09/02/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2013

Weeping and Weaning: The Challenges of Extended Breastfeeding

Toni Nagy

Breastfeeding my child was always important to me, but I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. Images of nursing mothers -- whether timeless works of art or photos on Facebook -- made it look easy. How hard could it really be?

Answer: pretty damn hard. The first few months of my daughter's life were like having a leech attached to me at all times, suckling away my life force at a steady pace while my areola was exposed to the world. I hardly slept because she woke up 10-12 times a night to nurse, and I ended up dealing with five breast infections in the first year of life. But I continued because I wanted what was best for my baby -- that and you know how moms like to complain.

Although breastfeeding an infant had its own unique set of struggles, I never dreamed I would breastfeed my toddler or what challenges would come as a consequence. I wasn't prepared for the wrath that would ensue when she wanted to, but I said "no." Where I felt it was reasonable to only nurse each boob once, my daughter often wanted to go back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Her wanting "more nana" was something we would get into actual fights about. I mean, there weren't any boxing gloves involved because she could probably kick my butt. However, she would cry a lot and her tears were like a punch in the heart.

I know you want to think nursing is all about bonding and sweetness, but there are times when you actually don't want someone feasting off your body. When you would rather provide the comfort your child craves with a cuddle. But even being that close to your chest can be too much of a temptation for them not to demand the goods, and revolt when you don't give them up. I don't blame her though. I know it would be hard for me if a pizza wanted to "just hug" and not give me a few bites. But that doesn't make the tantrums any easier to endure.

I know a lot of children self-wean, and God(dess) bless every one of them. Those kids are angels in my book. My daughter had no interest in weaning, and I knew that if I wanted it to end I would have to be the initiator. I decided her 3rd birthday would be a good benchmark because she was already excited about the presents and cake. We talked about it for weeks and she seemed psychologically prepared. I figured if I implanted the idea fully in her head, it would help me stay committed to my decision, and help her with the transition. As I nursed her for the last time the night before her birthday, a wave of nostalgia came over me as I reflected on this phase being over. But I knew it was time for us both to move on.

It was easy to distract her that first day since it was her birthday. The next day was when the real work began. I kept reminding her that she was 3 and "nana" was over while bribing her with lollipops and other treats. After the inevitable crash from the sugar high, she really lost it. When she cried for "nana" in the past, it was usually in a whiney tone, but this cry was different. It was as if she were in a genuine state of mourning.

She kept saying "please mamma, please" and sobbing in my arms. There was this look of existential angst in her face, as if she finally understood that this very important part of her life was actually over. It was hard for me not to cry too. Her tears were so sincere and primal. Nothing I said could bring her solace. I tried to rationalize, or tell her how the "nana" fairies came and took my nanas away so the other babies being born could have them. But she didn't care. She was lamenting the loss of something that meant so much to her. The grief was authentic and earnest, and I felt all I could do was give her the space to feel the loss. I came close to giving in -- it was so hard not to feel her agony. Eventually she agreed to her third slice of birthday cake for the day, and finally calmed down.

Had I known all these challenges beforehand I probably wouldn't have done anything differently, but I would have felt less alone in the process. Weaning your toddler is incredibly emotionally exhausting. The weeks after, your child is clingier, moodier and needier. It is not an easy time, and there is no fail-proof way of doing it. I am sure weaning an infant is also trying, but with a toddler there is a huge psychological component that has to be navigated. As much as I am an advocate of breastfeeding, I also think it's important to be truthful about the difficulties to help mothers be prepared. Let's both encourage moms to breastfeed and give them the tools to assist them to stop when they move through that sensitive time.