Weaning Your Toddler
Perhaps you had some challenges in the beginning, but now that your baby has grown into a toddler, breastfeeding is well-established and going well. You’re proud to have given your child such a great start in life, and now you’ve decided to wean.
How you approach weaning will depend, in part, for the reasons behind the decision. If it is because you need to take a medication that would not be safe for the toddler, or because you are pregnant and at risk, you may have a tight timeline to follow. If it is because you are pregnant and would simply prefer to avoid breastfeeding two, you can take things more slowly. And if you have chosen to wean because, well, you don’t want to keep breastfeeding, you can be as flexible as you are comfortable with.
In weaning a toddler, it’s important to remember that breastfeeding means much more than milk to a child this age. It’s her source of comfort, her way of connecting when the two of you have been apart, her guaranteed cure when she’s feeling sick, scared or sleepy. So you will need to replace the milk she’s been taking in, but you’ll also need to find other ways to replace the emotional side of breastfeeding.
• Before you begin weaning, try to have in place some other ways to comfort and reassure your toddler. Does he like to be rocked in a rocking chair, have his hair stroked, be sung to? Does he use a pacifier or have a special toy or blanket to cuddle? Be prepared to give your child more of these other ways of connecting once you start weaning.
• You might be surprised by the amount of milk your toddler is taking when he nurses, even if it is only a few times a day. Think about how you can increase his intake of liquids and nutritious solids to make up for the milk he’s missing.
• If you need to wean quickly, you may need to pump or hand-express to prevent plugged ducts and mastitis. Weaning gradually gives your milk supply a chance to decrease over time.
• Avoid starting to wean (when possible) if your toddler is sick, or if he is going through other stressful events in his life (starting daycare, moving to a new home, dealing with a new sibling, etc.)
• Start with “don’t offer, don’t refuse.” If your child doesn’t ask to nurse, don’t offer the breast (even at times when you normally would, such as when he’s hurt or tired). But if he does ask, go ahead and nurse. For some toddlers, this is enough to lead to a gradual weaning.
• If he continues to ask frequently, try distraction. If you know he often asks when he’s bored, for example, have some interesting new toys hidden away to bring out when he starts tugging at your shirt. Often going out to a park or being busy with other activities can reduce the requests to nurse.
• You can also try delaying if your toddler is old enough to understand the concept. When he asks to nurse, say “we’ll nurse after lunch” or “after Daddy gets home.” By then, he might have forgotten all about it.
• Try wearing clothes that don’t give easy access to your breasts, and telling the toddler he’ll have to wait because you wore the wrong dress.
• The last nursings to go are often the ones first thing in the morning and at bedtime. You can sometimes avoid those morning nursing times by waking up early and being dressed and involved in some activity when your toddler gets up. At bedtime, look for other ways to respond to your child’s need for closeness and comfort at the end of the day.
Be as patient as possible with your toddler! Weaning rarely goes in a straight line – you may find that one day he’s fine with only nursing two or three times, and the next he’s begging to nurse all day long. Remember, they do all wean in the end, even if mom does nothing at all to make it happen. Your child will too.
Teresa Pitman has been helping breastfeeding mothers for more than 30 years as a La Leche League Leader; she is also a trained doula and childbirth educator. Teresa’s writing on parenting topics has appeared in Mothering, Today’s Parent, Parents Canada, Pregnancy, Baby and Toddler, New Beginnings, Breastfeeding Today, Newborn, Leaven and other publications. She’s also the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Pregnancy and Birth (with Dr. Joyce Barrett), Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding (with Dr. Jack Newman), and the 8th edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Her newest book Preparing to Breastfeed: A Pregnant Woman’s Guide (working title) will be published this summer.
Teresa is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of five. Grandchild number six is due in May!