topics within the reproductive healthcare system and research. This is one of the reasons we created our comprehensive weaning guide at Brood. Brood’s Weaning Guide is full of information on what to expect, how to prepare and the types of emotional and physiological changes that occur when weaning. We hope it helps you navigate this part of your journey with a little more ease and confidence.

My feeding and weaning journey was anything but “easy” or “natural”. It was difficult, rewarding, beautiful and incredibly challenging both at the beginning and at the end. I can only hope that by sharing my story, some of the folks about to embark on this path or anyone within the throws of a wean feel less alone and can begin to unravel and understand the feelings around their own experiences.

Download Brood’s free Weaning Guide here.

About to embark on a feeding journey and want more information? Check out our original Feeding and Your Baby course here.

I wanted to share what we did for my weaning ceremony, so you’ve got a place to start if you wanted to do a weaning ceremony to help you move through the process.

Get settled as a group:

Find a comfortable and intimate place in your home to sit. If you are gathering in-person, sit in a circle. If it’s online, we suggest sitting on the floor with the support of a few cushions back of a couch in a space in your home that feels cozy.

Bring a candle and lighter. When you’re all settled, take a moment to light the candle together.

Have your friends and community members reflect on these questions: 

  • If you are a mother or parent, how have you found peace and acceptance in moments of transition in parenthood? For example, weaning, feeding changes, sleep changes, body shifts, hormonal shifts, returning to work, etc.
  • What are some ways you’ve witnessed other mothers or parents find peace and acceptance in transitional moments?

You will each have a few mins to share your reflections which will serve as inspiration for the weaning parent to move through this parenthood phase with more ease and grace.  

For the person moving through the weaning transition, reflect on these questions: 

  • Since becoming a parent, what have you experienced as a loss? (within your identity, your community, your work, etc.) 
  • Since becoming a parent, what have been missed opportunities to celebrate, grieve, feel supported, and nurture yourself?
  • What has parenthood and your baby taught you about yourself so far?
  • What’s your relationship to the weaning phase right now? What emotions feel the most present?
  • What do you see for yourself on the other side of weaning that feels light?
  • What is one word to describe the quality in each person here who is attending that has given you strength this past year? This will be a little way to thank them at the end of the ceremony. 

This person will have some time to share their reflections.

Once you’ve completed the sharing, close out the ceremony by blowing out the candle together.

To note: These questions can be deep and bring up a lot of emotions and feelings for not only you, but the others in the group. Make sure the group has access to someone they can talk to, or other resources for support. Remember to give everyone the option to opt out, take a break, or even leave the room if they need to.

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