So you want to wean.
You want to wean, and I hope someone in your support circle is listening. Breastfeeding unearths such strong emotions. That’s how it works, after all. And you feel strongly about this. So you’re weaning.
Did you know the verb ‘to wean’ originates from the Hebrew phrase meaning ‘to ripen’? Presumably, the idea is when a child enters a state of readiness for being entirely weaned, he has ripened, and this itself is a significant milestone.
All children have different nursing needs, just like their needs in other areas of life are individual (some babies take few naps while their siblings and peers sleep like rocks, some want to be held constantly while others prefer to explore independently, some hate baths while others get cranky without one, some potty-learn quickly and others slowly, etc).
It’s important to remember (especially on the rough days): all children will eventually outgrow breastfeeding on their own if allowed to do so at their own pace. Interestingly, just as babies have the instinct to breastfeed, they also one day develop the instinct to wean.
But sometimes a mother doesn’t want to or can’t wait for the process to run its course along nature’s timeline.
Chances are, if a mother weans abruptly, circumstances may have been out of her control, perhaps due to new medication contraindicated for breastfeeding (note: **very few** medications are truly incompatible with breastfeeding; contact InfantRisk Center), unexpected surgery or a sudden health condition, or a lengthy separation.
Alternatively, if a mother has been feeling incapable of continuing to nurse, more than likely she’s been mulling this over for a little while — days, weeks, or months before she decides it’s the end of the road. This is almost always plenty of time to treat weaning like a process with a beginning, middle, and end.
There’s nothing wrong with mother-initiated (mother-led) weaning. It’s really no one’s business when or why you want to wean. The age of your child, reason for weaning (whether you want or need to, or both)… it’s really beside the point. Weaning can still happen as organically as possible.
Now I’ve seen a lot of highly questionable advice about how to approach weaning…
For mothers who are desperate, at their wits’ end, needing immediate, permanent relief from breastfeeding — there are healthier options to consider. To save on tear-soaked Kleenex and stress, try whatever will best minimize trauma and arguments.
I think it’s also important to know if you’ve fully committed to taking the reins — whether you’re able to tolerate mostly the whole affair of breastfeeding or you seek a relatively prompt cut-off point — that some methods are more positive and nurturing than others. In this way, they’re known to be more effective, piggybacking on the trust and connection you’ve established by breastfeeding in the first place.
Ditch This Bad Advice
Please don’t sneak the following or similar substances onto your nipples before nursing to kill your child’s appetite for milk, even if it sounded like a good idea in a sleep-starved, touched-out state of rock bottom:
- Nail varnish
- Bitter apple
- Hot sauce
- Lemon juice
All the effort put into the bonding, trust-building aspects of the breastfeeding relationship can be destroyed with weaning techniques that force negative associations upon the activity or manipulate the child’s emotions. Will it be worth it when all is said and done?
These ‘tips’ aim to confuse a child or scare him out of nursing:
- Draw a scary face on breasts
- Paint nipples black – From “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
- Booby hospital – Saying the boobies are damaged and having the child bandage them up
These ideas are likely to cause hurt feelings, confusion, and unnecessarily stressed relationships:
- Cold turkey – Breastfeeding isn’t a harmful addiction like cigarette smoking, which for some may benefit from cold turkey quitting
- Intentionally separate (taking a short trip) when the child is particularly needy
There’s no need to lock horns with your little child over the conclusion of breastfeeding, I promise.
Examples of punishment:
- Consequences for asking to nurse
- Shaming – (“You’re too old for that now,” “Don’t act like a baby,” “You’re annoying me,” hurtful language in attempt to create distance or force a child to “grow up”)
Here Are 14 Gentler Options
1). Don’t offer, don’t refuse.
It’s as simple as it sounds. Don’t offer to nurse. If the child asks, say yes (or “yes later”). By doing this you may have already significantly cut down on overall nursing sessions. Some children won’t be fazed by your lack of offering, but it’s still a good starting point.
You can opt to routinely nurse after injuries if he’s very young, or introduce a new method of reassurance. After sustaining an ‘owwie,’ try processing what happened and encouraging him to express how he feels, empowering him to manage his emotions without despairing for breast-centric comfort.
2). Set breastfeeding boundaries.
A baby’s world is his mother: she is his sole sustenance, his main comfort, his strongest memory. As he gets a bit older, he develops attachments to other people and notices the widening world around him (and beyond her). Breastfeeding transforms along with this new perspective and it serves broader purpose.
As children get older, they can understand that sometimes they must wait to nurse. Maybe Mommy is busy with a time-sensitive task (like making it into the bank before it closes) or a dangerous one (like cooking dinner over several burners). Maybe she is too tired or sick to nurse. If Mommy doesn’t want to nurse right now, that’s okay.
Child-led weaning doesn’t mean a mother must drop everything to nurse all the time, especially if the child has outgrown the need to nurse on demand as with exclusive breastfeeding in infancy.
The same principle goes for mother-initiated weaning. The basic idea is to shift away from nursing on demand, toward nursing when convenient.
Setting limits is not mean. Doing so is actually a healthy way to demonstrate how to be considerate of others’ feelings. Both parties’ needs can be met through compromise.
Start out small and short-term (“I need to use the bathroom but we can nurse after”) and eventually you can work up to setting bigger boundaries (like only nursing at designated times/places such as when you return home from work, before bed, or only at home).
3). Use numbers and alarms.
Instead of focusing on less frequent nursing sessions, try shorter ones. Make it a game: signal the end of a nursing session by counting down (your child can join you by counting on his fingers) or set an alarm on your phone (“Time’s up when we hear the beep/song/alarm!”).
You can progressively shorten sessions without much commotion from your little peanut gallery.
4). Block out time.
Pick a block of time during the day to forgo nursing and/or breast milk feeding. Not only can this help decrease your milk supply, it will help your child get used to longer periods of time without nursing and requesting other means of comfort during that time.
Start by skipping the child’s least favorite nursing session.
5). Night wean first.
Is a wretched sleep schedule to blame for your longing to wean? Pick a range of hours during the night when you find sleep most valuable; forgo nursing and/or breast milk feeding during this time.
Some recommend to start by letting go of nursing to sleep before middle-of-the-night feeds. Aha Parenting explains:
“You could keep nursing him to sleep, but just not nurse during the night. But then your child has to learn to go to sleep without nursing in the middle of the night when he’s a bit rested and can stay awake longer. And you have to support him with patience to fall asleep in the middle of the night, which is when you have less patience and fortitude. Instead, I recommend that you start by helping your child learn to fall asleep without nursing when you put him to bed at night. (You can keep nursing him to sleep at nap times for now.) That skill will allow him to fall back asleep in the middle of the night much more easily.
Explain that tonight you will nurse him in the living room instead of his bedroom, and then you’ll snuggle with him to help him sleep. You might want to act this out with stuffed animals, so he understands what you’re explaining. When he finishes nursing, say goodnight to the nummies. Take him in the bedroom and start the bedtime routine. He will naturally ask to nurse again. Tell him that the nursies are sleeping, and that it’s time for him to sleep, and you’ll help him. Expect lots of tears. Stay compassionate, and don’t nurse him. Just hold him and commiserate”
6). Offer other nourishment.
Introducing solid foods is the first step in the weaning journey. When a baby/toddler is no longer exclusively breastfed (which means he hasn’t had purees, solids, or other liquids including formula and water), he’s technically entered weaning territory.
If a young child wants to nurse because he’s hungry or thirsty, offer expressed milk in a cup or sippy (preferably not a bottle). If he’s older, substitute another age-appropriate beverage or healthy snack.
7). Limit availability.
What you need to do is essentially become a moving target. The more you walk around shirtless, sleep with an easy-access pajama top, or settle into the couch, the more opportunity your nursling has to pounce on you with mouth agape and ready!
8). Safely dry up your milk supply.
If there’s not as much milk to drink, a child may begin to naturally lose interest. Here you can find effective approaches to hasten a decrease in milk supply.
9). Other human touch.
Offer hugs, kisses, snuggles or other mother-child affections — but ensure it doesn’t mimic a setting too reminiscent of breastfeeding (cradling, rocking in a chair, etc).
When a child wants to nurse out of boredom or loneliness, reconnect in other ways. Play a silly game, set him in your lap to read his favorite book, anything to help him learn other tools for regulating these uncomfortable feelings.
A ‘together’ activity will satisfy this need much better than being sent away to ‘do something else.’ It’s not ideal to replace nursing with objects like stuffed animals and blankies because the goal is to preserve his emotional attachment to a human.
10). Arrange time away for mother.
Leave for a weekend when the child is emotionally stable. He should be looked after by an attentive and loving caregiver so as to fare very well in your absence.
This should be a positive experience as the idea is to build his confidence, not force him through a period of desperation. The better he feels about doing things independently, the sooner he may lose the need for breast-centric comfort.
11). Keep busy.
Distractibility is on your side here. Keeping a child busy with fun, engaging activities can help keep his mind from wandering back to the breast out of habit.
Take him places where he’s least likely to ask to nurse. Stay for long enough that he misses a usual nursing session (try not to get disappointed or upset if he does remember and brings it to your attention).
12). Take advantage of a nursing strike.
Children under the age of two aren’t known to naturally wean without influence, however this is a time when nursing strikes may easily occur. If the strike is misunderstood as a desire to fully wean instead of a break, mother’s accepting disposition can cause the strike to become lasting.
Common reasons for a strike include: a mother’s pregnancy or menstrual cycle, change in milk taste, illness in her or the child, ear ache, nasal congestion, major change in routine such as the holidays or a move, and more causes you can read about here.
Nursing strikes can be disheartening for mothers who hoped to breastfeed longer, but a blessing for those who wanted an easier way to wean early.
13). Give emotional support.
A little honesty goes a long way. Let the child know he can express how he feels about these changing circumstances. Validate his feelings. Patience and empathy are key.
Remember breastfeeding is not just food: it’s a relationship, it’s a foundation of security. When unwillingly weaned, the elimination of breastfeeding must be treated like a true loss; a child should be given time to grieve.
Children of all ages are far more compassionate, astute, and perceptive than we tend to give them credit for. Using age-appropriate language, you can let a child know your reasons for not wanting to nurse in a way that’s sensitive to the fact that they still want to continue this mode of connection. Emphasize that you love him and your favorite thing is being close to him.
Children are adaptable, but sensitive. Don’t expect a child to accept total change immediately — more likely, it’ll be two steps forward, one step backward for some time.
Even if sudden weaning is necessary, it should be framed as a process however possible, rather than an event. Have patience — it could take days, weeks, or months.
KellyMom advises to watch your child for signs of weaning too fast, which include:
- a new or increased fear of separation
- increased crying, whining, clinginess, or tantrums
- sudden increase in night waking
- biting when it has never occurred
- a new or increased attachment to a stuffed animal, toy, or blanket
- new thumb or pacifier sucking
- stomachache, constipation, vomiting, refusal to eat
- new or increased withdrawal, aloofness
14). Pair up with an IBCLC.
If you need to wean immediately, get an expert on your side. (I guarantee she won’t recommend nail varnish or hot sauce!).
She can also recommend health care resources for your own emotional and physical needs, as weaning (especially sudden weaning) involves hormonal changes that can induce depression or sadness.
Weaning too abruptly can also pose other risks to the mother such as plugged ducts, mastitis, engorgement, nausea, and mood swings.
Gentle Weaning Books For Children
- Mama’s Milk is All Gone
- Milkies in the Morning: A Gentle Weaning Storybook
- Nursies When the Sun Shines
- Sally Weans From Night Nursing
Gentle Weaning Books For Parents
- Adventures in Tandem Nursing
- How Weaning Happens
- Mothering Your Nursing Toddler
- The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning