When weaning happens gradually, it is a process by which nursing frequency decreases slowly over time. The partnership between the mother and child during breastfeeding can be respected and honored if the weaning is done as compassionately as possible.
Mutual weaning happens when both the mother and the child are ready. Experts have described the natural age of weaning to be anywhere from about 2.5 years to around 7 years old, but weaning may happen before or after that age. Currently, the World Health Organization recommends that children be nursed for a minimum of two years.
How Weaning Happens
Breastfeeding should be able to continue unhindered as long as the relationship is working for both the mother and her child. Because there are two people in a breastfeeding relationship, the mother and the child’s feelings are equally important. Breastfeeding can be adapted to make it work for both of them if full weaning is not the best choice.
Parent-led: The mother may choose to drop feedings that are less important to the child’s emotional well-being and continue nursing at nap or bedtime. In some instances she may choose to night wean her toddler and continue to nurse during the day. It may be easiest to choose a daytime nursing-session as the first one to go, because it is can be easier to distract a child with other activities when it is daylight, and interesting things are happening.
Child-led: There are some toddlers who become so interested in the outside world that they are like little butterflies flitting from one thing to another. Sometimes, the result is that they begin to wean by nursing less frequently during the day and more during the night. Other children gradually stop nursing on their own over the course of weeks, months, or even years.
When a mother is ready to wean a child who can communicate well, she may try nursing only when the child asks. How long this process takes depends on the child’s readiness for weaning. As weaning occurs, the mother and child will start the next chapter of their relationship, built from the core emotional attachments forged through breastfeeding and attentive mothering.
If the Mother or Child is Not Yet Ready to Wean
Optimal nursing allows both the mother and child to be comforted and relaxed. When circumstances change, and mother or child is ready to reduce or stop breastfeeding, weaning may be done in respectful and gentle way. Partial weaning and other creative strategies may help make breastfeeding more manageable.
Sometimes small adjustments to breastfeeding behaviors, such as instructing the child to ask before lifting mama’s shirt so that she doesn’t feel exposed, can be taught to children beforehand in order to increase the comfort level of the mother. Mothers who can make these small changes are able to both preserve the breastfeeding relationship and meet their own needs.
Only a mother knows when the time is right for weaning: mothers have unique, intimate knowledge of their children, and they may have an intuitive sense of the process. If weaning feels too early or difficult, or the baby is under a year old, it may be best to delay weaning until a more appropriate time.
When weaning in a rush, the mother and the baby may have not have had much time to prepare emotionally. It can be a highly-charged time filled with a sense of loss or even anger at the situation. For some mothers, there is acute medical necessity for weaning: treatment with chemotherapeutic drugs or other medications contraindicated during breastfeeding (dangerous to take while breastfeeding) and without possible safer substitutions or maternal addiction to harmful substances.
A mother in these situations must often choose a difficult weaning process that is entirely mother-led, and it may occur far earlier than her baby is ready.
For the Weaning Mother
Careful attention to how engorged (full of milk) she is getting will alleviate the discomfort she experiences. If needed, there may be medications that her healthcare provider can offer to speed up the process of “drying” her milk up.
When a mother is breastfeeding normally, the milk is removed regularly, and breastmilk production may continue without discomfort. If a mother suddenly stops nursing, her breasts will fill with milk and cause engorgement. Engorgement is usually very uncomfortable: it can make the breasts feel hot or heavy, and it is frequently painful.
Having full breasts sends a message to the breast to stop producing milk. A mother who is weaning should consider wearing loose, comfortable clothing to minimize pressure on the breasts during this transition.
Some mothers have reported that expressing (removing) some of their milk so that they are not painfully engorged is helpful. Removing a little milk can help a mom avoid feeling really uncomfortable. With milk expression, the goal is to remove just a little for comfort and not to drain the breast. A mother who is removing milk in this manner in order to wean rapidly because of a dangerous medication or medical condition should avoid feeding this milk to her baby unless her health care provider has advised her to do so.
Quick Comfort Measures
- Cold packs, frozen peas, frozen cabbage leaf compresses, and other cool compresses on the breasts may help with engorgement pain. A mother can check with her health care provider to see if taking an over the counter anti-inflammatory medication is an option.
Occasionally some mothers experience blocked ducts or mastitis when they have been engorged for a long time. Some signs and symptoms of mastitis requiring prompt treatment from a health care provider include: a fever over 100 degrees, body aches, very painful breasts, red streaks on the skin of the breasts, or hot, hard places in the breasts.
Offering Another Method to Feed the Baby
Fluids may be offered in cups or sippy cups, bottles, or spoons. The liquids a baby should consume vary depending on his age. Some mothers may be able to acquire donor human milk for young or premature babies. Other mothers of babies under a year old will be advised to use an iron-fortified formula. Mothers of toddlers or older children may offer water or other fluids approved by their health care providers.
Some quick tips for weaning
- Redirect a toddler with a special toy or favorite snack.
- Offer a sippy-cup of water or expressed milk.
- Offer another form of comfort.
- Avoid places you usually nurse.
- Go to the park more often, take walks, or get outdoors when you can.
- Wear clothes with buttons or layers. Avoid clothes that are easy for your toddler to lift Don’t be afraid to nurse if weaning isn’t working well that day–there is always tomorrow.
- Try to be consistent.
- Be gentle, patient, and loving.
- If you feel engorged, express some of the milk for comfort, but don’t drain your breast all the way.
- Try a warm/cool bath or shower or cool compresses for breast discomfort.
- Be kind to yourself–weaning is emotional work for both the mom and the child.
- Once you have weaned, don’t express milk to see if any is there: give your breasts some time off from any handling.
A Mother’s Feelings about Weaning
Some mothers feel relieved that weaning has been achieved and that they have experienced the amazing feat of breastfeeding. Being pregnant and breastfeeding are tremendous accomplishments: all mothers, whether they nurse for a few weeks or years, should be commended for their efforts.
The physical sensations of engorgement and the emotional effects of not being able to nurse may be very difficult for other mothers. These women may feel that the hardest part of weaning is not being able to respond in the normal fashion to her baby’s need to nurse, cuddle on her breast, or reconnect after separation. A mother may miss the private time that nursing offered the two of them and may have feelings of regret or miss the tiny baby that she once held in her arms. Throughout the gradual weaning process, the adult can understand why weaning is happening, but a young child will not have the same experience. The mother may see some behavioral changes in her child during and after weaning. Obtaining the caring support of family or friends is helpful during this challenging period of adjustment and will potentially ease some of the strain placed on the mother-child relationship.
It is normal to feel “touched-out,” sad, relieved, anxious, worried, or frustrated. Mixed emotions are common. Finding another mother to speak with may be helpful. Mothers who are unable to discuss weaning with family or friends or who need further support should consider seeking out community support programs that offer free counseling to mothers in crisis as soon as possible.
If a mother experiences signs of depression or if she says she feels like hurting herself or her child, she should find help immediate.y. She could call 1-800-273-TALK or Chat http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ There is never any shame in reaching out for help when it is needed.
*Some mothers who have weaned do change their minds and resume breastfeeding. An article addressing this topic may be found here: Can There Be Breastfeeding After Weaning?
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Dettwyler, K., Ph.D. (1999). A Natural Age of Weaning. Retrieved April 21, 2012,
from Katherine Dettwyler’s website: http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html
Gordon, Jay. (2010) Sleep, Changing Patterns in The Family Bed. Retrieved December 17, 2012 from Dr. Jay Gordon’s website: http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html
World Health Organization. 2012. Health Topics: Breastfeeding. Retrieved December 17, 2012 from the WHO website: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/index.html
(c) Serena Meyer, IBCLC. 2013 All rights reserved.