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The Emotional Cycle of the Extended Breastfeeding Mom

boundaries burnout emotional cycle extended nursing Oct 20, 2023

A day in the life with a toddler can be a roller coaster of emotions - theirs and ours!


That was one of the primary reasons I continued to nurse beyond one, and then beyond 2, was because breastfeeding continued to be one of my most powerful parenting tools


Sick? Boob. Hurt? Boob. Hungry but it's not time for lunch yet? Boob. Tired? Boob.


This was the amazing part of toddler nursing. But there was another side; one that I have heard over and over again from hundreds of other extended nursers. As I've listened to these stories, a pattern emerged that I have termed the Emotional Cycle of the Extended Breastfeeding Mom.


Below I break down the three parts of the cycle and then provide a solution to breaking the cycle that actually prepares you for toddler weaning.


Phase 1: In Love & Empowered

This is where we all love to be!


At its best, breastfeeding can make us feel like a superhero ready to jump in and solve problems like no one else can.  And the bond and connection with our child feels incredible and like nothing could ever shake the beautiful relationship we've built together.


If you are currently in this stage, you are most likely feeling in control of your nursing relationship; you nurse when you want to and also have that important autonomy from your child for self-care. 


When you are in this phase of the emotional cycle, your oxytocin levels are high and the world just seems right.


But then something happens. Maybe it's a sleep regression and you are once again the ONLY one who can put them to sleep...


Or perhaps they woke up one day and really began to lean into their true toddler selves, demanding milk when, where, and how they want it.


Your thoughts begin to shift from "I am the only person with this powerful tool!" to "Why am I the ONLY person with this tool?"


And with that thought, you have moved into the second phase of the cycle.


Phase 2: Resentful & Exhausted

Feeling like you have to share your body with someone when you don't want to is hard.


What makes it even harder is when the advice you get is to "just wean," or worse, judgment that it's your fault for "letting them go this long." Additionally, your partner might be pushing for weaning because they perceive breastfeeding to be the problem and if it goes away, then they could help more because right now, your child only wants mama.


All of these external pressures can lead to closet nursing and isolating yourself, which only exacerbates both your resentment and exhaustion.


Usually, there is a breaking point, a moment when you are DONE. And in the fog of exhaustion, you make the decision to wean.



The problem is, when you try to wean in the midst of resentment, you start to second guess yourself and wonder if this is really the right thing to do. They love mama milk so much - should you really be taking it away?


And this question leads us into the third phase of the emotional cycle. 


Phase 3: Guilty & Fearful

When an extended nursing mom tries to wean in phase 2, they are often met with major struggles, including meltdowns, sleep regressions, and clinginess from their child. 


Seeing these behaviors increase with weaning attempts can scare you because you begin to wonder if life without milk will actually be worse. How will you soothe your child without the boob? 


Additionally, you may begin to feel guilty for taking the milk away. I know I did. At 2 years old, Avery told me "milk is love." Did she think I was taking my love away if I weaned? Oof. That was a heavy thought.


These worries may begin to make you think about not just the benefits of continuing to nurse, but also make you start to reminisce the good times. Are you really ready to say goodbye to the sweet snuggles? The powerful way nursing makes you feel when it's going well? 


Maybe now isn't the right time...


And these thoughts can bring you back into Phase 1. 


Breaking the Cycle

The vast majority of clients come to me in Phase 2 when they are burnt out, touched out, and at a loss for what to do.


These conversations usually begin with a mom saying, "I NEED to wean." She is often agitated, angry, and looking for a quick fix to what feels like an endless situation...


... because some moms go through the cycle multiple times a day as they just try to make it through their next nursing session.


Part of the problem is that we as moms wait until the burnout is unbearable to seek help. 


Breaking the emotional cycle of the extended breastfeeding mom requires that you make adjustments at the beginning  of Phase 2, not at the end.


So, at the first sign of irritation that they are asking for milk "again," when you get annoyed with your partner's useless nipples, or when you feel like an exhausted snack bar after an all-night milk bender, it is time to set some breastfeeding boundaries.


What Are Toddler Breastfeeding Boundaries?

Breastfeeding boundaries are not appropriate for infants under a year. 


Before 12 months, we must nurse, pump, or formula feed on-demand. And after a full year of being trained to do so, it can feel very unnatural to say "no" to your child when they want the boob.


But breastfeeding boundaries make long-term nursing possible because they bring YOUR needs into the relationship as well.


Breastfeeding boundaries are also an amazing way to teach your child important lessons like bodily autonomy ("I don't like when you pull on my shirt"), patience ("we will have milk at nap time"), and consent ("I don't share my body with people who hit me").


If you are struggling with big toddler upsets when you've tried to set boundaries, you are not alone. 


I have created a free handout with 5 strategies to begin to apply breastfeeding boundaries in your toddler nursing relationship.


You don't have to do this alone!


Where to Go From Here

You may be wondering, "okay, so if that isn't the right time to wean, then how do I know when we're actually ready to be done?


The short answer is that when you shift into your last weeks and months of nursing, there is a deeper sadness, rather than anger or burnout. There is a calmness, rather than a storm.


If you are struggling and unsure if weaning or breastfeeding boundaries are right for you at this time, I invite you to take my free quiz, which will tell you precisely which stage of extended nursing you are in now, along with additional tips and resources based on your results!




Being an extended nurser was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life; one that taught me about my strength, persistence, and love. But it also humbled me and made me question at times if I was doing the right thing. Ultimately, by learning to implement breastfeeding boundaries into our nursing relationship, we were able to continue on until we were both ready for the journey to be over.


What phase of the cycle are you in today? Let me know by commenting below!


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