Child-Led Weaning Awareness Series Pt. 1: Weaning Before Age One

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This post begins a short series about child-led weaning. What is it? Who does it? What are the common concerns and myths? The process of weaning — whether led by the child, the mother, a doctor, or society’s expectations — is an emotional, personal, and rather fascinating one.

Let’s start off with a discussion about these questions:

  • Can a child self-wean under the age of one?
  • What events are commonly misinterpreted as a desire to wean?
  • Should a child be weaned under the age of one?

Can a child self-wean under the age of one?

Yes, infants do wean before their first birthdays… all the time! In some countries (such as Norway), it’s not considered practical to continue breastfeeding after one year because that’s when parents return to work full-time, and so it’s virtually unheard of to breastfeed after this age. But in situations wherein children have more flexibility for self-weaning (child-led weaning), such as with a stay-at-home mother, will they do so at their own behest before the age of one? If they have stopped nursing, was it truly permanent self-weaning or was the refusal to breastfeed due to a nursing strike or other situational circumstance?

Child-led weaning means a child nurses until there’s no longer a nutritive or emotional need, as indicated by the child. An infant under the age of one should get virtually all of his nutrition from milk (human ideally, or formula), so he wouldn’t self-wean for nutritional reasons unless solids have become prioritized in his diet over milk (human milk does supply a valuable amount of nutrition after one year, however–please visit the “Medicine in Human Milk” section for more information.).

I highly recommend all articles by Katherine A. Dettwyler, PhD, who provides thoroughly researched insight into “The Natural Age of Weaning” from an anthropological standpoint. From this view, the natural weaning age for humans is biologically expected to be between 2.5-7 years old.

Imagine this: the minimum natural weaning age according to this range is actually considered slightly above the Western culture’s norm for a maximum! But biological evolution hasn’t caught up with our historically immature child-rearing routines yet. This is evidenced by the typical development and loss of milk teeth (baby teeth) and the timeline for maxillofacial muscle and jaw development, which may be abnormally compromised from the start by bottle-feeding. I do not mean to suggest deformity as a result of bottle-feeding; however, the link between bottle-feeding or being breastfed less than one year and the risk of needing braces is convincing (researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health conducted a large study that showed the longer a child breastfeeds, the less likely the child will have misaligned teeth later on).

Priscilla Young Colletto discusses “nature’s norm” in “Beyond Toddlerhood: The Breastfeeding Relationship Continues”:

“[M]any primates wean their offspring when they are erupting their first permanent molars. First permanent molar eruption occurs around 5.5 to 6.0 years in modern humans. It is interesting to note that achievement of adult immune competence in humans also occurs at approximately six years of age, suggesting that throughout our recent evolutionary past, the active immunities provided by breast milk were normally available to the child until about this age…

Our evolutionary past has produced an organism that relies on breastfeeding to provide the context for physical, cognitive and emotional development. The non-human primate data suggest that human children are designed to receive all of the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for an absolute minimum of two and a half years, and an apparent upper limit of around seven years. Natural selection has favored those infants with a strong, genetically coded blueprint that programs them to expect nursing to continue for a number of years after birth and results in the urge to suckle remaining strong for this entire period.”

Often, it’s a decreased amount of time with the mother, the mother’s disinterest in continuing to breastfeed and possibly the projection of her feelings upon the child, a plan to quit for her own reasons, early prioritizing of solid foods, or most commonly a temporary nursing strike that is to blame for early cessation of nursing.

Events commonly misinterpreted as a desire to wean:

  • Baby is easily distracted
  • Decreased milk supply
  • Eruption of teeth
  • Illness
  • Increased focus on milestones/developmental periods
  • Medications (maternal or child)
  • Nursing strikes (see below for many examples)
  • Overuse of pacifiers/bottles
  • Premature or forceful introduction of solids
  • Restricting nursing by over-scheduling
  • Restricting nursing after returning to work

Should a child be weaned under the age of one?

How long will you nurse your child? It’s totally up to you! Click here to find out the benefits your child has received if breastfed for a few days; 4-6 weeks; 3-6 months; 6 months; 9 months; a year or more.

Though a typical child won’t naturally self-wean under the age of one, that doesn’t mean you should force yourself to breastfeed for longer than you want if it conflicts with what’s truly best for you. It’s your body -– do what you are comfortable with. A child is better off with a mother who’s content with her decisions than one who’s outright miserable. There’s nothing to be ashamed about if you really want or need to wean. Any breast milk is better than no breast milk. Do what you can to provide the most breast milk you for the longest duration that you can. Babies need sane mamas, not crazies (for many mamas, breastfeeding keeps the crazies at bay -– for others, breastfeeding just simply IS crazy).

To make things easier, you can try taking advantage of a nursing strike (more on that below), or try the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” method. If you intend to mother-led wean, read this to learn how to do it with love. Weaning should always be done slowly (hence the word “wean” by definition), not abruptly–no matter the age of the child. Remember that mothers also benefit from following a natural weaning timeline, or at least a gradual one. Too-sudden weaning can contribute to maternal depression. If you must wean abruptly such as for medical reasons, you can find helpful advice here for coping with the often confusing, emotionally conflicting adjustment period that often occurs for both mother and child.

Links by Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC of KellyMom:

There’s more useful information here than I could possibly paraphrase and give proper justice, so click around and explore them all.

Click here for more weaning resources on my page, including myths, tips, stories, and books.

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