Dear Is This Normal,

Hi, I have a problem. I nursed my first child for three years. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that with my second child, Caleb. But then he was hospitalized at birth. We weren’t allowed to take him home from the NICU until he gained weight. I felt so panicked than that I got into the habit of feeding him whenever he was upset or remotely interested in nursing. Flash-forward sixteen months later, as I type while rocking a literal giant who is attached to my boob. If he wakes in his crib and there’s no boob next to his face, he immediately stands up and begins to scream. He has zero self-soothing skills.

I promised with our second pregnancy that I would never, ever nurse past the 12-month mark. I knew the hell of not getting a full night’s sleep for 3 straight years, and I was not interested in doing that again. 

I’m too stressed to figure this all out, worried I’m doing it wrong, and just plain not willing to let him cry himself to sleep. After 16 months straight of being nursed every single time he has woken up, it would be quite traumatic, very hurtful, and confusing for me to just stop.

What do I do?? How do I wean this little boy who is totally dependent on me to get himself to sleep? I said I wouldn’t make this mistake again the second time around and yet here we are. I should have all the answers because that’s what moms do! We fix things! Ok, you get it…. Heelllllpppp!*  

Signed,
Attached at the boob

Hi No Answers,

Oh mama. This is A LOT. I felt the stress and anxiety in your words. I can’t imagine how hard this has been and continues to be for you. 

I’m so sorry for the trauma of Caleb’s birth and first weeks together earthside. That’s something that we carry with us and I can feel the weight of it on your shoulders. I’m not sure that’s something we as parents are ever able to truly get over. We just have to figure out a way to move forward. 

You didn’t mention how you’re caring for yourself following the events of Caleb’s birth, but if you haven’t already, I strongly urge you to connect with a therapist or counselor or your doctor so that YOU can start unpacking some of your own trauma and begin to heal. I can sense that you’re carrying around a lot of guilt, and the guilt is very likely a big part of the struggles you’re facing now.

It sounds like there are two issues at play here: Caleb’s reluctance to wean off breastfeeding and the issues of sleep-training your toddler. In this case, these two things are intimately connected. 

First of all, listen to me: you didn’t make any mistakes. You did what you had to do to be a mama to your boys and there is nothing wrong with that. Hindsight is always 20/20. We all look back and wish we’d done things differently when it comes to certain aspects of parenting. But calling it a mistake implies you did something wrong. You nursed your sons, you focused on getting your medically fragile baby back to health, and you clearly did what needed to be done in those moments. I see no mistakes made here, mama.

But now, here we are. Rock and a hard place with no roadmap out. And under a time constraint, to boot! So let’s break this down. You want to wean Caleb and you need to get Caleb to a place where he can fall asleep on his own. Nearly every expert in the baby space will tell you: don’t make big changes in your baby’s routine when things are influx. In other words, weaning AND doing some form of sleep-training at the same time would be difficult for all involved. However, in your case, these issues are so intertwined that accomplishing one would very likely take care of the other. 

So let’s focus on weaning off breastfeeding. Weaning, at any age, is not easy. Weaning a toddler is particularly hard. But weaning, whether it’s your choice or it happens organically, is PERFECTLY ok. Do not feel guilty about this, because it’s time for you. That means it’s time for Caleb. You’re the mom, the adult, so guess what? You make the rules. I think you’re focusing so much on causing him additional trauma (you won’t), that you’re missing the benefits of making these changes. Babies and toddlers need to sleep! They need self-soothing skills! We don’t need to leave them cold and alone in a dark room to teach them these skills, either. But it does take some work. And a lot of resolves. That’s going to require that you and your husband work as one cohesive unit to make it happen.

It’s time to start the weaning process. I would suggest doing this gently and gradually. 

It sounds like he’s still nursing pretty much on-demand, so that needs to change. You said yourself that he understands things now so explain it to him. Decide on the specific times you’re ok with nursing, and communicate that to Caleb. Once you’ve got a schedule, start shortening those designated nursing times. Set parameters. Eventually, you’ll drop down to one nursing session and then it’s time to confront the big one: nursing him to sleep. This, and I cannot stress this enough, needs to involve your partner. 

Caleb cries for the boob, so bottom line, the one with the boobs cannot be the one to soothe him. In the middle of the night, when all anyone wants to do is go back to sleep, your resolve will waver. He will win! So your partner needs to be the nighttime parent for a while. He needs to be the one to go into his room when Caleb wakes up and he needs to be the one to soothe him until he falls back asleep. 

Don’t even think about sleep-training during this time – you’re only trying to get him to sleep without breastfeeding him to sleep. Weaning is going to help IMMENSELY with Caleb developing some self-soothing skills, but he may still need help … from your husband. As hard as it will be, you cannot be the one to comfort him

Here’s the other thing, the thing you’re going to struggle with the most: Caleb will cry. Probably a lot. He is not going to be traumatized. You are not going to hurt him by doing this necessary work. But you need to prepare yourself for tears (his and yours, most likely). SO MUCH of parenting involves us doing unpleasant things for the benefit of our kids. It seems like much of your guilt over this particular period is tied to the guilt you still carry around from his birth and days in the NICU. But you have to remember: these things are not connected. You were an amazing mama then and you are an amazing mama now. 

You’re totally right, we DO fix things. And you can fix this! You just need to let go of the residual guilt that’s holding you back from doing what needs to be done. Caleb isn’t going to wake up one day and magically self-wean and then put himself to sleep. But with your help, and with your husband’s help, he can get there. Stay strong, mama. In addition to fixing things, it’s what we do.

You Can Do This,

Is This Normal

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