Weaning Without Tears: How to Stop Breastfeeding a Toddler
Congratulations, you successfully breastfed your child through the infant phase and well into the toddler years. That’s something you should be incredibly proud of - extended breastfeeding takes a lot of commitment and dedication.
But now that your child is older, how do you stop?
Toddlers are notorious for their tantrums and their unyielding desire to get their way, so it’s likely that you’re expecting the process of weaning to be tear-filled and difficult.
Thankfully, it’s possible to stop nursing your older child without all the drama. Here’s how.
What Should I Know Before I Wean My Toddler?
Before you begin the actual weaning process, there are a few things you need to know about your child’s nutrition, factors related to a toddler’s developmental stage, and the physical effects of weaning on your own body.
How Will It Affect Their Nutrition?
One of the first things you’re probably concerned about at the prospect of weaning your toddler is their nutrition. It’s impossible to know how much volume they’re getting from you on a regular basis - some mothers may be producing nearly nothing, while others may be producing quite a bit of milk.
Regardless, what you should focus on is making sure that you’re offering plenty additional calories throughout the day when you’re weaning your child. Extended breastfeeding provides your child with quite a bit of additional calories, nutrients, and fat (source). As you remove your milk as a food source, you’ll need to make sure your child is receiving those things through the food that you offer.
However, don’t get so caught up in tracking your child’s food intake that you make yourself crazy. The amount toddlers eat varies greatly from one day to the next - some days it seems they eat next to nothing, while other days they eat more than a fully-grown adult. Recognize that this wild variance is normal and you should not expect your toddler to sit down and eat a well-balanced meal every time they come to the table.
Instead, strive for a balanced nutritional week. Children’s bodies are amazing and they will eat what they need; your job is simply to make a variety of foods available at regular intervals and their job is to decide whether to eat, and how much they’d like (source).
How Will It Affect Their Development?
For toddlers, rituals and routines provide them with a sense of security and predictability as they go through their day (source). For your breastfeeding toddler, nursing may have become part of this routine and contributes to their sense of stability.
Therefore, it’s important to understand that as you wean you will need to find a way to reinforce their need for security after breastfeeding has been removed. You can do this by identifying a nursing substitute. It may be an oral replacement, or simply a soothing activity. Some ideas for a substitute are:
When your child asks to nurse at a time when the breast is no longer available to them because you’ve either dropped certain nursing sessions or you’ve weaned altogether, offer them their special substitute. You know your child best; choose something that they will enjoy and that will help comfort them.
It is also helpful that, at this age, your child is still easily distracted (source). This means that when your child becomes upset about not being permitted to nurse, distraction by substitution can be a great strategy to placate them.
What Are The Physical Effects To Me?
As you wean, it’s important to be mindful that as stressful as it is for your toddler, it can also be stressful on your body. Your breasts are a milk factory which are accustomed to producing milk for your toddler. As your breasts are emptied, they produce more to keep the supply in line with the demand.
As you decrease your nursing length and frequency, your body will respond accordingly and begin reducing its supply. However, abrupt weaning has the potential to cause breast engorgement, clogged milk ducts (which can be painful), and mastitis (if they become infected).
Clogged milk ducts have the following symptoms (source):
a small, hard spot in the breast
swelling or bruising
localized breast tenderness
a hot feeling in the breast
If you have a clogged milk duct, massage it to try and release the milk, place warm compresses on it, and continue nursing from that side until the clogged duct is resolved.
If the discomfort persists and you develop any of the following symptoms, contact your physician as you may have mastitis, which is an infection requiring antibiotics (source):
discharge (pus) from the breast
quick onset of very ill feeling
How Can I Wean My Toddler?
Now that you know everything you need to know about the science behind weaning a toddler - here are the 6 steps you should follow.
1. Get Committed to the Process.
Mom, the first step is yours alone. While weaning will free you of the physical burden of nursing, it can also be an unexpected emotional journey for you once you realize the days of intense physical connection with your child are coming to an end.
Prepare yourself before jumping in and decide that you are ready and committed - if you begin the process and then decide to back off, it can make things more difficult the next time you try to wean.
2. Talk to Your Toddler.
By the time your child is a toddler, they can understand a lot of things. And if they’re creeping toward preschool age, they can be reasoned with.
Talk with your child often about how breastfeeding is for babies and they are growing up and becoming a big kid. Let them know that soon there will be a time that they will no longer be allowed to nurse.
3. Stop On-Demand Nursing.
Every mother-child relationship is different. By this age, many toddlers will have fallen into a routine and will expect nursing sessions at set times (after waking, before nap, at bedtime).
However, if this is not the case in your home and you nurse at irregular intervals based on your child’s request, it’s time to stop.
If your child asks to breastfeed outside of what you deem “regular” breastfeeding sessions, gently tell them no - but offer the substitute that you have identified and reassure them that you will be happy to nurse them later, before their nap.
4. Shorten Nursing Sessions.
While your body isn’t likely to be producing a large volume of milk, gradually tapering off your nursing is a good idea both for your child’s emotional adjustment as well as your physical comfort.
Depending on how much you produce, your body may need to gradually reduce its milk output to avoid engorgement, discomfort, and blocked milk ducts.
Reduce your nursing sessions by one minute per day until your child nurses for three minutes or less. If your child is upset when the nursing session ends before they’d like it to, offer them the substitute you have identified.
5. Drop Nursing Sessions One By One.
Starting with your daytime nursing sessions, drop them one by one. Drop one nursing session per week to allow both your body and your child time to adjust. This step will vary from mother to mother - some may still be nursing five times per day, while others may only be nursing twice.
Generally, the bedtime nursing session is the most difficult one to drop as children use it primarily for self-soothing and comfort before going to sleep. Drop this one last.
If your child fusses and asks to breastfeed at a time when you’ve already dropped that nursing session, offer them the substitute.
Don’t give in and allow them a “quick nurse” as this will reinforce to your child that their pleading is effective and can make it more difficult the next time you try to say no.
6. Tag Team With a Partner.
When you’re ready to drop your final nursing session, it’s time to rally the troops. Have a partner (husband/wife/mom/friend) take over bedtime duty - many children will forget that breastfeeding is even an option if mom isn’t there to ask.
Make sure your sidekick is on the same page about not giving in to the child’s pleas, and that they know about the acceptable substitutes to offer if the child asks about breastfeeding.
Weaning Your Toddler Successfully
To summarize, here are the 6 steps to successfully wean your toddler:
- Make a commitment to the process.
- Talk to your toddler about the changes.
- Stop on-demand and irregular nursing.
- Shorten your nursing sessions.
- Reduce your nursing sessions one by one.
- Have your partner take over bedtime duty.
Weaning a toddler can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. If you have a rock-solid strategy before you begin, wean slowly, and offer a comforting substitute to your child, you can stop breastfeeding with the drama at a minimum.
Do you have any tips for weaning an older child? Share this with a mama who needs it!