Hi everyone! This post is one that I’ve simultaneously been looking forward to writing and dreading at the same time. Breastfeeding my little lady was something that was an incredibly important part of our first year. It’s been a big part of our relationship so far. I definitely never thought that this was a post I’d be writing. I was one of those moms who thought, eh, I’ll give breastfeeding a try and see how it goes. At the beginning it was so challenging, I never thought I’d be able to make it to a year. We had all the typical challenges of a poor latch and plugged ducts, and some of the less common ones like bad reflux and a lip tie. Of course, I’m pretty stubborn. Once that goal of hitting a year was in my sights I wasn’t about to let it go. After we got there I wasn’t quite ready to give up the bonding experience of breastfeeding. Much less wrap my head around how to wean a toddler.
Do what works for you
Disclaimer – this is not a post about the amazing benefits of breastfeeding (although there are many!) or a judgement on how long or if anyone else chooses to breastfeed. What works best is different for every mamma and baby combination, and for us, extended breastfeeding worked. It doesn’t work for everyone and that’s just fine. You do you, mamma. At first, I was so laser focused on making it to the one year mark I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I’d need to actually have an exit strategy. However, if you have chosen to breastfeed beyond 12 months, I’m assuming an exit strategy has at least crossed your mind.
If you’ve gotten to this point and are ready to wean a toddler who may have other ideas on the matter, keep on reading.
You might also like: How we survived the first year of nursing
As mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to try putting my quick tips and “Mamma’s List” up front in case you don’t have time to read the entire post. Feel free to pin it and come back later!
Here is my Mamma’s List for how to wean a toddler:
- Realize that this process is hard for you too. Let yourself feel all the feelings, then move on to the next step 🙂
- Make sure you won’t have any physical side effects from weaning. Reduce pumping or feeds gradually (1/week)
- Pick a method (cold turkey, distraction, don’t offer/don’t refuse) or some combination and create a strategy for how you’ll deal when your toddler wants to nurse
- Enlist help from your partner or a friend. You’ll need some help to occupy your little during key nursing time(s)
- Identify the most challenging session to cut. Once you’ve almost fully weaned make sure you aren’t around (or have your handy alternate strategy ready) during that time
- Celebrate by telling your toddler how grown up they are and how proud you are that they no longer need mamma’s milk
What to do when they just won’t quit
Do you remember trying to breastfeed when your little one was only hours or days old? What wouldn’t you have given for a great (pain free) latch and for both you and your child to be so comfortable breastfeeding you could do it with ease, anytime, anywhere. Fast forward 18 months and you almost can’t even remember how difficult it was at first. Your breast is the place where your child is the most comfortable. It’s the place that is comforting, can stop a tantrum in its tracks, is where you reconnect in the morning or after a long day at work, provides reassurance from scary things and new situations, and is quite possibly the nicest place to fall asleep if you need a nap. If I had something I liked to do that provided all those benefits, I probably wouldn’t be so happy to give it up either!
They’ll let you know they want to nurse
Once your toddler reaches a certain age, asks to nurse, and prefers the breast at certain times of day — you’ll likely have some growing pains as you wean. That being said, you don’t have to continue breastfeeding until Kindergarten (unless you want to 🙂 ). When you decide it’s time for both you and your child to wean, it is possible to make it happen painlessly. The biggest challenge we faced when weaning was that little lady made it VERY CLEAR when she wanted to nurse, and wasn’t thrilled when I wasn’t accommodating. Many people are able to just cut down nursing sessions one by one and their children don’t even notice. That definitely wasn’t the case for us – but we still made it through.
It’s harder for you than it is for your child
At first I thought that tapering our nursing was going to be super traumatic for my little because she loved nursing so much. Shockingly, after we weaned I realized that she didn’t even seem to miss it. I was so paranoid I was traumatizing her if I refused to nurse, and it was so easy to give in to something that made her so happy. It took us a long time to fully wean and I think if I’d just pulled the trigger earlier it wouldn’t have made a difference. That being said, you need to make sure you’re both mentally prepared.
I think this milestone was harder for me because I realized we were entering a new phase and that this was just another signal that she really wasn’t my little baby anymore. Although this would have happened whether or not we were still nursing, weaning was a powerful signal for this first time mamma. Recently, seeing her learn exponentially faster somehow helped me move on a little, and I realized that we have so many other new phases to come. Although this one chapter is closed, we have a lifetime for adventures together.
Ok, but how do I actually wean a toddler? I feel like I’m going to be breastfeeding forever!
Trust me, I feel you. I waffled mentally for a few months but was physically ready to stop breastfeeding for awhile before we actually weaned. Many times when I heard my little say “mil” and saw the sign for milk, I wasn’t thrilled to stop what I was doing to immediately oblige. Side note – teaching your child the American Sign Language sign for milk is fantastic. However down the line it can be something that is very difficult to ignore 🙂 To get right to it, you’ll need to make sure you are physically ready to wean when you decide to take the plunge.
Make sure you won’t have any physical side effects
- Wean yourself off the breast pump if you haven’t already done so. I weaned off the pump while at work at ~12.5 months. The best way to do this is by cutting out one pump a day, a week at a time. By that point I wasn’t getting engorged, but I wanted to be careful since I’d been pumping so much.
- Once you’re fully off the pump, decrease the number of nursing feeds per day until you only have the one (or ones) left that baby really doesn’t want to give up. When we weaned I’d gotten down to nursing 1-2 times per day, and never felt a milk let down anymore. I’d already been on vacation and not pumped or nursed for two days a time. Based on that, I knew I wouldn’t have any engorgement issues. I was convinced when she nursed she was only getting sand, but I did occasionally see milk so I knew there was something keeping her interested.
- Once you know you won’t have any physical issues if you wean, the next steps are up to you. At our 15 month appointment our pediatrician told me it was OK to go cold turkey. Since I had a problem saying no when she wanted to nurse that didn’t work for us. However, he assured me that it would be a few days of fussing and then everyone would be fine. If you choose to go this route, hang in there!
- Distract – when your little one asks to nurse, distract them with a favorite book or toy, or move to a location that isn’t one of your popular nursing locations. Change the subject and move on to something else.
- Another popular technique favored as part of “gentle weaning” is Don’t offer – don’t refuse. This worked to get down to the 1-2 times per day at first, but then she wanted to nurse frequently again. Even though I never offered, if I hadn’t refused at all we may have nursed until she was five.
What worked for us:
We used a combination of all of the above. I didn’t offer, I sometimes refused, sometimes allowed, and used a distract at all times technique. If she asked to nurse, I’d ask her if she wanted to play with daddy. Or read a book, or get a cup of milk, or basically anything that didn’t involve me taking my top off.
- Success is easier if you enlist the help of your partner. Although it’s not quite “out of sight out of mind” you’re much less likely to give in and nurse if you don’t enter the picture.
- Don’t sit down. I know this sounds strange, but sitting down is a signal to toddlers that you’re ready to nurse. Maybe you walked around nursing your newborn, but carrying around a 20+ lb. toddler on your breast isn’t usually feasible. This means your nursing sessions take place sitting or laying down. Avoid these triggers for awhile during the weaning process.
What stopping looks like
After a few two day stretches where I was conveniently busy during key nursing times, little lady stopped insisting on milk. Although she did ask a couple of times, I was able to easily distract her. We had a few stretches of multiple days without nursing. Before I knew it we’d gone almost a month and had only nursed a few times. The hardest part for us were those early weekend mornings. Little C was used to coming in bed with us and nursing so I could get more rest. Any time she saw me in bed the first thing she did was ask for milk. Once we’d slowed down nursing, daddy was able to just take her downstairs and distract her in the morning.
The last time she asked to nurse I told her she was such a good girl and that she drank all the milk and it was all done. She said “all done” and made the sign in sign language, and hasn’t asked since. I’m proud of her for making it to this milestone. That doesn’t mean I’m not more than a little sad that this part of her childhood has come to an end. I don’t know if I was more committed to it the last month, or if she was really growing out of nursing. Either way, at 20 months we were successfully able to wean without tears on either side.
Don’t listen to anyone but yourself
Finally – do what works best for you and your child. There are no “rules” for when or how you should end your nursing relationship. Don’t let anyone else make the decision for you. If you hit that golden six week number where the immune system starts building – great! If you breastfeed only until you go back to work, AWESOME. And if you make it that whole first year, congratulations mamma! And if you choose to move beyond the first year into extended breastfeeding, fantastic. You’re not “still” nursing – you’re just nursing. Do what works for your family and everyone will be better off for it.
Once you’ve made it through
Enjoy wearing all those turtlenecks, dresses and other clothing with absolutely NO boob access that has been off the table for so long. I had no idea how many outfits were just off limits if I wanted to nurse. Refresh that closet!
Embrace the fact that you were able to have a breastfeeding relationship with your toddler for so long. Know that while it’s sad that this phase is over, you’ll have so many new phases to look forward to.
Let me know in the comments what worked for you and your littles, or if there were any great strategies I missed!
If you’re interested in how we made it so long, check out my other posts on breastfeeding: