Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Weaning, attachment and separation

I have yet to have the experience of weaning a baby off breastfeeding; the first time, my milk just dried up because of subsequent pregnancy, but as my child was 15 months old and used to a wide variety of foods, that was alright. The second time, I went on nursing over two years, and somehow, very gradually, without my knowing how it happened, one day my daughter was weaned. I admit I was very grateful for it happening this way. Weaning is a bittersweet experience for me, even after a long and satisfying nursing relationship. I can only imagine what it must be like to intentionally wean a child who cries and frets and demands to be comforted in the best way they have known since birth, and to deny this comfort which it is in my power to give.

I realize sometimes babies or toddlers must be weaned, for a variety of reasons (medical, psychological or practical). It can, hopefully, be done gradually in order to minimize the stress and discomfort. I do feel compelled to speak out, however (at the risk of sounding judgmental), against a practice I noticed among some mothers I know - that of abrupt weaning of an older baby or toddler who is deemed "too old" to nurse, by the simple method of the mother disappearing from home for a week or so.

First off, the modern society's idea of weaning age does not correspond at all with Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition, it is a matter of course that a child is nursed at least until 2 years old, and breastfeeding is quite common and acceptable until even later. In practice, today most babies are weaned off the breast at less than 1 year old (only to be given a bottle of formula in exchange). 

A neighbor of mine went for a week-long vacation abroad with her friends, leaving behind her son (then 10 months old) in the vague hope that maybe he will give up on breastfeeding by the time she is back. That hope proved futile. "I don't know what to do with him," she complained irritably a day after returning home, "he cried and nursed all night. I didn't get any sleep!" I had to bite my tongue to keep from retorting. How could she be surprised? 

As far as this baby was concerned, his mother, who was always there to take care of him and nurse him, suddenly disappeared for a whole week - an eternity in a baby's terms - snatching away his best source of comfort and nutrition. He had experienced the trauma of losing his mother, without any possible alleviation in the form of understanding she will be back eventually, because a 10-month-old is unable to grasp the concept of Mom going on vacation. To him, when Mom is gone, she is gone. There is no difference, as far as he is concerned, whether she is on vacation or dead. She is simply not there. 

The same thing was done by several other women I know, always saying things like, "oh, he'll be fine", "I really need a break from it all", "I need to wean her because she's embarrassing me in public" and even "I need to wean because I want to get pregnant again". 

Now, I realize all babies go through the stage when they break out crying as soon as they lose sight of their mother (we're just past that stage at this time, actually), and learn that she will come back eventually, whether in several minutes (if Mom goes to the bathroom) or several hours (if the baby is in some sort of day care). Now, if you know me, you know I'm all for home education or at least for keeping children at home well past the toddler years, and don't think an enforced separation from Mom on a daily basis is good for the baby or toddler. Sometimes there really is no choice, however, and families adjust. A week-long separation, though, is really much too long for a baby, in my opinion. In their little minds, they are actually becoming accustomed to the idea of losing their mother forever. See quote from here

"Infants may develop attachments to other members of the family or carers, who can take mother's place for a while. But if mother does not return soon, some infants can become quite distressed, with crying and an increase of behaviors designed to bring the mother and infant together again. If the separation lasts for some days, the first state of crying and "protest" may be replaced by a mood of quiet unhappiness or despair. In the first two or three years of life an infant has no adult sense of time, and since explanations cannot be understood, the infant seems to despair of the mother's return, in a kind of grief or mourning reaction."

For this very reason, quite apart from breastfeeding, I personally would never voluntarily separate overnight from a child who does not yet have good verbal communication skills and a more-or-less consistent sense of time - in other words, a child under 3 or 4 years old. It is simply impossible to explain to a very young child that "Mommy will be back in a couple of days", and without such understanding, the enforced separation is, as far as the child is concerned, nothing short of abandonment. 

I realize that sometimes, such an abrupt separation is unavoidable (in the case of sudden hospitalization, etc). But I would not put a child through such trauma for the sake of a vacation, or in order to wean as quickly as possible (which, above all else, may result in plugged ducts and mastitis for the mother). It's far better to make an attitude switch and vacation with the baby, and wean, if weaning is necessary indeed, slowly and gradually. 

Just one final word: time passes so quickly. The baby who cries when his mother goes into the bathroom will sooner than you know turn into a 4-year-old who is quite happy at the adventure of staying with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple of days. There is no need to rush. Be with your baby; you will never regret it, and really, everything else can wait. 


Lady Anne said...

My sister had to have surgery when her son was about eight months old, and even though he was already on a bottle, he was fussy and cranky for months afterward - almost bipolar, giggling on moment and crying the next. It didn't dawn on her until much later that her being gone for a week was the root of the problem, but she often said if he'd been the first, he'd have also been the last.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting post!I must say that I am very surprised to hear that a mother would leave her 10 month old baby for a week while he is still nursing.I have myself a 10 month old and even though he eats food and is on a bottle it would never cross my mind to leave him for more than a couple of hours away from me.As you write at the end and the Kohelet says:"Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven."May we mothers really integrate the truth of these words.

lavender garden said...

Thank you so much for posting this, Anna. Did you explain to this woman your understanding of what caused her baby's behavior? I feel like crying fo that baby. Did she go back to nursing him?

Miu said...

I have never heard of this practice before and now I wonder if it isn't also bad for the mother when she suddenly stops breastfeeding? How fast does the body react to not breastfeeding anymore when it is so suddenly?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Lavender Garden, unfortunately I'm not that close to this woman as to presume to give her my insight on this matter. She did continue breastfeeding; however, this is not just about breastfeeding. My eldest stopped nursing at 15 months, yet she still wasn't nearly old enough to understand concepts such as lengthy separation. She was 20 months old when her sister was born, and though we tried to explain that I would be gone for several days on account of the new baby, and though her father brought her to visit me and her new sister, it still wasn't enough and my 3-day-long hospital stay was a shaking experience for her. It took her several weeks to regain confidence in my presence. Now, of course it couldn't be helped - but to do this for a whim such as a vacation without the young child? I don't think so.

Miu, a sudden stop of breastfeeding does put the mother at risk of plugged ducts and mastitis. However, even if a child does not breastfeed, the mother's sudden disappearance is still traumatic.

Rose said...

yes, yes, and yes.