When you’re a parent, the word “weaning” tends to be associated with food. It may be time to wean your toddler from breast milk if he/she has been breastfeeding for 18 months or more.
Weaning can be difficult because of all the benefits that breastfeeding offers:
- Nursing provides a source of comfort and closeness between mother and child.
- There is no need to worry about preparing bottles or formula.
- Babies who are breastfed tend to have a lower risk of developing allergies, asthma, diabetes and obesity later in life.
But if you feel like it’s time for your baby to stop nursing, then here are some tips on how to do so while maintaining that bond! My Baby Nursery is your one-stop baby product store.
Breastmilk continues to provide both nutrition and immune benefits for toddlers and older children.
Many mothers find that breastfeeding provides their child with the emotional security that ends up being one of the essential parts of their feeding relationship. It lets their child outgrow infancy at their own pace.
If you are ready to wean, but your toddler is unwilling, there are likely to be times when you feel very tense and even resent feeding your baby. Your toddler may sense your frustration, and this may make them ask for more feed.
This can become an unpleasant vicious cycle: your baby becomes more anxious and demanding, and you become more upset and irritable. In the first place, it can help to try to reflect on the situation.
Often it helps to share your feelings with a partner or an understanding friend. Together, you may be able to think of ways to overcome these problem situations.
What to Know About Weaning
Before you begin the weaning process, there are a few things you need to know about your child’s nutrition, developmental stage, and the physical effects of weaning on your own body.
How Will it Affect Their Nutrition?
One of the first things you’re probably concerned about is your toddler’s nutrition.
It’s impossible to know precisely how much they’re getting from you regularly – some mothers may be producing nearly nothing, while others have quite a bit of milk.
Since breastfeeding provides your child with more calories, nutrients, and fat, what you should focus on when weaning your child is making sure you’re still offering enough additional calories throughout the day.
So, as you remove your milk as a food source, you’ll need to make sure your child receives those nutrients from the food you offer. However, don’t get so caught up tracking your child’s food intake that you make yourself crazy.
The amount toddlers eat varies significantly from one day to the next – some days, they seem to eat next to nothing, while on other days, they eat more than an adult.
Recognise this wild variance is normal, and don’t expect your toddler to sit down and eat a balanced meal every time they come to the table.
Instead, strive for a balanced nutritional week. Children’s bodies are intuitive, and they will eat what they need.
Your job is to make various foods available at regular intervals, and they’ll decide whether to eat and how much.
How Will it Affect Their Development?
For toddlers, rituals and routines present a sense of security and predictability as they go through their day.
Nursing may have become part of this routine for your breastfeeding toddler and contributes to their sense of stability.
Therefore, it’s essential to understand you will need to find a way to reinforce their need for security after breastfeeding has been removed.
You can do this by identifying a nursing substitute. It may be an oral replacement or simply a relaxing activity. Some ideas for a substitute are:
- Milk in an extra-special sippy cup they picked out themselves.
- A pacifier (if your child still uses one; don’t introduce one at this age if they don’t already use it).
- A water bottle.
- A story with mom.
- Soothing music.
- Five minutes of snuggle time.
When your child asks to nurse after you’ve either dropped specific nursing sessions or weaned altogether, offer them their exceptional substitute.
You know your child best, so choose something they will enjoy and find comforting.
It is also helpful that, at this age, your child is still easily distracted.
This means when they get upset because you prevent them from nursing, distraction by substitution can be a great strategy to satisfy them.
How Will it Affect You?
As you wean, be mindful that weaning can be as stressful on your body as it is on your toddler’s emotions.
Your breasts are a milk factory accustomed to producing milk for your toddler, and they have to keep the supply in line with demand.
As you decrease your nursing length and frequency, your body will respond by reducing its supply.
Abrupt weaning, however, has the potential to cause breast engorgement, clogged milk ducts (which can be painful), and mastitis (if they become infected).
Clogged milk ducts have the following symptoms:
- A small, hard spot in the breast.
- Swelling or bruising.
- Localised breast tenderness.
- A hot feeling in the breast.
If you have a clogged milk duct, massage it to try and release the milk, place warm compresses on it, and continue nursing from that side until the blocked duct is resolved.
How to Start Weaning Toddlers
When you are breastfeeding a toddler or older child, it is okay to set limits on natural feeding for you and your child.
One way to start weaning your toddler or older child is ‘never offer but never refuse’ your child feeds. Some or all of the following ideas may help you do this.
Gradually weaning can ease both you and your child into the transition. As you wean, your breasts will take time to adjust, and you may still make milk for quite some time.
Try to reduce the number of feeds you offer one meal at a time. This means that you are dropping one feed every few days. It may take several months before your child stops breastfeeding altogether.
If your breasts begin to feel uncomfortable, you can express just enough to make your breasts feel comfortable.
Talk to Your Toddler
Toddlers can often understand more than you think they do (in other words, they may not be able or willing to show or tell you quite how much they know).
You can try preparing your toddler by telling them what’s about to happen so that they know that breastfeeding will stop soon.
If you share your bed with your toddler and they usually have an early morning feed, you could try getting up before they wake.
If you are already dressed and have their breakfast ready when they wake, they may eat and start to play, forgetting about their breastfeeding.
Older children or your partner can help distract them.
Try to get your child to do something else instead, to teach them that there’s an alternative.
Have set times for feeds: for example, only at home, only after lunch, not between meals. Have plenty of favourite healthy snacks and drinks available. My Baby Nursery has the best range of high chairs for your baby. Check them out here.
Oversee your toddler and avoid putting yourself in situations in which they would normally breastfeed. Be ready with a change of activity before they get bored, tired or restless.
You might like to try offering something new: icy poles (ice blocks on a stick), ice in a mug, frozen yoghurt or drinks. Favourite snacks can also help distract them.
Discourage Long Feeds
If you have always left your baby at the breast until they have finished or fall asleep, it may take a while for them to accept that you’re taking control of their feeds.
For example, try to substitute something interesting, “Time to finish now, let’s go for a walk.”
Or say, “We will just have a little feed, and then we will go and see if Grandma is home.” An older toddler might like to count the sucks.
Feeds at night or before nap times can be hard to drop, as they may be the only way of getting your toddler to sleep.
It may also be the only way to get them back to sleep again (settle them) if they wake, particularly in the middle of the night.
Gradually increase the time between their sleep-time feed and put them to bed to break the link between feeding and sleeping.
Introduce a new bedtime routine in which you are not feeding to sleep (for example, feed-in another room), but give as much time, love and comfort as you can to help them fall asleep—singing, rocking, reading a story, patting—whatever helps.
Gradually reduce the time at the breast to just enough time to relax them, emphasising the story, song etc., rather than on the breastfeeding.
If your toddler wakes during the night and wants a feed to get back to sleep, see if your partner can settle them, perhaps with a cuddle and a drink of water. Sometimes toddlers will accept this, as your partner does not remind them of breastfeeds.
Even if you still bring your toddler into your bed, try comforting them in other ways before offering breastfeeding.
You will see a gradual change from feeding for comfort to being comforted in other ways.
Wear Different Clothes
When you go out with your toddler, avoid wearing clothes that allow easy access to the breasts. Avoid undressing in front of your child, as this may remind them to ask for a feed.
Change the Routine
Having friends or relatives look after a toddler during the day may help change the routine. You can stay close by at first, in case you are needed.
A child usually reacts differently with people they know well and will take other drinks and food and forget about breastfeeding.
Consider Your Child’s Sucking Need
If your child seems to need to suck, weaning onto a bottle may be better than going straight to a cup. Offer a short breastfeed, then the bottle.
Tips for Gently Stopping Breastfeeding Your Toddler
When the time feels right for you to cut down or stop breastfeeding your toddler, these top tips will help guide you through a smooth transition.
The most important thing is to do what feels suitable for you and your toddler. If you aren’t sure whether the time is right or what you want, talking to a breastfeeding counsellor can help.
Whenever you choose to stop breastfeeding, support is available – see our contacts page for more details.
If you’d like to cut down or stop breastfeeding, it’s good to plan this for when your family is not expecting any significant changes.
When there’s nothing like a house move or starting preschool ahead of you.
If you start the transition and it doesn’t go smoothly, you could take a break and try again later. You might do this if your toddler is ill and they need the comfort of breastfeeding.
Natural Term Weaning
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years old and beyond.
Some mums are happy to be led by their child and continue to breastfeed until their little one stops. This is sometimes called the natural term weaning.
If you take this approach, you can probably expect a toddler to cut down feeds gradually over months or longer until, eventually, they stop altogether.
Again, do what feels suitable for you and your child.
As stopping breastfeeding can sometimes be an emotional time for you and your toddler, it can help to cut down breastfeeds gradually over time.
This will also help your body adjust and prevent your breasts from becoming too full. If your breasts are too full, it could lead to mastitis – a painful and potentially serious infection in the breast.
You could start by replacing a specific breastfeed of the day with suitable alternative milk.
This must be formula milk if your child is under one year old, but it can be cow’s milk or similar if they are older than one.
Over time, you can gradually cut out more breastfeeds one by one.
If your child is over one year old, the chances are they’re keen to try alternative milk out of a cup.
Drinking from a cup is better for children who are older than one year as it prevents comfort from sucking on a bottle which can lead to tooth decay!
You should also introduce them to other kinds of milk like soy milk or oat milk because toddlers often enjoy drinking cow’s milk and having snacks when breastfeeding isn’t an option.
Be sure not to give rice drinks though – these aren’t recommended for under 5s since there have been reports that this kind of drink may be linked with calcium deficiency in growing bodies.
It’s important to offer alternative milk rather than replace breastfeeding with a snack.
This will help prevent dehydration and aid digestion.
Change Your Routine
When you reduce breastfeeds, it can help introduce a new routine so the old way doesn’t remind them of breastfeeding.
For example, if your little one likes to lie in bed for a morning breastfeed, you could try getting up swiftly and having breakfast together instead.
If you would like to cut out a bedtime feed at night, you could encourage your partner to put your toddler to bed.
You may find your toddler readily accepts a different bedtime routine. They might like a warm cup of suitable milk and a bedtime story instead before brushing their teeth and saying goodnight.
Distraction and Postponement
You might be surprised at how easy it is to distract toddlers. You could use distraction on your toddler to postpone breastfeed when you’re out, for example.
Often they will accept a change like this quite quickly, especially if you’re consistent – perhaps by saying ‘when we get home’ or ‘at bedtime’.
You may be able to distract your toddler with an offer of an exciting activity like a trip to the park instead of breastfeeding.
‘Don’t Offer, Don’t Refuse.’
This method can help cut down breastfeeding gently and lead to your child stopping breastfeeding gradually over time.
All you need to do is no longer actively offer breastfeeds. Don’t refuse it if your toddler asks for a breastfeed but, at the same time, stop offering them breastfeeds as you might have previously.
As your toddler gets older, more energetic and involved in activities, you might notice they naturally stop asking as often.
This method can lead to you gently and gradually stopping breastfeeding.
Explain the Changes
Some parents find it helpful to explain the transition from being a baby to being a toddler to their child. Some use storybooks to help explain.
Others like to chat or sing to their little ones about the changes.
Stopping breastfeeding is part of the process of growing up for your little one, and there are plenty of books available on the subject for toddlers.
If, for example, your toddler still breastfeeds frequently at night and you would like to cut these feeds out, you could read them a storybook on this.
Some children will be OK with this transition and accept it as part of growing up.
Comfort and Cuddles
As well as fulfilling nutritional needs, breastfeeding is one way of offering your toddler emotional support and comfort.
If you’re gradually cutting down breastfeeding or stopping breastfeeding, it might help to give your little one extra cuddles and comfort.
They will appreciate it if you can spend some extra time playing together, chatting to them or sitting reading with them.
Agree on a Timeframe
If you want to stop breastfeeding your older toddler or preschool child altogether, they may agree to stop after a specific date – like their next birthday.
This will depend on your child having a concept of future time. You might need to reinforce by reminding your little one about the stop date as the occasion gets nearer.
Your Feelings About Weaning
You may feel sad, weepy, or even depressed after the last feed, even if you wanted to wean, and it went smoothly and calmly.
These are very natural feelings. Your hormones take time to get back to normal, especially if you have to wean quickly.
Some women do not begin to menstruate immediately, and some even find the return of their ovulation and menstruation is delayed for some months.
Some find that they still have a little bit of milk in their breasts for weeks or months after they wean.
Weaning stirs up many emotions in mums, regardless of the age of the child. The feelings can be intense, especially if weaning is earlier than a mum intended. Talking to other mums can be helpful, as all of us have to wean our children.
You may be surprised to find that your newly weaned baby or toddler behaves differently for a while.
Even if they have taken the initiative and weaned themselves, they still may take a little time to get used to the idea.
Occasionally, they may be clingy or cross, or they may push you away for a short time as they swing between wanting to be a baby again and trying to be independent.
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Again, you might find it helpful to talk to someone about what is happening. Often it helps to share your feelings with a partner or an understanding friend.
Together, you may be able to think of ways to overcome any concerns or challenges to do with weaning your toddler.