Gentle Weaning for Toddlers
Most babies are usually weaned from breast milk around one year of age. However, there are some babies who are quite reluctant to give up nursing. This is their special time with their mom – the person who is THE most important human in their life. Around the age of one as the infant enters toddlerhood, s/he realizes that they are not an appendage of their mother and that they are independent in their own right and can assert autonomy. The personal closeness and the one-on-one attention that the child gets from mother is hard to give up. Most children – toddlers especially – resist change and transitioning away from mom’s breast can be especially hard. The toddler does not want this special connection to end and will exert whatever power s/he has to control the situation in her/his favor. Of course, this resistance is very hard on the mother and the breast feeding continues.
Although breastfeeding is a personal choice, for toddlers it should not replace solid food. Toddlers grow rapidly and have a high need for food which will sustain their growth. Breast milk is perfect for the growing infant; however, it cannot substitute the variety of nutrients that solid food provides to the rapidly growing toddler by means of fresh or cooked vegetables, protein, grains, fruit and dairy products. When the toddler refuses to eat solid food and chooses to nurse only, s/he may not gain weight or grow as s/he may be deficient on the nutrients which are provided by solid food – so crucial in building immunity, strong bones and muscles. If the toddler insists on nursing and physical closeness, s/he should be steered towards eating her/his meal first and after that a short but special snuggle nursing time may be allowed with the goal being to wean the child off the breast.
The steps below may help towards gentle weaning…
*It is important to note here that sometimes these suggestions will work for your toddler and other times you may need to adjust your strategy. Consistency is the key. Gentle weaning takes time and patience and slowly your toddler will understand that although s/he loves to be close to you physically – it does not only mean nursing.
Solid Foods – Spend time at the table to eat and enjoy your meal with your family and especially your toddler. Toddlers eat slowly – allow adequate time for her/him to finish the meal and not leave the table hungry. Encouraging assistance from your toddler in meal preparation is important in enjoying the meal and then actually sitting down together and eating. Assisting the child and teaching her/him to eat independently will encourage the child to eat more age appropriate food. Encouraging drinking milk and all fluids from a cup at this age is also important.
Physical separation from your child – As toddlers get older they are learning a variety of skills at school. Similarly, we encourage you to set up a small area in your home where your child can freely access activities and games which encourage cognition, repetition, concentration, and fine motor skill development. If your toddler gets closer and insists on nursing only, gently steer her/him away to some fun activities such as painting with water, playdough, puzzles, help in emptying the dishwasher, sorting laundry etc. – activities you can both do together – side by side. Such tasks will help steer the toddler towards other options besides nursing. Feel free to spend one-on-one time by reading a book however; if your goal is to coach your child away from nursing, you may need to assert that this is not an appropriate time to nurse such as “this is reading time only”.Keep them busy and give them lots of attention and cuddles.
Night weaning– This can be a huge stepin transitioning away from nursing. If your child has her/his own room, and your expectation is for her/him to sleep through the night, then it is important to stay with the child while s/he falls asleep, but not nurse while sleeping. This would be a good age to teach the child that once teeth are brushed – the only drink allowed is water and then it’s time to sleep.
Setting boundaries – You do not have to breastfeed your child every second that they ask for it. Toddlers have the ability to understand spoken language and if you are planning on weaning her/him off you can say “this is my body, you are too old to nurse. If you’d like milk, I can get you a cup.” Communication is the key. Talking in short, simple sentences will help you get the message across. This however, is the mother’s choice. If you are planning on weaning your toddler, you have to set an end date move forward from there. It is too confusing and stressful on the child if s/he is allowed one day (for a variety of reasons) and refused on others.
What if my toddler doesn’t want to stop breastfeeding?Jan Barger -lactation consultant
If you really want or need to wean your toddler, start by putting limits on where and when you breastfeed. Tell your child, “We only breastfeed in this chair at nap time and bedtime,” or “We only breastfeed when it’s dark outside.”
When you’re at the point when you want to quit entirely, you simply tell your toddler, “You’re a big boy (or girl) now, and we aren’t going to nurse anymore. We can snuggle together, and I’m always here for hugs, but we won’t be breastfeeding anymore.” And then stick to your guns. There’s nothing more confusing to a child this age than inconsistency.
Be prepared for some tears. Be loving but firm. If you tell your toddler it’s time to quit breastfeeding, and then give in to tears, it will be that much harder the next time you decide to stop.