Pregnancy diary – week 15: thoughts on nursling (self-?)weaning

It’s that time of the week again, when I sit down and ramble about what’s going on in our pregnancy world this week. According to the various pregnancy week-by-week guides that I flick through (online or in print) every now and then, it’s normal by week 15 for most ladies to feel better from any sickness that they’ve experienced. As you may have guessed, I’m still feeling sick and haven’t stopped being sick, though thankfully not as often as in earlier weeks. But then I’ve never laid any claim to being ‘normal’, and some would advocate (probably Tom the most strongly) that I’m not ‘most ladies’.

What is ‘normal’ anyway?! The statistician in me (the one who was taught all she knew during the PhD) understands that every ‘normal distribution’ is a curve – some lucky ladies are in the thin end at the left and suffer no or hardly any nausea and sickness (lucky them, she says gritting her teeth), some not-so-lucky ladies are around the peak of the curve and suffer nausea and sickness for about 14-15 weeks, and some unlucky ladies find themselves in the thin end at the right and get the nausea and sickness thing real bad and/or for ages. So far I’m hanging around to the right of the peak, waiting to see whether I’ll slide any further down into the gloomy far-right of the curve, or whether I’ll be spared from the descent.Anyway, normal curves were not the intended topic of this week’s diary. At the end of last week, I borrowed a book from Cambridge La Leche League (LLL) group’s library called ‘Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding during pregnancy and beyond‘ by Hilary Flower. Of course I haven’t had time to read it all yet (if I ever will), but by flicking through the bits I was most interested in and was drawn to the most, it’s given me lots of information and things to think about. Let me try and trace my thoughts back to a while ago…

There was a point in the breastfeeding journey that Andrew and I undertook when getting to 15 weeks seemed like a big achievement, let alone 15 months! For the first 6 months of Andrew’s life, I never for one moment imagined that I would still be breastfeeding him when I would find myself pregnant again. As the months went by, Andrew was still keen to breastfeed, in fact even more so than he had been just before he was introduced to solids around 6 months, presumably because he wasn’t so hungry for the milk. So I continued to meet his need, and never thought about me being the one to wean him – I wanted him to carry on until he initiated the weaning himself. Then an embryo-sized spanner was thrown into the works of this plan. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good spanner – obviously this was my own doing (with help from Tom), and we’re extremely happy that I’m pregnant again – we just weren’t sure how quickly this would happen. One of the first things that crossed my mind when the tests showed up positive was ‘now I’ll have to wean Andrew – how will I do that, and how will he take it?’

So far I’ve had mixed feelings about breastfeeding during pregnancy. Andrew still feeds for around 20 minutes first thing in the morning, around 20 minutes before bed, and wants a few other shorter feeds during the day if it’s just the two of us at home (he’s usually too distracted when we’re out, and has been since about 4 months old!) He hasn’t woken in the night to feed for a few months. The hardest thing about this feeding pattern has been any feeds in the afternoon and evening when I’m so sick. I’ve only been able to feed him lying down at any time of the day, but the nausea and sickness has made it incredibly hard to stay motivated. That said, I generally still enjoy the morning feed, as it slowly wakes us both up and I get to lie in bed for a bit longer, and in some ways giving in to the top-tugging, milk signing and whinging in the afternoons is actually by far the easiest option – it keeps him happy and in one place for 5 or 10 minutes, and again I’m lying down during that time.

Mummy resting and Andrew feeding before going to bed

At least I didn’t have the added complication about worrying whether breastfeeding was even compatible with a healthy pregnancy, as one might think, because I’d heard that it is perfectly possible, and I even know a couple of ladies who have done it, through going to lots of LLL meetings over the past 15 months. Indeed this is exactly what the book Adventures in Tandem Nursing confirmed when I started to read it. Although one might think that breastfeeding could lead to complications, particularly miscarriage in the early weeks, because of the hormones involved, research gives little indication of how this could happen from a molecular biology point of view, though more research could be done on this. Of course complications do happen in pregnancies with an older nursling involved, but it is not clear that this is due to the breastfeeding itself and it wouldn’t have happened anyway.

It is lovely to read a well-researched book that paints a picture of breastfeeding during pregnancy being ‘normal’ in the sense of ‘natural’ (even if not the ‘norm’ in our society) and not something to worry or feel weird about – it’s nice to know that I’m ‘normal’ in some respects even if not all 😉 In fact the picture painted is not only of breastfeeding during pregnancy being a natural thing to do, but also ‘tandem’ nursing – i.e. breastfeeding two children of different ages simultaneously (either literally with one on each breast, or one after the other within the same period of time). However, the book does point out that tandem nursing is a big commitment and not for the faint hearted! … and that choosing to wean your older nursling (I adore that term, it’s so cute!) before baby’s arrival does not make you a bad mum – every mum needs to make her own decision taking into account the needs of her newborn, her toddler and (believe it or not) herself.

I have known from the start of this pregnancy that weaning my current nursling  is the only option for us. My milk supply was low with newborn Andrew (you can read our story here), and it is unlikely that this will dramatically change to the extent that I would have a sufficient supply for two nurslings. In ‘normal’ supply cases, it is perfectly possible to produce enough milk for two, but given my breastfeeding experience so far, I am not convinced that this is me (again I’m showing my abnormality). It is likely, however, that by feeding Andrew for this long, I’ve increased the amount of milk-producing breast tissue that I have, and so I may have a better supply than last time (given also that we’ll get any potential tongue-tie issue sorted asap this time). This is also one of the reasons that I have been motivated to feed Andrew for this long – every extra day that I feed him will hopefully lead to more milk production for his sibling. Whether I’ve done enough to be able to exclusively breastfeed without the need for formula supplements remains to be seen – I’d say I’m optimistic that it’s made some difference, but realistic that exclusive breastfeeding probably won’t happen.

The next step is actually doing something about weaning Andrew. Part of me is still hoping he will self-wean. According to my trusty borrowed book, it is fairly common that a breastfeeding toddler will wean her-/himself whilst her/his mum is pregnant again. In a couple of scientific studies on breastfeeding during pregnancy cited in the book, around a quarter to a third of the toddlers who started off breastfeeding in their sibling’s pregnancy self-weaned, and a similar number were weaned by the mum, leaving around a half to a third who continued to breastfeed alongside the newborn. There are certain changes that occur in the make-up and quantity of the milk during pregnancy, and these are thought to be a trigger of self-weaning. In the first few months of pregnancy, the milk is likely to become more ‘salty’ and less ‘sweet’ as the proportion of various salts and sugars changes in the composition – this is sometimes called ‘weaning milk’ (this name bodes well for us then). By around 20 weeks (half way through the pregnancy) the milk supply often declines considerably, so there is much less available for the nursling. These two factors may convince Andrew to give up on his own…..

Not looking much like giving this up yet....

If not, there will have to be a plan B, involving input from me! But so far, thinking about weaning is as far as I’ve got, so there isn’t currently an action plan B, just a metaphorical plan B. I’ll have more of a read of this book and talk to my LLL friends to get some practical ideas, and update you when I have more to say.

This pregnancy feels like a journey for three people, not two, and I’m aware that it’s my responsibility not only to look after and out for the baby inside me, but also to do the best I can for my nursling. I didn’t think I’d be the one to wean Andrew, but in the interests of all three of us, I know that is now the best option (if he doesn’t do it himself!) I’m sure Andrew will cope with standing aside and letting his brother/sister take over the role of nursling, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to help him cope and be the best mum I can be to him.