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Weaning: When, Why and How?

Weaning

From your baby’s first latch, your breastfeeding relationship began. And like many relationships over the course of our lives, it eventually comes to an end. Sometimes it is abrupt and unexpected. Sometimes it is drawn-out and overdue. Sometimes it stops, then starts back up, and then stops again. Sometimes it is a huge production, complete with tantrums and tears. Sometimes one individual wants it to end and one is desperate for it to continue. And sometimes, rarely, it is a mutual decision, made simultaneously and with a peaceful parting of ways. Thus it is with weaning.

Before you started your breastfeeding relationship, you probably had a goal, or a limit, in mind for duration. It may be based on the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, followed by breastfeeding in combination with solid foods for 12 months AND continued beyond 1 year for as long as mutually desired by mother and child. Or it may be based on the World Health Organization’s recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding for at least 2 years.  It may be based on input from family, friends, a partner, PEPS groups, or when your older child weaned. It may be your memory of watching a 15 month old pushing up her mom’s shirt while frantically giving the sign for “milk” at the playground. Or maybe you were appalled, or inspired, by the picture of a 3-year-old nursing on the cover of Time magazine.

So, what happens when your child reaches that age? The first thing to do is to ask yourself, what are my reasons for deciding to wean or to continue breastfeeding? It may be a surprise for some that the only reason you have for weaning is that predetermined number. For others, it may be that you never thought of yourself as “that” mother at the playground. For some moms, it is going back to work or wanting to get pregnant.  The promise of more sleep motivates some to wean. And for some women it is just time to reclaim your body. If you had an open-ended goal of nursing for as long as your “baby” desired, it can be quite a shock, mixed with sadness, when that time comes. Signs that your child may be ready can include:  showing less interest in nursing, ability to be comforted by other measures, falling back to sleep without nursing and eating a wide variety and amount of table foods.

When it is time to bring breastfeeding to a conclusion, here are some things to consider for children weaning around 12 months:

GENERAL GUIDELINES

  • Weaning is a process, NOT an event.
  • There is no “right” way to do it.
  • Gradual reduction in number and duration of nursing sessions over a course of few weeks usually results in less discomfort and more success.
  • Pay close attention to how your child is responding. You may need to slow down or reconsider.

TECHNIQUES

  • Start by keeping a log of times, locations and circumstances around nursing. Pay attention to what your child may have needed at that point.
  • Avoiding the request for nursing is easier than responding, so anticipate!
  • Avoiding the usual nursing spots, change routine, even rearranging furniture sometimes helps.
  • Don’t Offer, Don’t refuse.
  • Diminish, Delay, Distract.
    • Shorten nursing sessions, push them back, and introduce new activities, play dates, books, FOOD!
  • With older children you can make a plan with them, even a weaning party.

Occasionally it is necessary to wean before 1 year, or even 6 months. Many of the above techniques can be utilized, but vary based on circumstances. Making sure the baby has adequate nutrition and the mom has support -- both emotional and physical -- is vital.

If you are not completely committed to ending the relationship, it can be more of a struggle for both of you. Children seem to sense that hesitation. Allow yourself to change your mind. There are just as many reasons for extended breastfeeding (any breastfeeding past 1 year) as there are to wean.

SOME OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

  • You can teach your toddler “nursing manners” and put limits on when, where and how they nurse.
  • Sometimes just “night weaning” OR eliminating one of the most stressful feedings can be a huge relief.

But, not to worry, this is one relationship you can count on ending, for the health and happiness of everyone. And hopefully you can look back on it with fondness, knowing it set a strong foundation for all future relationships. Take a picture - you will want to remember it. Then look forward to a new phase of your life together.


References and Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics Breastfeeding Guidelines

Paediatrics & Child Health article, "Weaning from the Breast," 2004. Accessed from National Institutes of Health

Weaning resources from La Leche League

Weaning resources from parenting and breastfeeding site, Kellymom

Books:

How Weaning Happens by Diane Bengson

Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner

The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning by Kathleen Huggins & Linda Ziedrich

The Sleep Book for Tired Parents by Rebecca Huntley


About the Author

Krystal SilvaKrystal Silva, ND, LAc is a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist with advanced training and certificates in breastfeeding and postpartum mood disorders. She teaches classes for new parents including Weaning; First Foods; and First Weeks. Her private practice focuses on supporting women and families, with a special emphasis on postpartum mood disorders and low milk supply. She is the proud mama of two amazing girls who inspire and support her in “going to work to help mamas and their babies” everyday. For more information or to contact her, visit www.krystalsilva.com.

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