I shared the story of my daughter Hannah’s weaning at 34 months a little over 6 months ago. The post touches on the incredibly mixed feelings I felt when I made this decision. I think that this is common for many mothers who are breastfeeding older toddlers and preschoolers. On the one hand, you may not particularly enjoy nursing anymore, at least not all the time. But on the other hand, you often rely on it in many ways – to soothe tears, as a chance to sit down, or a way to reconnect with your child after a day at work. And you may also feel that your child enjoys it and relies on it, too, and fear what weaning will mean to your little one. These mixed feelings were difficult for me to grapple with, and one of the biggest personal challenges that I faced when I considered weaning.
One of the things that I discovered is that weaning is not all-or-nothing, it is a process with many steps and stages. This is especially when you’re weaning a toddler with their own thoughts on the matter. And many (if not most) people start by partially weaning, placing parameters around nursing to limit it. Night weaning is a common first step, in which a mom nurses her child to sleep and then uses other methods to help the kiddo get back to sleep if he or she wakes. Others use ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’, in which the mother does not initiate nursing, but does not refuse the child’s request to nurse. Some people set a length of time for a nursing session or an upper limit on the number of nursing sessions each day, or decide to only nurse at home.
Hannah began sleeping through the night on her own when her last molars came in, at around 27 months. But even before that she didn’t wake much at night, and it was pretty manageable for me. So, I have never night weaned. However, I have tried most other methods.
I started off the weaning process with ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’, because it seemed both easy and gentle to me. And it was both of those things, at least for Hannah. As for me, I discovered just how much I relied on breastfeeding in my daily life. The kid is grumpy? Breastfeed. I need to make a phone call? Breastfeed. I want to watch a TV show? Breastfeed. We’re bored and it’s raining outside? Breastfeed. The truth is that weaning was as much about me as it was about my child.
As we progressed through weaning, I found that I felt excessively irritable while I was nursing my daughter. I’ve spoken with some other mothers who felt the same way, so it seems to be normal. This is totally my own theory, but having watched a mother cat wean, I suspect this irritability is at play amongst all mammals. Whatever caused it, when I was feeling this way I found that limiting the length of a nursing session helped. I would nurse only for length of time it took me to sing the ABCs, adjusting the speed based on my feelings, and my toddler was generally fine with that.
Eventually, I knew that I did not want to breastfeed as frequently anymore. I decided to limit the number of feeds each day. I chose what I felt were the three most important nursing sessions for Hannah, and I explained the new arrangement to her. And she pretty much understood. As for me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that limiting the number of nursing sessions made breastfeeding much more manageable for me. And I think that’s a good thing, because breastfeeding is a relationship. As a child gets older, it changes and shifts and it’s totally reasonable to make adjustments so that it works for everyone.
Partially weaning is both a way-point on the path to weaning, and a state in and of itself. Eventually all children wean somehow or another. It is an inevitability. Placing limits and experimenting with tactics can help make that process easier on everyone. However, they can also make breastfeeding itself easier on everyone. Many people find that placing a few limits on a young toddler’s nursing helps them to continue breastfeeding when they thought they were done. The counter-intuitive truth is that partial weaning can sometimes be a way to extend breastfeeding.
Weaning brings up a lot of mixed feelings. It can be confusing and conflicting and uncertain, for adults and children alike. I believe that there is no one else in the world who can tell you when, how, or for how long you should breastfeed. It is a decision that you alone can make, taking the needs of yourself and your nursling into account. You will not get a gold star if you breastfeed for 6 years, and you will not receive my condemnation if it doesn’t work out for you. The good news is that you set your own rules. Whenever and however you wean, or partially wean, or never wean, as long as you are doing your best for your children they will be OK. And that is the most important thing, really.