As the benefits of extended breastfeeding continue to come to light, more parents are wondering about the next step: weaning a toddler or older baby who is old enough to make his or her desires known and might prefer breastfeeding over switching to solid foods.
One method of weaning is described as natural or child-led weaning. This is where you essentially follow the lead of your child and wean when he or she seems ready, and you do not attempt to initiate weaning prior to this. This method has many benefits: there is no forced weaning to stress a happily-nursing child, and there is no need to employ a more drastic method of weaning that can have unexpected outcomes for your child.
Child-led weaning is often a process that evolves over time as your toddler grows and becomes more independent and distractible. He or she may ask to nurse, only to do so for a minute before something else catches the eye and the toddler runs off! The next time around, you may respond less quickly to a request to nurse, and before you know it, a session or two has been dropped. Usually your toddler’s favorite times to nurse (often in the morning or before bed) are the last ones to be given up.
Weaning may happen suddenly, though. If your child has been breastfeeding without issue and is under 2 years old this often represents a nursing strike rather than true weaning. This may be in response to new changes (such as a move or starting daycare), stress (the holidays are a perfect example of this!), or illness in mom or baby. Additionally, just like some older toddlers decide overnight to toilet train, they too can decide to wean just as abruptly.
Other methods of weaning do exist: you take a vacation for a week so weaning is forced; hot sauce or some similar substance is applied to the breast to shock the child; a scary face is drawn on the breast; or refusal to allow nursing via crying-it-out method is used. These are not ideal methods and can cause confusion in your child, who can’t really understand why all of a sudden his or her favorite way to cuddle with Mom has been altered.
There are less dramatic ways to help weaning along. This includes postponing or distracting your toddler when he or she asks (but nursing at some point if true distress occurs), changing your routine to avoid a favorite nursing spot, not offering the breast but also not refusing when requested, wearing clothes that aren’t as easily accessible for nursing, shortening each session, or setting a “date” with your child (“After your birthday, let’s not nurse and instead learn to use your new bike!”).
If you need to wean for a reason such as needing to take a medication or have a surgical procedure, true child-led weaning may not be appropriate for you. Be sure to first check with your doctor or lactation consultant to confirm that you truly do need to wean, however, as many women are given misinformation. Then if you do need to wean, depending on how much time you have, you can employ a less drastic measure if possible. This can be a stressful and emotional time for everyone—be sure to seek support of other women who’ve been in your shoes.
Lastly, keep in mind many curious friends and family members will want to know when you plan to wean. It is perfectly OK to let them know that day will come, but it doesn’t need to be today.
Reviewed by Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Child-led weaning is following the lead of your child and weaning when he or she is ready.
- Some older toddlers do decide to abruptly wean.
- Very drastic weaning that employs abandonment, pain, or fear are not ideal.
- Friends or family may often have questions about a nursing toddler, and it is important to not let outside pressure make you feel like you must wean before you are ready.