Have you heard stories about the nightmare weaning a baby off breastfeeding can be? Have you been reading everywhere how important it is to start weaning as early in time as possible in order to prevent it from becoming too difficult later? Yes, we did too and it used to scare the hell out of us. But, it turned out to be far easier than we imagined.
From the time our daughter turned 6 months old, we had started to talk about one day having to wean her off breastfeeding. We knew it was going to be tough because, even though we had slowly started to increase formula in her routine during the day, at night she would only fall asleep while breasfeeding. This was a major point of concern for us because putting her to sleep was already a very painful task, and breastfeeding for so long had been wreaking my wife’s back in the process. Of course, 6 months may sound like too late for most working parents around the world, but here in Sweden we have the law of Parental Leave, which allows the parent to be off for as long as they want (with some pay, but more on that later) without it becoming a threat to their jobs. So, we had decided for my wife to be off for at least 1 year and therefore we had more time to take care of our daughter and wean her.
So, when is the best time to start weaning? I think the answer to this is when you and your baby seem comfortable. One good checkpoint would be when the baby has started eating solid food, so that she doesn’t need so much breastmilk at night to feel full.
One of the most important lessons of parenting I learned during the first year with our daughter was to focus on the most urgent problem(s) first and worry about the others later. This meant prioritization of problems and not their procrastination. For instance, it became clear to us very early that for our daughter to be able to sleep well at nights was more important than weaning her off at that stage, so we prioritized accordingly. Over the months until her 1st birthday, our daughter’s reliance on breastfeeding only seemed to be strong at night times and we did not have a plan of when and how to break this habit for her. To be honest, we also did not feel strong enough to be able to take up this challenge and wreck our sleep for a few nights. But what we did do more easily was cut off breastfeeding from her routine for the entire day except night times so that when it was finally time to stop completely, it would be less of a hassle.
Two weeks after her first birthday, she and her mom travelled back from Delhi to Stockholm and when she reached, she was visibly very tired and irritated due to the journey. She had breastfed on the plane, in the taxi on the way home as well as shortly again after entering our home because she felt scared to be in a different place after two months of being in Delhi.
When we saw that she was tired and scared to be in a new place, and was clearly not ready to sleep, we turned down the lights in our bedroom, except a small night lamp, got into bed with our daughter in between and cuddled her a bit, patted her head and spoke to her lightly so as to make her feel secure with both her parents right there by her side. Soon, she fell asleep.
That night, the idea came to my mind to try this out the next night as well and since it was a weekend, we did have the possibility to put in some time. So, the next night, we followed a routine of:
- Letting our daughter lie in bed for some time and become comfortable, even if it meant showing her some cartoons on the phone,
- Turning down the lights in our bedroom
- Offering her the milk bottle when she looked comfortable
- Playing lullabies (audio only) on my phone
- Lying next to her ready for sleep ourselves
- Patting her head while she drank her milk and even when she is done
This process of making things cozy for our daughter sometime before trying to put her to sleep made her more comfortable and within minutes of finishing her milk, she turned slightly towards her mom, patted her face lightly and fell asleep.
The first night this worked, we could barely conceal our excitement. But this could easily have been a fluke so we kept repeating this routine night after night and it worked every time. Of course, there were nights when this did not work. Children, after all are also thinking beings and there is a lot going on inside those tiny heads. But the disruptions were rare. Overall, we were astonished that we had managed to cut off breastfeeding from her routine completely and our daughter accepted it without screaming and howling even once.
While this seems all too easy, it really was a culmination of many factors including reducing her breastfeeding gradually over the months to only night-times, as well as the fact that the first time she fell asleep without breastfeeding was when she was utterly tired and scared.
Today, it has been a month and a half since the night we stopped her breastfeeding and she has never had to go back. Though her sleeping routine has recently had a major setback and we are again worried about how to put her off to sleep without wrecking our own sleeps, but that is another story for another day.