The following article was included in my e-booklet, Nurturing Hands.
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.
12 thoughts on “Weaning, attachment and separation”
I agree completely with everything you’ve said here. I personally find it difficult to hear other people talking about being separated from their babies at young ages because I know it is so traumatic for the babies. One woman I know went on a 10-day trip related to her job, when her newborn was only two weeks old! I almost cried when I heard that. Many things are wrong with today’s society, and this breaking of the bond between mother and child is surely one of the worst.
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Laura, it does feel unnatural, doesn’t it? My youngest is currently 19 months old, and still I wouldn’t be separated from him overnight, or even for many hours, if I can help it.
I couldn’t agree more with you!
I once did some childcaring, and one of the children was a 6 months old girl. Her mother joked to me: ‘It’s going to be hard for you because she won’t sleep without nursing.’ It wasn’t hard, it was heart-breaking. I still feel sorry for the baby, although it was almost 20 years ago…
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Miriam, yes. It *is* heartbreaking. I don’t know… I could never bear to walk away from a baby for an extended time, more than an hour or two. Usually not even that. It just feels unnatural.
It does, indeed.
Have you seen the movie ‘The Help’? (It’s a book, too) I cry if I think how Aibileen felt – she needed to ‘abandon’ (left in the care of others) her own child as she was taking care of a child of others.
Here’s the trailer in case you haven’t seen it
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I have the book and have seen the movie twice. It’s heartbreaking. Especially the part of how Aibileen is more of a mother to that little girl than her own actual mother.
What a smug post. How about supporting other mothers? All mothers of young kids think what they are doing is the right and only way. You’ll see, in 15 years, that they all grow up pretty much the same, no matter what you did when they were 2.
I beg to disagree. I believe, and various studies confirm this, that events from the earliest childhood, even if not remembered, do play their part in a person’s life. Also, I do not see how what I wrote is “unsupportive”.
Honestly, the argument that “if an event is not remembered then it doesn’t matter” is a terrible one, in my opinion. So let’s say you jump off your roof and could take a magic “forget pill” after you healed so you didn’t remember it happened. Would you choose to do it? Of course not, because you would suffer and be in pain for a long time. You still have to experience the hurt at the time, even if it’s not remembered. it’s still a hard thing to live through.
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Just so, Samantha. And as my children are growing, I can definitely see how habits and impressions from their earliest days influence them now.
I just wanted to know your thoughts on working women in this scenario. They usually have to leave for extended periods of time during the day for working. And have to rely on support systems for caring for their children.
From your perspective, women need to ‘Abandon’ all of their education & careers and practically their entire lives to care for their children.
I differ in just a minute way. Child bearing might be a mom’s work alone, but child rearing necessarily needs to be a community work. This will stop women from being burdened with the sole responsibility and won’t rob them of their aspirations away from home.
This is one more reason why women will never be looked at the same way as men at corporate offices, since women are seeing themselves as belonging to home and not at work or any place else.
I agree if this is solely ‘Your opinion’. But most certainly, coming from a woman working in Corporate HR in a multi national company and proud of it, in addition to being a proud mommy, this mind set needs to change if we aspire to grow young daughter who one day must dream big and revolutionize the world and ASK for help instead of ASSUMING that their role is inside the home and that it’s their SOLE responsibility.
Weaning doesn’t have much to do with the mother working. It’s possible to express breastmilk and also to breastfeed before and after work. What I was talking about here is the practice I noticed among some women of disappearing on a baby or young toddler for a few days in order to wean. It’s psychologically traumatic for the child, who does not have a definite concept of time and doesn’t realize their mother will be back.