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A different kind of baby-led weaning

When people talk about baby-led weaning, they are usually referring to the method of introducing solid food that involves introducing finger foods and allowing the baby to decide what and how much to eat, rather than the parents spoon feeding baby food. Over time, feedings at the breast are gradually replaced with self-feeding of the same types of solid foods eaten by the rest of the family.

But breastfeeding is about more than just food. So in families that have chosen child-led weaning, meaning that the child (not the mother) decides when to stop nursing, the gradual process of weaning involves not only introducing other forms of food, but also other forms of comfort.

In our family, our babies were always nursed to sleep. That meant that I, as the nursing mom, lay down with them at bedtime and nursed them until the gulps turned to flutters and they drifted off to sleep. I could then sneak out and go about the rest of my evening. If I wasn't there, Daddy would do, but their preference was always to nurse to sleep.  We never pushed or forced independent sleep, knowing that like eating, walking, talking, reading and so many other things, they would one day be able to do it on their own. It might require some guidance and some reassurance, but certainly not force.

As it happens, both of our children were ready to give up nursing to sleep before they were ready to give up having a parent present at bedtime. Nursing is a powerful sleep tool and our kids needed something to replace it. Something that would help them go off smiling and secure into the Land of Nod. They didn't stop nursing at bedtime all at once. It happened gradually. With both of them, they went from nursing to sleep to nursing at bedtime but not falling asleep while nursing.

So then what do you do with a still awake child that has finished nursing?

In our case, in child-led fashion, each of our kids decided for themselves what comfort they needed that would help them doze off. With Julian, it was an involved process. He wanted his back rubbed while being sang to. The Thomas the Tank Engine theme song, the Elmo Song, the Wheels on the Bus, over and over and over again. He wasn't always quick to fall asleep and I would find myself drifting away mid-song as I tried to get him to sleep. With Emma, who is now just shy of three years old and only nurses at bedtime about every third night or so, the request is clear and simple: "Mommy, cuddle my bum."

So I cuddle. Because she wants me to, because it comforts her, and because one day she won't want me to anymore.

Photo credit: ibu menyusui on flickr
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Reader Comments (47)

Enjoy it. It's only in the past year or so my teen and almost-teen have outgrown being parented at bed time. I miss it so much, even though I'm quite occupied with a toddler nursing marathon at bedtime!

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterradmama

Oh we just hit this stage and it broke my heart at first. B decided he didn't want to be nursed to sleep anymore at about 8 months. He still nurses like a champ the rest of the day, but he does not want it as a sleep tool. He wants to read his bedtime book and he wants to bounce on the yoga ball in his room, but he does not want to nurse. When he is really upset or tired or sad, he will, but not the rest of the time. We cuddle and bounce. I always thought that I would be so relieved when he could go to bed without me, but honestly I really sad.

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDon't Pat the Belly

So true!!! I "helped" my little one along when I was pregnant because nursing was painful. But we still did our bedtime "process" which was predictable and gave her comfort. About two weeks before my second was born she just flat out told me she didn't want to nurse anymore (to my relief admittedly!)...now she goes to bed with a few bedtime stories...and I hold on to her to snuggle probably a little while longer than she'd like. I miss those long snuggles!

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

When I say helped I mean we did things like countdowns or limiting nursing sessions a bit...but not until she was 2 1/2!

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

I've been following your blog for a while and find it fortuitous that you wrote this now, just as we made a decision to allow our son to cry a bit to go to sleep at night (with Daddy checking in every 5 min) since we don't know what else to do; we don't plan to implement this until later this week. Here's our situation: my husband and I are both doctoral students, and our almost-14-month son seems to wake after every sleep cycle at night, often wakes at 3 or 4 in the morning ready to get up, and isn't getting enough nighttime or naptime sleep. We've tried having a bedtime routine (bath, read with Daddy, nurse with Mama) and putting him to bed around 8 each night, and giving him a nap around noon each day (a new development from two naps). We have actively put him to sleep (nursing, walking, singing, shushing) since he was born, and he spends most of the night in our bed where I can easily nurse him back to sleep. But those are the only ways he will sleep. He will not lie down (for long) and allow us to soothe him without being in-arms to sleep. Although I'm mostly concerned for our son, wanting him to get enough sleep and to sleep well, we are reaching a point where we can barely function during the day due to our lack of sleep, too. He is still nursing, and I have no intention of ending that until he's ready. I just don't know what to do about the sleep issue. Do you have any advice?

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAB

I totally agree with you! I have found my babies went from Nursing to sleep, to nursing and then wanting to climb down and run around! So for us that was the time I would still offer every night until they didn't want any nursing at all. And after the nursing they would go see Dad to read books! It's been an easy transition for our three (almost for soon!) and it's worked without fuss or frustration! It seems that everytime I get pregnant again my milk changes and they slowly don't want it anymore....but I always try until they no longer want it!

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTia

I'm right with you!

My 6 and 8 year olds still like "sleep with nights" meaning we stay with them until they are asleep. They can go with out if necessary, but like us there. We enjoy having them want us around, knowing they won't always . . .
I've written an article on a similar vein, if you even need more to post . . .

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

I do the same with my daughters. Only its a foot instead of a bum. I know someday she wont want me holding her foot anymore and that makes me sad. :)

March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSheryl


I'm heading off to bed now, but I'll give you this link quickly: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/02/28/gentle-baby-and-toddler-sleep-tips/" rel="nofollow">Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips. It has my top suggestions for promoting healthy sleep, as well as a bunch of book recommendations.

Both of my kids went through period where they woke frequently in the evening and I was trying to get work done. I ended up putting a pillow on my lap and a boppy on top of that and then laying the baby across my lap to nurse/sleep while I did my work at the computer. That worked until they were about 18 months old and too big for it, but by that point they were usually better at staying in bed alone for a few hours in the evening.

Crying it out was never an option for us, so we had to improvise and figure out other options to make things work. Another thing that may have helped is that we realized there is no point in having both of us be exhausted. So if one of us was up with the baby, the other one got to sleep. Then whoever was up at night could sleep in a bit in the morning or have a nap or otherwise get a break.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I've going through this right now with my 12 month old. I weaned my oldest at 4 months because I didn't know what a nursing strike was. Both of my girls I went until 16 months and they both were done. They liked to have their backs rubbed at that point.

My 12 month old. *sigh* I was totally planning on going just as long if not longer with him, but he has turned nursing into Olympic gymnastics. When side nursing, he is flipping and flopping all over the place, he'll be standing on his tippy toes with his head on the bed in an upside down V while latched on, then flip to another position, then another, never releasing. The other night, he did a somersault where his butt landed in my face and he stayed latched the whole time. When I nurse him with the cradle hold, he sits up, while latched on, slides down so he has one leg on each side of mine, sitting up, then will attempt to slide down to stand up and nurse.

This hurts with teeth. I've tried treating it like biting where you take it away because they are just playing around and it's not that. He is hungry, he just can't sit still to nurse. And I haven't found anything to replace it with that works yet.

Here's to some miracle happening. :)

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I've had a similar experience. My daughter weaned at 34 months, but it was a year and a half later before she was ready to drift off to sleep by herself. Remembering how very short this time is has really helped me to remain grounded and calm when I spent 45 minutes trying to soothe my non-nursing child to sleep.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

If you ever write more about this topic - I am ready to read!! This is exactly what I have been thinking about lately. We nurse to sleep. DS is 17 mos today. I enjoy the bonding time, but it puts a lot of stress on daddy if I'm not home at bedtime. He really dislikes sleeping without nursing.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersmoaksmom

I love this post - it says everything I want to say about child-led caring. Having followed the same path with my daughter it is always reassuring to read stories similar to ours when often the advice around us suggests we've 'done something wrong' as she won't settle to sleep alone. Some of my most peaceful and perfect moments each day happen at bedtime, as I lie with her whilst she drifts off to sleep I often drift too - sometimes just for a few seconds, sometimes for half an hour. I always rise refreshed and ready for an evening with my husband.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercarolb

Bunbun has just started this - she flails around when we go to bed, then settles down for some boob then when she's done and almost asleep flings herself away to the middle of the bed with her arms spread wide. Without me she tends towards crying herself to sleep though, which is difficult for my partner (obviously!) but we've occasionally had success with walking/rocking/driving.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergeek anachronism

For us, baby led weaning, extended breastfeeding, and cuddling at night until my children are comfortable to fall asleep on their own or until they are asleep has become a joke about my "lazy" (my words) parenting style. In my work likfe, I am a total type A control freak...but at home...we go with what feels right for our children. No one in my family or peer group gets it...but that is fine for us.
We do what feels right, and natural, and we know that our children trust that momma and daddy will always be available. I hope that the foundation that we have established is one that will grow and be rock solid for those days when our boys need to fall into momma or daddys arms and have the world go away. For now...those early morning feeds or the late night cuddles just warm my heart and I can't imagine a day starting or ending without them.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I still nurse my 13 month old daughter to sleep most nights. Let me rephrase--I nurse her before bed EVERY night, and most nights that's all it takes to go to sleep. However, the nights where nursing is not an instant cue for sleep are increasing from once in a blue moon to at least once a week. And so I nurse and then I let her play or we read until she is ready for Mama cuddles and then she comes and curls herself into me and falls asleep.

It's very funny. Last night my husband was commenting that soon it will be time to move her into her OWN bed so she can sleep by herself like most of the other babies in the world. Uh, sweetie? Most babies in the world sleep with their parents. It's only here in the enlightened West that we seem to think they can do it on their own right away. He still thinks I'm making it up, but isn't pushing too hard to get her out of our bed.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLustau

My 11 month old has been doing nursing gymnastics for a couple of months. Fortunately, she hasn't bitten me (yet), but she does sometimes grab and pinch my breast. For bedtime nursing I just figure she needs to get that last bit of energy out of her system. She will usually tumble around, pausing to nurse for a few seconds, for 20-30 minutes. Then she will finally lay down and nurse to sleep. I take her to bed early to factor in this play time.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia


I don't have a lot of patience for acrobatic nursing. I've always insisted on sitting/lying still while nursing. You might find this article on http://www.kellymom.com/bf/older-baby/nursing-manners.html" rel="nofollow">Nursing Manners useful.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

There are some nights when my 23 month old refuses to nurse to sleep, so my husband will walk around the room patting her back until she falls asleep. For some reason that works! I have friends whose kids will just zonk out if they are tired, but Margaret has never been one of those, despite the fact that she has always been a "good" sleeper.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTopHat

This post is perfect timing. We will have a one year old tomorrow. Often he nurses to sleep, sometimes he falls asleep in the sling or while being cuddled. He doesn't sleep through the night and checks in a lot. Sometimes I feel pressured, surely my babe should be sleeping through, alone. But then as I hold his body close, feeling him relax into sleep, I realize that I like it just as much as he does. It is working for us. And it won't last forever.

Thank you!

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

Both my girls always nursed to sleep until they were almost 2 years old. My youngest is 3.5 years and I still need to lay down with her to sleep, even though she no longer nurses...but I'm okay with that.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

We had to replace other comfort at bedtime with my DS after about 21mo when my supply got too low due to pregnancy. He was used to daddy walking and singing since 6mo, so that's what happened for bedtime until about 3.5 or 4. Naptimes I would either have to cuddle and sing for a looong time or wear him down in the sling (hard with 30lb toddler while pregnant!).

With our second, she's more used to nursing to sleep exclusively-but is at that age-almost 3 now-where it doesn't usually get her completely to sleep. She asks to feel my belly-lifts her shirt and applies belly to belly for some wonderful skin-to-skin time! For the poster with the 8 mo old-my DD has gone through several phases of not wanting to nurse to sleep-since birth, lol!-but they are just phases. Maybe your LO is teething? Can't hurt to keep offering and let the baby lead!

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosemary

Thank you mamas for giving me the confidence that what we are doing with our boy is okay!!!

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterbananaramafoFin

My ten month old boy is extremely wiggly, physical, and easily distracted as well. I have found that consistently refusing to nurse him if it involves a wrestling match is helpful, although he still pulls out the gymnastics in the middle of the night occasionally, and that can be rough (like some of the babies described in these comments, he has always been an all-night nurser and very light sleeper! and yes, it can be very tiring, but "sleep training" would be even harder!). At this stage, if my baby seems hungry but unable to sit still during the day, I offer him solid foods or a sippy cup. When he's truly hungry, he's capable of calming down to nurse.

In addition to being very wiggly, he also got his teeth very early, so we've been through the biting thing already too - again, that was a tough couple of weeks, but when I consistently took the breast away every time I felt teeth, he stopped biting and hasn't bitten me for months. The way I see it, sudden weaning and formula feeding aren't exactly "easy" either, so it's always worth spending a few weeks trying to improve breastfeeding manners when necessary. Luckily, if you make the connection between certain behaviors and food really clear, babies seem to learn very quickly.

I don't think women should feel like breastfeeding requires that they become a doormat. This is still a work in progress for me, so I'm definitely going to check out that link on manners!

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterInder

Can't resist commenting again - thank you for this post; I love your blog!

Right now, my baby will not fall asleep without nursing, so my husband cannot put him to sleep, often even with a bottle. (My husband is a SAHP, and Joe naps fine with the bottle, but at bedtime - no go.) This means that I cannot leave in the evenings, unless I expect to come home to a very cranky, wide-awake baby! Mostly I'm fine with the sacrifice, but I do miss my once-weekly choir practice! It is exhausting to be so indispensable, but it's true - soon enough, my baby won't want to snuggle with me all night. It's good to be reminded that this stage will not last forever!

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterInder

Love this post. It's such a short amount of time in the end, that the bizarre rituals (for my son it was 'pat my bum!' and songs and both nursed to sleep while nursing) won't last long. Even now, he doesn't ask me to pat or sing anymore, he just cuddles for such a short amount of time.

I would parent them to sleep each night without much stress-I would keep that if I could get rid of the night wakings ;)

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Hi AB,

We have almost the same problem, but crying out was not an option for us. Most nights I nurse our son to sleep and we let him sleep in our bed so I can nurse him after every sleep cycle. Daddy goes to sleep in his office at some point in the night, usually around midnight and then takes over an early morning shift so I can get some rest, that way, both of us can function during the day and it allows our little one all the comfort he needs. We both now, he'll grow out of this phase, yours will too. Finding ways to keep your sanity can be tricky but don't worry there are plenty of solutions other than the crying-it-out.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElo

Another thing that works with ours is wearing him to sleep, he goes into the wrap, either on me or daddy and that instantly works to put him to sleep, works great in the day too! I can get a lot of things done with little Liam snuggly sleeping in the wrap or the Mei Tei

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElo

Hi AB,
My daughter self-weaned at 8 months. And when I say self-weaned I mean screamed bloody murder every time I put the boob near her face. I just switched from boob to bottle and still had a hell of a time getting her down every night. We weren't co-sleepers and for the brief period that I tried it to I was getting no sleep at all. First we switched from a crib to a futon and I put her down every night by lying down with her in my arms and then desperately trying to figure out how to extricate myself (staying wasn't an option as I have a bad back). But the whole situation plus the night wakings was driving me to the brink.

I know that several people have said that crying it out wasn't an option for them and I really respect and admire that. I felt the same way but for me, I reached a point where I was not coping and I my anger and frustration and exhaustion were making me into someone I didn't like. So I finally decided that in order to preserve my sanity I would let her cry it out. I'm not advocating this as the best choice and it hurt my heart to do it. I think that if you can find a way to avoid it that's awesome. I'm just saying be kind to yourself and figure out what makes the most sense for you in your situation. We can't always fit our image of "ideal mom" and if we can't give ourselves permission to do what makes sense for us we just wind up hurt, angry and confused about what we should be doing. I wish you the best of luck.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Craig Lai

Love "snuggle my bum!"

We're kind of at the a couple of sucks and then drift to sleep without the breast stage. It's kinda weird. My son is 3 + a month or so.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreta

Aw! That is super sweet! My little one is starting to ask for cuddles too. She says "I want to fall asleep in your arms mommy." Melts my heart it does.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

I almost hesitate to say this because I don't want to make anyone feel bad about their decisions that are obviously reached from a place of love...

Just for anyone else who is going through this, or if you have another, 8 months' is a common nursing strike time. Both mine went through nursing strikes around this time. And both eventually started nursing again.

But, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I am so happy that you had a nursing relationship that worked for both of you for 8 months' and you should feel good about that.

I also understand that "going insane" feeling. And I don't "judge" what you chose to do. But as you said it really hurt to do it and you don't seem to have wanted to do it. I hope that moms reading Annie's words and in a similar position will be able to find some helpful tips and advice and support--and that they have families around who will also be a source of support.

I know it is an awful and lonely feeling to have a baby crying and be exhausted and going crazy and not know what to do. I've been there, absolutely.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCandace

[...] If you’re lucky enough to be parenting one of these, and ready to move your child over to a non-breastfeeding based sleep routine, PhD in Parenting has a great article up about night weaning. [...]

Lovely post. My daughter goes to sleep pretty much on her own. She is five months now, but normally we can put her down and she flips her head from side to side a few times, then goes to sleep. Sometimes she needs soothing, and then we soothe. She'll fall asleep feeding, or lying on Daddy's chest. But we agree - we're doing it while we can.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuschka

Such sweet cuddles - what a lovely post! My daughter will be three this weekend, and she still nurses before bed, and since the new little one came along she's added a few more feedings throughout the day. Breastfeeding nourishes both of us, I will miss it when she is ready to let go. She has never had a security blanket, I firmly believe that is because her security "blanket" is found in my "milks" as she calls them. :)

Thank you for this (as always) thoughtful post. One thing I would like you to think about, though, is your description of baby or child led weaning simply as when the child (not the mother) decides it is time to stop nursing. If you find yourself nursing a child into toddlerhood and beyond, then it is appropriate to recognize that the the nursing relationship changes from one where the infant is nursed whenever and wherever he or she wants, to one with a bit more give and take. In her book, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, the author really puts this into perspective. Technically, weaning is starting to deny nursing in response to every demand, but as children become a bit older, it is reasonable to bring some give and take into the nursing relationship. I nursed through pregnancy and have tandem nursed for 21 months now...my children are 4 1/2 and 21 months old. Even though I am following the principle of child-led weaning (clearly), my nursing relationship with each of them is different - and rightly so I think. Perhaps you think this is a non-issue or even hair-splitting, but I raise it only because I believe that some women feel nursing is an all or nothing business. They do not see the possibility of changing the relationship from one where the mother is nursing whenever and wherever it is demanded, to one where both mom and child learn to accommodate each other in terms of frequency, location, duration, etc. If you open yourself to this idea, it makes child-led weaning a more inviting prospect for women who are struggling to respond to the nursing demands of an 18 or 24 month or older child in the same way they responded to the demands of their newborn. In any event, thank you for continuing to speak about breastfeeding generally...the more of us that do it, the better it will be for everyone out there who wants to promote the rights of babies and children to breastfeed for as long as they need it, and to support the moms who are doing it!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterapprenticemom

I loved this blog and plan to nurse all our wee ones into dreamland and until they are ready to stop nursing on their own.

This is such a great post to refer people to if they don't know about sustained breastfeeding!

Thank you

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Morrisey

“Mommy, cuddle my bum.” - that's priceless! My daughter discovered her belly button as an infant and soon after, found mine which became her secondary comfort while nursing and later during weaning. My son's secondary comfort was my arm pit... he's still a little joker:)

I've been thinking a lot about the early days after my son was born and not being able to wiggle out from beside him after nursing him to sleep. I didn't realize I was doing this at first... I was talking to him in my head. I would tell him, when I was ready to get up and leave him sleeping, that I was getting up but would be at hand if he needed me, that I loved him and loved this sweet time with him. Before I started doing this, he would stir and startle awake if I tried to get up. Once I learned to do this consistently, I had a better than half success rate. I had great successes with my daughter too. We did suffer through periodic sleep difficulties though... that seems to be the way it is with babies.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

Cuddle my bum! I love it. My youngest is going through that right now - she's nursing before bed, and insists that I leave the "milks open" and she wants them pressing against her back and her legs all tangled up in mine and she wants to be holding my hands - way more physical contact than we ever had when she nursed to sleep - and then I have to extricate myself so carefully to sneak off into my own bed. We usually end up together again, because she's also toilet-training herself (all by herself; I'm not allowed to even look at her when she's on the toilet) and hasn't worn clothes in weeks and tends to not be ready for a diaperless overnight.

March 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFoxyKate

[...] A Different Kind of Baby Led Weaning by PhD in Parenting [...]

I wrote this post one year ago and thought I'd update you all. One year from the time we transitioned from nursing to sleep to cuddling to sleep, she is now going to sleep independently. We read stories, give her a kiss and hug, and then leave the room and she goes to sleep on her own. It's amazing watching her develop her independence in her own time and on her own path.

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Just to let you know - around 14-15 months has been the hardest nighttime period for us. Even the 4 and 9 month sleep regressions couldn't beat it. I'm talking every-20-minutes nursing. I was considering night-weaning, stopping co-sleeping etc. However, it has just (in the past week) started getting better, and my little girl is doing 3-4 hours at a time again.

So, while you probably have a couple or so more weeks of this ahead (if you intend to see it out), you will find it gets better again soon. It was only my friend's reassurances of the same thing happening with them that has helped me through this, so hopefully this is of some use to you.

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJem

Hah, guess I should have checked the dates before commenting above ;)

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJem

When my son got to the wiggly distracted stage while nursing, I got a special nursing toy for him to play with. In his case, it was a small stuffed dog. It had legs, a tail and a tag to play with, a collar to pull on, nose and eyes to poke at, and it was soft enough that it didn't hurt when he hit me with it :-) He loved it, and only got it to play with at nursing times. Since weaning, it has become his primary comfort object, and we usually can't go anywhere without "spot." Maybe finding some sort of distraction that can keep his attention while nursing would help :-)

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara

My boy who's got the same name as your boy, loves it too when I sing the Thomas the Train theme or any other Playhouse Disney songs. It's bitter sweet isn't it? Please tell me there's more to life after weaning completely.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Lazy Mama

Thanks for updating (and posting this in the first place!)

Bean had given up nursing to sleep, but took it back up after Bug was born. Some nights I nurse Bug to sleep, then roll over and nurse Bean to sleep. Other than stepping the nursing sessions back up, Bean has never showed any jealousy or resentment over the new baby. If this is what she needs, I'm more than happy to do it for her! She LOVES being a big sis. I never thought I'd be nursing two kids at once, but it's funny where life leads you!

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLorry

[...] A different kind of baby-led weaning (PhD in Parenting Blog): I tell the story of how my toddlers transitioned from nursing to sleep to other methods of bedtime comfort. [...]

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