“She’s too old to nurse. You need to stop.”
“There’s no way my son is nursing when he’s three years old!”
“You are being selfish. Breastfeeding past one is unnecessary. You only do this because it gives you pleasure.”
“I should have a say in this situation. Why do you get to decide how long he nurses?”
“What if I took her away from you and made you stop nursing?”
Perhaps you have heard these very words. Perhaps you have heard variations on the theme. If so, you understand the instinctive fear and sadness that rise up in a breastfeeding mother’s body when a demand for premature weaning is given-- especially when this comes from her partner or husband.
Breastfeeding is one of the most beautiful and gentle expressions of human love on the planet. Tragically, it has become a subject of discord between you and your husband. Harsh words, demands, or threats about breastfeeding can tarnish your memories of nursing. The added tension in your home is unhealthy for all members of the family.
According to The World Health Organization, La Leche League, The American Pediatric Association, and Attachment Parenting International, a breastfeeding mother should continue to nurse-- once the minimum recommended length of breastfeeding is met-- as long as it is “mutually desired” by herself and her child. All of these organizations acknowledge the important role a father plays in offering support to the breastfeeding mother. Yet, none of these organizations include the father’s desire for nursing or weaning in their descriptions of who has the right to determine the parameters of the nursing relationship.
Knowing that you have the backing of such institutions may be helpful. But it probably doesn’t ease the emotional anguish of feeling the pressure to wean before you and your child are ready. In fact, such official statements may a source of frustration for your husband who wants, or demands, to play a role in determining how long his child will nurse.
The questions remain. What should you do when the vital support of your partner is withdrawn? Should you wean on demand?
May the following four points embolden, strengthen, and encourage you as you navigate your way to answering to these painful questions.
Learn and Share
Take the time to thoroughly research the benefits of breastfeeding and the importance of nurturing a secure attachment. Perhaps, like many AP breastfeeding mothers, you are fully committed to child-led weaning. As one mother stated, “Only one person gets to decide when my son is ready to wean, and that is my son.” Perhaps, like many AP breastfeeding mothers, you acknowledge that a shift in the mother-child nursing dynamic can occur on either side of the equation. You may be open to a gentle approach to weaning that is mother-initiated if your feelings towards nursing change. Many thoughtful and gentle approaches to weaning described by AP leaders such as Dr. William Sears exist. By researching, you will clarify why breastfeeding is important to you and be able to articulate your vision of weaning.
Most importantly, invite your husband into this experience. While it’s important to share what you have learned through your research, it’s even more important to ask him to research the topic on his own. We all learn best when our inquiry is self-initiated. Perhaps his lack of support may simply come from ignorance. He may not know that The World Health Organization recommends that children breastfeed until they are at least two-years-old as a minimum standard for health. He may not understand that the health and emotional benefits of nursing continue through the toddler years. As you both do your research, you each can learn, clarify, and share your insights-- ideally with compassion.
Identify Underlying Issues
The issues fueling your partner’s demand to wean need to be identified. Explore the possible causes of the negativity associated with your nursing. Is your husband jealous? Is your partner feeling left out of the parenting experience? Does he have his own special “Daddy Time” to nurture important memories of fatherhood? What unconscious memories does your husband carry about his own weaning? Is your partner embarrassed by your breastfeeding? Does he want exclusive access to your body?
We live in a patriarchal culture full of explicit material featuring the female body as a source of male pleasure, yet mothers who nurse in public face scorn. We live in a culture where many of us were weaned before our natural time, perhaps due to pressure from our own fathers. We live in a culture were only a minority of children experience the benefits of breastfeeding as nature intended. Underlying personal issues within the marriage, or underlying patterns that come from social dynamics, can fuel a husband’s demand for his wife to stop nursing. See if you can identify what the core issues are. Breastfeeding is a symbol for deeper discord that is being projected upon the mother-child relationship.
Breastfeeding without the support of your partner is not an easy road to traverse. It’s also not easy to wish for something to change and meet resistance. I’ve spent hours in conversation with women who deeply regret giving into the pressure that led to an early weaning of their children. I’ve also spent hours in conversation with men who struggle with supporting their wives or partners in breastfeeding. They feel left out, angry, and sometimes disgusted by the continued nursing relationship. Offing loving support to both individuals in this situation is vital if a healthy resolution is to unfold.
As you both seek support, consider meeting with other breastfeeding-friendly families. Let the men speak together about their fears, hopes, and struggles when it comes to supporting their wives in breastfeeding. For yourself, speak candidly and openly with other nursing mothers. Join online breastfeeding support forums and reach out to trusted friends. The pressure to stop nursing before you, or your child, are ready can feel overwhelming. Do not keep this stress private. Have the courage to share your story with other mothers, you will find it is far more common than not.
Certainly, if your husband’s demands feel relentless or turn into threats, seek professional support. A trained marriage counselor who understands the importance of breastfeeding is invaluable here. Not only will this person offer encouragement for breastfeeding and a healthy approach to weaning, but also a skilled mediator can help your partner identify underlying issues that fuel his current demands.
There is a deep wisdom found in the natural dynamic between a nursing mother and child. Breastfeeding eases transitions into and out of sleep, helps calm stressed nervous systems, and provides nutritive wonders that science still cannot decode. The season of breastfeeding is short-lived, even if it extends through the toddler years. As long as both the mother and child are in harmony, the bond found in breastfeeding should be supported. Remember, you cannot turn back the clock. Once a child is weaned, the nursing stage of life-- for that child-- is over. Your pain in having this bond threatened mirrors a greater pain present in our society.
As you navigate this difficulty, you need to nourish yourself. It’s imperative. Be sure to continue eating well and exercising. If you have a spiritual or religious practice, dive deeply into the wisdom of silence and/or prayer. Find a source of strength that is greater than your own understanding to uplift you. Take refuge in the beauty of breastfeeding. Take refuge in the wisdom in nature. Find strength in the support of women. May these gifts nourish you at this time.
The terms “husband” and “partner” are used interchangeably in this article.