In some ways, weaning is a straightforward process: decrease your baby’s feedings, replace them with the right amount of formula or milk, and over time your body adjusts. Breastfeeding is a biological system based on supply and demand, so the less you feed, the less you produce and over time … voila!
But what about when you’re weaning a walking, talking toddler — someone who’s been in a long-term relationship with your breasts, who might have her own words to describe or request them, or feel entitled to reach into your shirt and grab them while you’re lunching with a friend? How do you close the breastfeeding chapter then?
What it was like night-weaning my toddler
— Naomi Odes Aytur
Sometimes I still breastfeed my two-year-old
— Stephanie Precourt
Why are we so uncomfortable with extended breastfeeding?
— Danielle Elwood
Pick the right time …
Try to start the weaning process when life is relatively clear of other major changes, like starting daycare, moving to the toddler bed, or you returning to work. This could be a big transition for your little one. Better not to overlap it with other events that could add on more stress.
… Or wait it out
For some moms and toddlers, breastfeeding just ends, nicely and smoothly, without any real decision-making or planning; the child’s attention moves elsewhere and mom naturally feeds her less over time. If you’re relatively laid-back about weaning and don’t feel an urge to make any hard deadlines, you can see what happens as your toddler naturally becomes more interested in drinking from a cup. The benefit here is that you don’t have to overthink it. As you know, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges you to breastfeed at least until the 12-month mark, but no one (okay, maybe your mom) is rushing you to stop after that.
Meet your toddler’s nutritional needs
Talk to your doctor about which replacement milk— and how much of it — is necessary for your toddler when you wean. When choosing the right milk, you may have to consider factors specific to your toddler, like whether she’s allergic to cow’s milk or any other kind. Most toddlers drink roughly 16 to 20 ounces of milk per day, but the age and health of your child will determine her nutritional requirements. Make sure that you’re replacing breast milk with plenty of other fluids — as much as you and your doctor decide are best for your child.
For the sake of your child and your breasts, take things slow. Abruptly weaning could disorient or confuse your toddler, and you are more likely to have plugged ducts or even a breast infection if you cut out feedings too quickly, because your milk supply will take time to go down. Most experts say reducing by roughly one feeding per week is a decent pace, but you can go even slower if you don’t feel anxious to wean completely. Once you’ve cut out a feeding, it’s probably best not to add it back in, as this will confuse your toddler. If you want to wean, try to go in one direction only, even if it’s very gradual.
Cut out the non-essential feedings first
The first feedings you should drop are the ones in which your toddler doesn’t normally drink a lot of milk (more of a snack or comfort feeding). In most cases, the morning, before-nap, and before-bed feedings are the last ones moms choose to wean.
If your breasts are full when you drop a particular feeding, pump just enough to relieve the pressure, but don’t empty your breasts or your supply will stay at the same level. Eliminate another feeding when your breasts no longer feel full from the previous one.
You may have heard advice to leave for the weekend, or drop lemon juice or vinegar on your breast to turn your child off of nursing. These could work, but it’s better to approach the weaning process with respect and truth, not tricks. You and your baby have had this relationship for a long time (her whole life!), so end it in a way that is clear and open.
Instead, think about how you will explain this change for your child: what language will you use? For example, a simple “We’re not having milkies right now. Let’s read a book,” may work for a younger toddler. For an older one: “When we get older, we stop having milk with mama and we start eating and drinking more big-kid foods.” Stick to your story and repeat more or less the same short explanation when the topic comes up. Don’t get into long negotiations with your older toddler. Be empathetic about the fact that this is a big change that may feel difficult, but if you say no, you mean no.
If your toddler is having a really rough time with the weaning process, you could create a book to help her make sense of the change. This can be as simple as drawing some pictures or gluing photos to a series of stapled-together pages, or as fancy as publishing a real custom book with sites like TwigTale.
Everyone’s story is unique, but it could go something like:
When Eva was a baby, she needed to breastfeed all day long! It was her only food. Then, as she got older, she started to eat vegetables and fruits. When she turned one (or two), she was such a big girl that she didn’t need as much milk from mommy. As kids get older, they drink milk from a cup. Now, at bedtime, we put our PJs on, read stories, sing songs, and then we cuddle with our blankie while we fall asleep in bed. In the morning, mommy and Eva snuggle and have a snack together.
Whether you tell your child this story verbally or create an actual book, just hearing the long-view will be helpful and comforting to her.
Change the routine
One of the hardest parts of weaning is that your toddler has many associations with the act of nursing — all of which make her little pattern-detecting brain expect and anticipate it. For this reason, switch things up and avoid the obvious cues for feedings: don’t sit in the nursing chair right before bed, don’t wear your usual breast-accessible nightgown, or don’t sit on the couch where you usually nurse her in the morning.
Instead, divert the usual course of things by having dad take your toddler out for a doughnut in the morning, or having a snack and a sippy cup of milk at her craft table before nap. If breastfeeding was part of a soothing nap or bedtime routine, think of a new replacement that will become the comforting ritual. This can take a little time, but if you’re consistent, your child will discover other self-soothing strategies, like rolling back and forth in her bed or nuzzling her lovie.
Remember, it’s not a committee decision
The American Academy of Pediatrics says you should breastfeed for a year and, after that, “as long as is mutually desired.” Yes, your child’s interest in breastfeeding does factor in: maybe you noticed she was still a huge fan of nursing after her first birthday, so you kept going, or maybe her feelings about weaning are strong and you’ve decided to extend nursing longer than you anticipated.
All of these reasons make sense, but at the end of the day, you decide when you’re ready to stop nursing. It could be that you’re going back to work, your toddler is waking up at night to nurse, or you just simply feel ready to move on. Whatever your reason, once you’ve decided, stick to your decision, and it will be easier for both of you.
It’s okay for your toddler to protest and have feelings about weaning, but that doesn’t mean you need to waver or go back on your plans. In fact, the more you stick to your course — in a gentle, loving, but clear way — the safer and calmer your child will feel over time. Breastfeeding will be a special time in your (and your toddler’s) memory, but soon you’ll both settle into new routines and find other ways to cuddle and bond.