For mothers who choose to breastfeed—and are fortunate and determined enough to have successful, happy experiences—nursing can become one of the most magical aspects of early motherhood. After I returned to work, nursing was an important way for me to bond with my own baby daughter while simultaneously providing her with something she needed. Being away from her all day was difficult, but after returning home, shedding my coat, and kissing my husband, I would escape to a cozy spot with her and nurse. And as our time together progressed, I learned that I needed those moments with my daughter just as much as she needed nourishment from me.
This mixture of satisfying needs as well as wants can make the later stages of any mother and child’s breastfeeding experience complicated. No matter the reason for weaning, whether it be your child’s growing disinterest or you just feeling ready to stop, you must prepare yourself and your baby for this big developmental step by going slowly, being empathetic to your child’s wants and needs, and also getting in touch with your own emotions and wishes. It is a big step, and one of the first times you’ll need to practice “letting go” in your relationship with your child. Here are some tips from both pediatricians and mothers to help make the transition more comfortable for both you and your babe.
When to Wean
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends most mothers breastfeed for at least a year so that their children can gain the full benefits breast milk offers (exclusively for the first six months, and as nutritive support for the second six months). Various AAP studies posted on the organization’s website show that breastfeeding benefits include a strengthened immune system, less chance for ear infection, and decreased risk of diabetes, obesity, and asthma later in life.
Of course, in some cases, nursing this long just isn’t possible. If a new baby is on the way when your first-born is under a year old, if you need medical attention, or if your little one just loses interest in nursing, you may choose to follow your baby’s lead or institute an early wean. In fact, La Leche League International offers a host of information for mothers who must suddenly wean, or moms looking for help and support to wean their babies from the breast to the bottle, or off the breast completely.
Some mothers and little ones may have more difficulties discerning when to wean. In these cases, you may need to deduce if nursing is a need or a habit. In the book The Child Under Six, James L. Hymes Jr. offers a helpful definition to consider when deciphering your child’s needs from her wants. “If it was easy to break, it was a habit,” he writes. But beware, “if you run into any major difficulty at all, you probably are not dealing with an old worn out habit. Chances are that you are tampering with a need. Habits fade away with a little counter-push. If you ignore basic needs, or try to block them, they shoot sky high. If you treat needs as if they were habits, all you do is to make them go on longer and stronger and more powerfully than ever.”
Take It Slow
For many moms, this is an emotionally charged time. As you wean, your hormones shift yet again, and many mothers additionally feel self-doubt or apprehension. But it needn’t be that way. As my daughter’s pediatrician reminds me each time I call with a question (which is more often then I care to admit): “This too shall pass.” Understand that this is one of the many developmental stages you and your child will experience together. And before you know it, you’ll be on to the next stage.
So, now that you feel like the time is right, how to begin? “The most common approach to weaning is to begin dropping feedings one at a time, waiting at least a few days, but preferably a week, until your breasts and your baby have adjusted to that loss before imposing another,” write Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff, and Sandee E. Hathaway, BSN, the authors of the famed What to Expect series . It is important to think of weaning not as a single event, but an involved process. The authors offer the following six helpful steps for a comfortable transition away from the breast.
- Make sure your toddler can drink from a cup or your baby can drink from a bottle.
- Choose your weaning time carefully and plan for it in advance. For example, don’t begin weaning as your child starts her first week of daycare or if your infant is feeling ill.
- Save the breast for last (except at bedtime). Most women fall into a nursing schedule, anticipate the times when their child usually nurses, and offer a bottle, sippy cup, or snack instead. This way, if the child still wants to nurse afterwards, she won’t be as hungry, won’t nurse as much, and milk production will still decrease.
- Begin nursing before, rather than after, your bedtime ritual. Initiate self-comforting routines so that your child can learn how to fall asleep without the help of the breast. Sing songs or read stories to your baby right before tucking your little one in.
- Cut back on the number of daily feedings, starting with those your child shows the least interest in. Slowly cut down to just that one feeding per day (most women find the nighttime feeding works best).
- Finally, drop that last end-of-the-day nursing session. You may need to offer a gentle distraction at this stage—such as a new “lovey” (bear, blanket, or book), special bedtime book, or nightlight—to help this final transition go more smoothly and comfortably for your child.
This last nursing may linger for months, says Gale Pryor, author of Nursing Mother, Working Mother. Because of this, bedtime can become difficult in the very end stages of weaning. Pryor suggests, “at bedtime your husband may be able to help by putting your baby to bed for a couple of weeks, until [your child] has forgotten about his end-of-the-day nursing.”
The Final Step
Many women find that this last nursing session is very difficult to cut. If you experience problems getting through this last step, there are many tips and tricks you can try. Dianna Panos posts this helpful advice, “I nursed my son for 27 months. He never lost interest, no matter what I fed him. Finally, a pharmacist said she’d had the same problem and she put Band-Aids on her nipples. She said they had ‘owies’ on them. I tried it, and to my relief, it worked.”
If you live close to relatives, or if you and your child have a good relationship with a close friend, you may wish to consider taking a “weaning holiday.” Invite Grandma and Grandpa for a weekend visit with your child. Slip out of the house before your child heads to bed to “go run an errand” or even to take in a movie with your spouse. Try to leave at a time in the evening when your little one is engaged and having fun. Chances are she’ll forget that you’re not there and won’t even notice that she missed her nightly nursing session.
Many moms also find that this is the best time to call in Daddy. If you are having troubles taking this last step, enlist the help of your partner to do the nightly rituals. Make an appearance early in the routine to give hugs and kisses and then say good night. I know a mother who had such difficulties weaning, that she had her husband step in and put her child to bed; meanwhile, she’d go have a glass of wine, knowing that she then couldn’t buckle and nurse her little boy to sleep. It worked—for both the toddler and the mom.
During your later stages, it may take a bit of trial and error to find a new routine that works for you and your little one. Sometimes a combination of things works best, or you may find a bit of advice from a family member, friend, or something you read is the key to finally taking that last step.
I had an especially difficult time weaning my own daughter. Even though she had begun to show signs that she was ready to stop nursing, and I knew it was time to stop, I just didn’t quite know how.
In doing some research, I stumbled upon The Old Farmer’s Almanac website, where I learned that for centuries, mothers and farmers have weaned children and cattle in accordance with the moon’s cycle. The website included helpful monthly charts showing when to wean, plant, and so on; and I decided that I’d give it a try.
Miraculously, it worked. We told our then 16-month-old daughter a week before the final date what was going to happen. We also began incorporating new nighttime routines to help her fall asleep on her own. And on that first night without nursing, my husband tucked her into bed, and she fell right asleep and never asked to nurse again.