Adrienne Koznek, IBCLC
Breastfeeding is a journey, and may take on many different variations throughout its course. For many mothers, the decision to wean is a highly emotional one. Unfortunately, some mothers have to wean abruptly and unexpectedly for a number of reasons. If this is the case, I highly recommend talking to an IBCLC about how to do this in a way that won’t compromise your health. However, if your baby is no longer a baby and you’re ready to move on to another phase of life together, it can and should be done gently and with love and care.
Weaning actually refers to the process of introducing anything other than breast milk. Technically speaking, introducing solid foods is the beginning of the weaning process; however, breastfeeding generally tends to not be affected by the introduction of solids. For these purposes, I’m referring to “weaning” as the time when you and your child stop breastfeeding completely.
In general, toddlers and older children will not need to be “weaned onto” a bottle at this time. Toddlers are capable of using sippy cups, so if you decide to give your babe a mama’s milk alternative (such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or a nut milk) I recommend using one of these. Some moms will offer expressed breast milk in a cup and kiddo will take that, but again, that’s up to you.
So what’s your first step? Be gentle with yourself. Not only is this an emotional time because your breastfeeding journey is coming to an end, but your hormones will be affected by weaning as well, which can certainly affect your emotions. When weaning, your prolactin (the hormone that allows your body to make breast milk) levels drop, as well as your oxytocin (the “love hormone”) levels. Some mothers experience some sadness and depression with weaning; this is normal and can be alleviated. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to work through this is you need some extra support. Vitality NW offers a postpartum support group for mothers. This is a great resource for you as you go through your weaning journey.
La Leche League likes to recommend the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” method of gentle weaning. I have seen this work nicely for many moms and their little ones. If your kiddo still asks to nurse several times a day, consider using distraction as a tool. Offer a healthy snack, an activity, or a cup of water. Sometimes all it takes is to get the kiddo excited to do something else together, like reading a book. When they’re asking to nurse, they are craving closeness. Continue that closeness. It’s not about taking something away from your child; it’s about replacing something with something new. Weaning from breastfeeding provides you with options to explore new ways to bond with your child while still meeting their needs, and in turn, gives you a way to explore new boundaries with them.
When weaning, setting boundaries around nursing is key. Some moms will say “we will nurse for _____ seconds and then be done” and this meets their child’s need for comfort in that moment while still maintaining an expectation. Others will nurse for the length of a song, or set a timer. As you continue this method, you can shorten the length of time. Gentle changes have better outcomes than unexpected and abrupt changes; that is to say, you may find your child will be more tolerant of the process this way.
If it’s an option that you’re comfortable with, consider taking a night or two away. This is obviously a total luxury and privilege for many mothers, but some moms do find success with weaning if they’re simply not around. Out of sight, out of mind. if this isn’t an option or you’re not comfortable with it, tap into your resources and have someone else (partner, babysitter, etc) do bedtime routines for a couple of nights. Many little ones simply aren’t interested in nursing if mama’s not there. Additionally, they may not be interested in waking up to nurse if they don’t think they’ll get to nurse. Kids are smart – they know what they want!
I would advise against weaning at the same time as any other big changes in their lives. Moving, starting daycare, even moving into a big kid bed could be just enough to rock their little world, and they may still need nursing as their comfort and connection. Again, you’ll know when the time is right.
Trying to get your child to night wean? I highly recommend the Jay Gordon method of night weaning (http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html). At no point are you ever depriving or harming your child when practicing this gentle method of weaning. You are still meeting their needs every step of the way. It may not be easy, but few parts of parenting are.
Some mothers choose to select a nursing session they would prefer to drop, and do that for a couple of days. Once that session has been dropped, pick another session, and so on. For example, if you want to stop nursing at bedtime, remove that nursing session and replace with some other form of closeness: offer a healthy bedtime snack, snuggle, read a book. The goal is to teach your little one to not associate nursing with sleeping anymore. This will not happen overnight, and that’s ok! These things can take time. After a few days of no longer nursing at bedtime, you pick another time you’d like to drop (maybe a mid-day session, or nap time).
It’s important to be honest and gentle with your child through this time. While they may not completely understand what’s going on (they may be thinking, why on Earth would mama take away my favorite thing?), they will understand when you are gentle and kind with them. Affection, touch, snuggles, and hugs are more important than ever when weaning. Again, it’s never about taking anything away; it’s about replacing with new things. Some examples of ways to talk about weaning with your child are:
“Mama’s milk is for babies, and you’re not a baby anymore”
“The milk isn’t available now, would you like a snack?”
“There’s no more milk because you’re a big kid now”
And so on. You know your child best, so you will know what will resonate with them.
A gradual weaning process is far safer for your breast health. Abrupt weaning can lead to plugged ducts and/or mastitis. If you begin to experience symptoms of mastitis (achiness, flu-like symptoms, hard spots in breast, red streaks) contact an IBCLC for remedies to resolve this. Some cases of mastitis do not require medical treatment. (Note: always talk to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing a fever in conjunction with other mastitis symptoms).
Whether you breastfed for two months or 2 years, you have given your child an amazing gift and an excellent start to life. There’s no time when a child doesn’t benefit in some way from breast milk – antibodies to boost their immune system and protect them against infection are always there, in addition to essential vitamins. As a mother, you will know when it’s time for you and your babe to move on from nursing. If you’re struggling with the process, reach out to other moms who have been there. Talk to an IBCLC or a breastfeeding peer counselor. Weaning is a journey, just like breastfeeding!