Weaning the Older Nursling

By Ellen Rubin, IBCLC

“When are you going to wean that child?”

Despite the world-wide weaning age of two years plus, nursing mothers in the United States often hear that question much earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding, followed by breastfeeding and an introduction of solids throughout second half of the first year and beyond, for however long mother and child desire. The World Health Organization recommends at least two years. Technically, the weaning process begins as soon as any food is offered other than breastmilk – usually around 6 months of age – however how long a child continues to nurse is a decision between the child, mother, and family.

There are several different weaning approaches. In child-led weaning, children will naturally begin to nurse less as they grow older and develop other interests. Just as a child has a drive to learn to crawl, walk, and meet other developmental milestones, if left alone, weaning from the breast will come naturally as well. Rest assured that breastmilk will continue to provide superb nutritional and immune benefits no matter the age of the child.

Sometimes weaning is mother-led, due to a desire stop nursing. Consider, however, the reasons for weaning – if the focus is on encouraging the child to become more independent, sleep through the night, or eat more solids, weaning does not necessarily make any of these goals more likely. Mothers may find that a partial weaning, such as from night times only, achieves their goals.

Whatever the reason, we’d like to support happy nursing memories for both the child and the Mom and this is best achieved through a gradual weaning. This will also decrease the chance of physical discomfort for the mother and give the child time to develop other skills to meet their needs. If a mother desires to promote weaning, there are several techniques that you can employ. These can be introduced gradually as opportunities arise and supplement a child-led weaning. Mothers can use the techniques in a more planned way with the goal of speeding the weaning process.

Gentle Weaning Techniques:

  • Lengthen the time between nursing sessions – Keep in mind that this needs to be expressed in toddler terms like “We’ll nurse in the morning” is a concept that is difficult for a little person to understand when you’re working on night weaning. Translate the time into a visual your child can appreciate such as “we’ll nurse again when the sun comes up”.
  • Shorten the amount of time at the breast – Again, help make this predictable for your nursling by describing the length of time. For example, you may tell him he can nurse for as long as it takes you to sing the alphabet. The mother can choose to sing the song quickly – or slowly. Once a young child gets used to this idea, you’ll have the added bonus of teaching the alphabet and he may even come off the breast on his own to join in with the “x, y, z!”
  • Give your child choices – sometimes a child will want to nurse in order to get your attention. This is a compliment! If you’d like to encourage weaning, give him a choice, “We can read a book together, or we can nurse. Which would you like to do?” Be prepared to act on his choice and, either way, honor his request to spend time together.
  • Predict and prepare – do you anticipate your child will want to nurse following his afternoon nap? Be prepared with a snack or a new library book and offer these alternatives.
  • Keep your promises – your child may be willing to delay a nursing session if she knows that she can count on you. If you say that there will be time to nurse after your read a book together, be prepared to follow through on this offer – even if she has forgotten. She may no longer be interested, but will benefit from knowing you have her desires in mind.
  • Be aware of nursing triggers – when you sit down in a particular chair, do you find that your child is more eager to nurse? Evaluate whether your child has certain nursing triggers and, if you desire to cut down on nursing, consider ways to avoid these triggers or meet your child’s needs in a different way.
  • Discuss weaning – some toddlers or older nurslings may be able to have a discussion or even set a goal for when they’d like to wean from the breast. This is certainly a type of graduation and may even deserve a celebration of the milestone when it is achieved.
  • Don’t offer, don’t refuse – offering to nurse can work magic for a child who is upset OR for a Mom who wants some quiet time while she talks on the phone. Examine when you are likely to offer to nurse and what other resources may be available to meet your child’s needs. Wait for her to indicate a desire to nurse rather than offering.
  • Watch your child’s behaviors – sometimes the weaning process goes too quickly for your child and you may notice the desire to nurse becoming more of a power struggle or your child may adopt unproductive behaviors. It is fine to take a few steps back and allow your child to nurse more frequently for a time, before introducing weaning techniques again.

Ellen Rubin is an IBCLC at our Squirrel Hill Office.