Tips for Weaning
By the time my breastfed son celebrated his first birthday, I was ready to wean him. He did not, however, share my feelings. Forget security blankets, pacifiers, and teddy bears. My son's attachment object was literally attached to me -- and he was not going to give it up without a fight.
Exhibit A: Jonah attempting to pull up my shirt to nurse while we waited in line at the supermarket. He knew what he wanted and, like most toddlers, wasn't shy about making his demands known in the loudest possible tones, if necessary. Three years earlier, I had nearly as difficult a time weaning my daughter at 20 months.
This was not exactly what I envisioned when I committed to breastfeeding. Like most parents, I wanted to do what was best for my children. So when I learned, in the first blush of motherhood, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for the first year of baby's life (the World Health Organization favors a two-year minimum), I simply bought more nursing bras.
It certainly wasn't hard labor. I loved the quiet intimacy of nursing. What I wasn't prepared for was how difficult it can be to wean an older child. While babies are relatively malleable -- and even seem to lose interest in nursing at around 9 months -- toddlers, well, they have their passions. Weaning them can be a parenting ordeal right up there with potty training. "If you haven't weaned your child by 18 months, it's very difficult to do so until about 36 months," says Ruth Lawrence, MD, a professor of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.
That's not to suggest that women should break out the bottles or cups before they're ready. I have no regrets about having nursed my kids for as long as I did, and not only because it was a precious part of our day. The well-documented benefits of breast milk continue beyond babyhood.
According to one study, about 11 percent of nursing moms are still breastfeeding their babies at a year, a number that has been steadily rising. So weaning a toddler is a challenge that a small but growing number of mothers are likely to confront.
Brace for a Battle
Before you even begin the weaning process, it helps to understand how your toddler's mind works. "Toddlers don't like to be told what to do," says Claire B. Kopp, PhD, author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child's Social, Physical, and Emotional Development in the First Two Years (Owl Books, 2003). "In the second year of life, children begin to understand that they have an identity and needs and wants, but they don't have much ability to control their impulses."
Lisa Ellrodt, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, experienced toddler impulses firsthand when she weaned her daughter, Molly, at age 2. When she tried to limit the number of times she nursed over the course of a day, Molly struck back -- literally. "She would get really angry. Sometimes she'd punch me," recalls Ellrodt, "or say, 'I hate you, Mommy.' It was pretty difficult."
I'll never forget when I first cut out a feeding from my then-14-month-old daughter's nursing schedule. Distraction, according to the parenting books I pored over, is a key weaning strategy. Determined to divert my daughter's attention from me, I took her to a local playground when she usually nursed. She would have none of it. Instead of climbing and sliding, she threw herself on the ground, kicking and crying in a classic display of toddler fury.
Part of what made the process so challenging (and protracted) was my own ambivalence. Even as I persevered with weaning, I worried desperately that I was denying my children something they truly needed, not nutritionally but emotionally. I imagined them, years hence, on the couch, describing their rejecting mother to their respective shrinks. But I had little reason to worry, insists Tasha R. Howe, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. "Parents think every choice they make is going to have lifelong implications," she says. "Your child's relationship with you is based on the sum total of your attachment relationship, which starts in infancy and covers the whole life span." In short, a few rough days or nights won't shatter your kid's faith in you. (For that, we have adolescence to look forward to.)
In fact, not bowing to your toddler's every desire will help him develop essential coping skills. "If every time your child cries, you give him the breast, he's not learning to do any emotional self-regulation," Howe explains. "Sometimes parents don't realize that, if they let their child cry for 30 seconds, he will learn to soothe himself on his own."
Don't expect to wean your child overnight. "Most toddlers don't react well to massive changes in their daily activities," says Kopp. Take a gradual approach. Carol Huotari, a certified lactation consultant and manager of the Center for Breastfeeding Information at La Leche League International, recommends subtracting one feeding a week. "Eliminate the least important nursing session first," she advises. "If you're nursing four times a day, you'll be done in a month." Of course, your child won't be happy about this change at first -- when I dropped my son's morning feeding, he retaliated by beginning his day in a terrible snit -- but hang in there.
The accompanying crankiness rarely lasts more than three or four days, reassures Howe. Of course, for some children (and moms) eliminating one feeding a week may feel too fast. I was a big believer in the slow-but-steady approach. (Emphasis on the slow.) I would cut out a feeding, practically doing handsprings to distract my child from the change in routine, then wait several weeks or longer before girding myself to subtract another. I confess that, from start to finish, it took me about a year to wean Jonah.
I might have fared better if I had used some more creative distractions. For instance, if you're cutting out a morning feeding, suggests Huotari, "replace it with a fun breakfast food, such as Mickey Mouse pancakes. Or put a scoop of ice cream on top of a bowl of cereal." It also helps to engage your toddler's natural desire for self-sufficiency. Take him shopping to choose a special cup for milk and allow him to pour the white stuff himself. To minimize messes, you can buy mini milk cartons, empty half into a jar, and let your toddler pour the rest into his cup, suggests Kopp.
During the weaning process, it's important to keep your child from getting too hungry. You'll want to be sure he's already eating more solids. And make a point of offering him milk or something to eat before he gets ravenous, which sets him up for a meltdown.
If your child asks for milk, always offer him a cup from the refrigerator first, even if it would be much easier to nurse. For that matter, opt for clothes that don't allow easy access to your breasts; overalls and dresses can be your ally. At night, suggests Huotari, wear a nightgown that buttons up high.
If your child's response to the change in routine erupts into a tantrum, you can try reasoning with her. Depending on your toddler's verbal skills, you can appeal to her sense of pride and say, "Big girls drink out of a cup!" Or set limits and explain, "We don't nurse in public anymore" or "We don't nurse at night anymore." If that doesn't work, take a deep breath and keep your cool. "It's not easy to convince a toddler of anything," says Howe. "But ignoring tantrums usually helps if no amount of talking will." Once the storm has blown over, let your child know that while you can't always nurse, there are other nice things you can do together. Then let her choose an activity.
In fact, it's important to spend more time with your toddler doing one-on-one activities to replace the closeness lost from nursing. Extra cuddling is definitely in order. For my daughter, nestling in my lap with a book eased the pain. She wasn't happy, at least not at first, but she accepted the change. If your child refuses to tolerate it, have your husband or another beloved caregiver step up to the plate to provide the cuddling or storytelling.
A break from nursing or a change of scene can also work. That's what helped Jen Rosenberg wean her son, Jesse, at 17 months. She had to go away for four days and hadn't planned to wean him, but Jesse, who was something of a nursing fiend, did surprisingly well in her absence. When she returned in time for the long Thanksgiving weekend, Jen and her husband, Eric, decided to seize the opportunity and have Eric attend to their son at times when Jen would normally breastfeed him. "He didn't miss a beat," says Rosenberg, a mother of two in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "It was harder for me to say goodbye to it."
More Weaning Strategies
Of course, some children are particularly resistant. Bribery is always a last resort, but when all else fails, this strategy packs a wallop. The promise of an awesome present when he finally stopped nursing seemed to help Jonah through some especially rough patches. (Who knew that such a milestone could be reached for the price of a child-size guitar?) The bribery tactic was an idea I'd adapted from a woman I know who used chocolate candy to encourage her 2-1/2-year-old son to stop nursing. (A cup of chocolate milk is a more nutritious alternative.) She also promised and eventually threw her son a party, complete with cake, favors, and presents, to celebrate his successful weaning.
For Ellrodt, a piece of candy or a toy was just not going to cut it. Molly was still nursing about five times a day as she approached her third birthday. So Ellrodt decided that on her own 40th birthday, weaning her daughter would be her birthday gift to herself. Her husband went to the local health food store and bought a bottle of oil of cloves, a teething remedy with an unpleasant taste. Ellrodt painted the oil on her breasts and explained to Molly that when mommies turn 40, their milk doesn't taste good anymore. "My strategy was to discourage her, to say, 'Okay, you can nurse, but it's going to taste bad.' This way, she was making the decision. We would avoid a power struggle," says Ellrodt, who furtively reapplied the oil throughout the day. She smelled like a spice rack, but the strategy worked. Within three weeks, Molly was weaned for good.
Don't be surprised if your relief at successfully weaning your toddler is tinged with some sadness. "It's really hard to watch your children lose a piece of babyhood," Ellrodt says. However, no matter how you feel, adds La Leche League's Huotari, "you should be really proud of what you've achieved. Not many women breastfeed for a year or longer."
I certainly see the years I nursed my children as an accomplishment. And I'm equally happy that the weaning process is behind me. Jonah wasn't so sure. For months after he was weaned, he still hoped I'd reconsider. "See bra," he would wheedle. "Just see bra." As if.
Lauren Picker is a writer in New York City and a mother of two.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2004.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.