All good things must come to an end, we suppose. This is true for breastfeeding, too. But how do you decide when to wean your babe? And how do you do it?
First, there is no correct age to wean. It can happen at any point, and some moms will continue to breastfeed toddlers. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least one year, or longer. And the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years.
Child-led weaning, or letting the child set his or her own pace for weaning, works very well. It gives a child a chance to emotionally adjust to a new developmental phase, and given the chance, some babies will in fact continue to nurse well into toddlerhood. Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has even said the natural weaning age is somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years of age.
But if you do need to wean at a specific point, there are a range of approaches. The key is to go slowly. Cut out one feeding at a time, replacing it with either milk or formula (formula for under 12 months, milk for over 12 months), and stick with that routine for a number of days, or even a week. Once your child has adjusted to this new pattern, cut out another feeding. Also, consider following the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” principle. In other words, if you’re cutting out a feeding, don’t offer your breast at that time. But if your baby is insistent, then do let her nurse. If you’re having trouble dropping a feeding, try distracting your baby or changing her routine at the time she would have been nursing. And maybe consider having another caretaker give her a bottle at that time.
Going slowly like this will also help gradually decrease your milk supply, so that you don’t find yourself engorged. (Engorgement can sometimes lead to an infection). If you are engorged, use a pump to relieve some of the pressure.
And our favorite bit of advice, before your nursing days come to an end, have someone take a picture of you and your baby nursing. Even if you’re ready to move on to the next stage, you may someday appreciate this small reminder of a time long ago.
Sometimes, babies go on a nursing strike, and refuse to nurse. But don’t confuse this with weaning. Nursing strikes are sudden and usually only last a few days. They can be caused by changes in a baby’s routine, environment or schedule. Weaning, on the other hand, is gradual.