The benefits of breastfeeding don't disappear on your child's first birthday.
For this reason, many women continue to breastfeed past infancy.
Toddlers and older children continue to receive nutritional benefits and immunological protection through breastfeeding, as well as the emotional security and connection that comes from a breastfeeding relationship.
Weaning age varies between cultures, but it is not uncommon for children to wean between the ages of two and four years.
Waiting until toddlerhood to gently and respectfully wean a toddler from breast milk allows your toddler to outgrow infancy at her own pace. Weaning slowly gives your child the chance to get used to and adapt to the changes over time.
Tips For Gentle Weaning
Some women choose to follow a “don't offer, don't refuse” approach, allowing them to reduce feeds without refusing requests for breastmilk. Others choose to refuse some feeds. It's important to set limits that are realistic for both you and your child. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to gentle weaning. You and your child are individuals, and it's important to keep this in mind during the weaning process. What worked for the mother in the park, may not work for you and your child.
Here are some tried and tested tips of wisdom that may be useful to you as you start your journey of weaning a toddler:
#1: There's No Rush
The first thing to remember is that weaning takes time. There is no definitive timeline of how long weaning should take, each case if different. Try to avoid setting arbitrary deadlines for yourself, and instead focus on smaller goals, for example, aim to reduce the number of feeds. Staying flexible, and keeping an open mind should help you to avoid stress, and even enjoy the weaning process.
#2: Change Your Routine
Changing your daily routine is a gentle way of distracting your child from his usual pattern of feeds. Make sure you are up and dressed before your baby wakes in the morning, this may distract your baby from his usual morning feed. Being out of the house during your usual feed times is a good way of gently reducing feeds.
#3: Pass The Buck
Ask your partner to take over night comforting for a while. Breastfeeding mothers often find they end up responsible for most night wakings, simply because they can easily soothe the child back to sleep with a feed. Ask your partner to offer water or a small healthy snack in the night, and soothe your child back to sleep.
#4: Be Honest
Children can often understand more than they can say, so don't assume your child is too young for a conversation about weaning. Start talking about weaning, and how one day he will not need breast milk anymore. If your nipples are sore, tell him this and explain you would rather not feed at the moment. It's ok to postpone feeds, so explain to your child if it is an inconvenient time for a feed.
#5: Tackle Feeding To Sleep
Many women find these feeds the hardest to drop. If your toddler relies on breastfeeding to help him to sleep at night, for naps and to settle again if disturbed in the night, dropping this feed may seem scary. Don't worry, though, there's no rush to drop this feed. Start with a gradual change of routine, for example, instead of feeding in bed, have the last feed of the day in another room.
Before your child falls asleep, simply move him into his bed, and then provide as much comfort, love and time as your child needs to fall asleep without a feed. Once your child has adjusted to this change, shorten the amount of time at the breast, and place more emphasis on other aspects of the bedtime routine, for example, a story or song.
#6: Start Saying No
It's ok (and important) to say no to your toddler sometimes. You don't have to say yes to everything to be a good mother. Setting reasonable limits is crucial for your child's development, your relationship and possibly, your sanity. Start saying no to some day feeds, explaining kindly when the next feed will be. For example, “We don't have breastmilk until after our afternoon snack.”
Your child may find this difficult to adjust to, so make sure you have plenty of fun activities and jazz hands up your sleeves to make this transitional period easier. Be sure to read our fantastic article on setting breastfeeding boundaries for toddlers.
#7: Offer Food Or Drink
Your child may be asking for a feed because he is hungry or thirsty, and the best way toddlers like to quench those feelings are with the boob – after all, it’s the one thing he or she has known to be a guaranteed source of sustenance since the day he was born. If you notice the cues that your child may be about to start for a feed, offer a favourite snack or drink instead.
#8: Cut Feeds Short
If you have always allowed your child to feed until she is finished, now may be the time to consider shortening feeds. Start interrupting feeds by suggesting something to do, for example, a trip to the park, or going to visit Grandma.
#9: Hide Your Breasts
Your breasts are a very visible reminder of breastfeeding, so you may want to keep them hidden for a while. Wear clothes that do not allow easy access, and that cover your breasts from sight. You may also like to avoid undressing in front of your child for a few weeks, until he has gotten used to the weaning process.
#10: Look Out For Red Flags
Some children wean easily and without fuss, for others it can be a more difficult journey. Look out for sudden changes in your child's behaviour, for example sudden clinginess, tantrums, and anger. These behavioural changes are often your child's way of expressing inner feelings.
If you think your child is struggling to adjust, then take a step back, and try again in a few weeks time. Clingy and unsettled behaviour can also be the sign of a developmental milestone or an impending illness – many times I have been pulling my hair out wondering what on earth is going on with my toddler, only to end up nursing a sick little person in the days ahead.
Don’t forget, from two years of age, toddlers will be expecting a second set of molars, so this can be a really bad time to wean. If your toddler is teething or unwell, hang in there a little longer and the experience will be so much easier for you both.
What To Expect
No matter how committed you are to weaning your toddler, after that final feed, you may feel sad, weepy and even depressed. Your hormones may take time to return to normal, although some women do not notice any change in their moods once weaning has occurred. To help you prepare for the big shift in hormones, read our article on post-weaning depression.