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Getting a toddler off breastfeeds and nightfeeds

Last week I received this e-mail with a query from someone who attended one of the ‘Babies in Mind’ workshops a few years ago. She has since moved to Australia, had another child, and is now struggling to get a good night’s sleep because her second child (17 months old) breastfeeds constantly during the night. This is what she writes:

I remember coming to your workshop and reading your book – and what really stuck with me – is that crying is a babies sign of hope – and what I heard you say (correct me if I’m wrong) … is that controlled crying is not psychologically sound!At the moment I am stuck! My second bubs – Charlotte, is 17 months old – and is ADDICTED to my breast! She sees me – and wants to breastfeed consistently! When I see her, when we go to a new place, when I’m playing with her … But more importantly – breastfeeds in the pouch while I put her to sleep (a bad habit that I slipped into) and breastfeeds throughout the night (I’m not totally aware of it – as I am a deep sleeper)But by 6am – my nipples are sore!!! And I have to push her off and she wakes up and ….There are tons of ‘sleep consultants’ here! They mostly come from a nursing background!! And they use controlled crying approach!I was hoping you could give me advice from a ‘psychological’ perspective (I’m so worried about attachment and long term implications)!

Rather than this being an issue of ‘controlled crying’ I think it is actually about the complexities of weaning. In order for weaning to happen, it is often inevitable that there will be some crying. Weaning involves a bit of psychological and emotional (sometimes also physical) separation between the mom and the baby. This is harder for some moms – and some babies – than others. But every baby (except perhaps if there is a severe, chronic or life-threatening illness) has to find a way to make gradual psychological shifts over time away from his or her mother. Weaning off the breast is an important part of this.

‘Babies in Mind’ was written primarily for parents of babies who are in their first year of life, and it doesn’t cover much about the important and often complicated issue of weaning. So, whilst it is true that crying is a sign of hope, and that it isn’t always wise to leave young babies alone to cry too often or for too long, a toddler who is struggling to let go of babyhood might need to cry some tears in the process of weaning.

There are different – often very strong – views about how and when babies should stop breastfeeding. But the query quoted in this article is an excellent example of a mom and toddler’s real struggle to separate from one another. There may not be an easy way through the weaning process for Charlotte and her mom. From the information given, it is not clear why Charlotte has felt a particular need to hold on so tightly and closely to her mom. Maybe it feels to Charlotte that there are some dangers lurking around (in her mind or in her environment) that she doesn’t understand, so she needs to cling to her mom more than if she was feeling safe and courageous. Night-time can be frightening for toddlers in general. They often do like to check in with their parents in order to reassure themselves that they are safe.

My recommendation to Charlotte’s mom is that she make the decision now to wean her toddler off the breast. This will allow Charlotte the psychological and physical space to engage with the world with more freedom and independence. It will help Charlotte to see that the world is an exciting place and that, with her mom as back-up support, she has the confidence and the ability to explore and discover it. Charlotte’s mom may benefit from consulting a psychologist who specializes in parent-infant psychotherapy or with a ‘Babies in Mind’ practitioner. Saying goodbye to the baby-days can be hard. But the exciting new world of toddlerhood awaits…with challenges of its own but full of surprises and delights.




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