For the record, Dominic weaned at about 32 months, or slightly over 2.5 years.
Definition of ‘Weaning’
“Textbook” definition of weaning is the gradual introduction of another source of nutrients in place of the existing source. In the case of baby care, this means ‘weaning’ starts when you start to introduce solids to your baby. This usually happens at around 4-6 months.
But this is not what I mean by ‘weaning’ here. ‘Weaning’ in this article refers to the termination of breastfeeding. This can happen anytime from the 1st month to the 7th year of your baby’s life or even beyond.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that no child be fully weaned before the age of two. The AAP recommends a minimal breastfeeding time frame of 6 months to a year. The anthropologist, Katherine Dettwyler has shown that, around the world, anywhere between 2.5 and 7 years is considered normal, with 5-6 years (when other primates are weaned) perhaps being the optimum age (although I do not appreciate being compared to a primate, thank you!).
Culture plays a very important part in determining the age of weaning. In most modern, industrialised societies, babies are either not breastfed at all or weaned at a very early age. Traditionally, Jewish babies are weaned at around the age of 2. Similarly for Muslim babies.
Circumstances leading to Weaning
Weaning can happen for various reasons :
- Involuntary – sickness, tragedy, generally circumstances that force weaning to happen despite willingness on both mother and child part to continue breastfeeding.
- Voluntary – It can either be mother’s choice, for a variety of reasons (e.g. going back to work, or simply ‘I have had enough!’). It can also be the child’s choice, in which case, it is referred to as ‘self-weaning’ or ‘child-led weaning’.
I will only touch on voluntary weaning.
Breastfeeding advocates generally advocate child-led weaning. In other words, let your child self-wean. This means that your child decides when he does not want to breastfeed anymore. This can happen anytime, but usually not before 12 months (unless there are some other physiological reasons or your own interference).
Child-led weaning is believed to be the least traumatising to your child. Your child may decide to wean off suddenly or gradually decreasing his nursing sessions (as well as the length of time per session). It may be out of no apparent reason. It could be due to external circumstances, most commonly, mother being pregnant.
Just a bit of a side-track on mother’s pregnancy. When the mother is pregnant with the next child, some time during the pregnancy, usually somewhere in the 1st trimester, her milk supply will start to dip due to hormonal changes. Eventually, her milk will change and become colostrums again, which is different in taste from regular breastmilk. The breastfeeding child, should he wean during this time, usually weans because he can’t get much out of his mother’s breasts anymore, or he just does not like the change in taste.
Most mothers will also start getting the ‘antsy’ feeling and feel irritated by nursing. The pregnancy hormones cause the nipples to be extremely sensitive and make nursing uncomfortable for the mother. Some mothers will decide to wean at this time.
Of course, it is also not uncommon for the child to persist in nursing all through the mother’s pregnancy, or the mother to persist in nursing the older child through her pregnancy. In this case, the mother may choose to continue to feed the older child AND the new baby at the same time after the baby is born. This is called tandem nursing.
More commonly, a child is weaned because of the mother’s choice. This happens for a great variety of reasons. The mother may believe that she does not have enough milk. She may be discouraged by the difficulties she experienced during the initial days of breastfeeding.
She may decide to wean because she is going back to work. She may want to wean because she is trying to get pregnant (although it does not mean that you can’t get pregnant while still breastfeeding), or cannot stand nursing during pregnancy. All these and more.
“Should I Wean?”
I get this question a lot. It really depends on your circumstances and what is the driving force for weaning. To me, there are 3 basic things you must bear in mind before making the decision :
1. You must decide based on correct information. In other words, your decision must be an informed choice.
For example, you may be told that your milk is not good enough for your child (typically told to you when your child reaches 6 months and beyond), or that your breastmilk is no longer beneficial.
Make sure that you check that you are getting the correct information. In this case, the above 2 reasons are baloney. You may also want to determine, on the flip side, whether is there any harm in continuing. In most cases, no.
If you are thinking of weaning due to some difficulties, look for possible solutions. E.g. you do not have to wean just because you are going back to work. Look for ways to continue breastfeeding, e.g. expressing at work.
2. It must be YOUR decision and not give in to external pressure.
I cannot stress this enough : Should you decide to wean, it must be YOUR very own decision (hopefully, after you have carefully considered all the pros and cons). The last thing that you should do is to decide to wean just because others said so, or others pressure you to do so. Don’t ever do something because others force you to do so. Chances are you will regret it later on and have no one else to blame except yourself.
The most typical scenario here is when the mother’s mother, or mother-in-law, or other ‘well-meaning’ aunties and relatives, keep nagging the mother of the child to wean off the breasts and give formula milk instead. This is especially trying when the mother of the child is struggling with breastfeeding difficulties and eventually gives in because the added pressure from these naysayers are just too much to handle. And more often than not, later on, they regret giving in to the pressure.
Ask yourself if you want to give in to people who are motivated by wrong information, and/or selfish ambition (jealous grandparents who have no chance to feed the baby)?
3. It is almost irreversible
I said ‘almost’ because it is possible to re-lactate after weaning, especially if you have not stopped for too long. The longer the lapse, the harder it is. And it takes a lot of determination and perseverance to re-lactate. Bear this in mind should you decide to wean.
More often than not, the decision to wean is irreversible. As I mentioned before somewhere, weaning is easy. You can do it within a relatively short time. But once it is done, you won’t be able to get it back again (assuming re-lactating not possible). So do consider carefully before you decided.
Are You Ready?
We often hear of the child’s readiness to wean. In actual fact, there is also the component of the mother’s readiness to wean.
From my experience, I was only ready to wean after Dominic turned 2 years. Before that, even though the thought of weaning did cross my mind time and time again, and I myself have often talked about weaning, deep down, I knew that I was not ready to give up the breastfeeding relationship yet.
If you are not ready to wean, then don’t wean, unless you have very compelling reason to do so.
Another side track about breastfeeding a toddler : you may wonder if it is ok to continue to breastfeed a toddler. Let me assure you that it is certainly very ok. Read this article for reasons why you should continue to breastfeed your toddler.
While child-led weaning is about the most gentle way to wean a child, should you be the one to initiate weaning, it can also be done very gently. To do so, the main ‘technique’ is
Do not offer, Do not reject
Do not suddenly deny your child when he asks to nurse. If your child asks to nurse, nurse him as you would normally. Do not reject him. However, if he does not ask to nurse, do not offer him your breasts.
Other things you can do to gently wean are :
1. Offer alternative
When your child asks to nurse, offer him an alternative, e.g. another beverage or snack. But if he insist on weaning, then do not deny him your breasts.
When your child asks to nurse, distract him with games and jokes and other activities. Take his mind off nursing. A game of tickling works well. Make sure the ‘rejection’ is done subtly, gently and fun (if possible). Again, if he insists, do not deny him.
3. Cut short nursing time
Allow your child to nurse when he asks, but try to cut short nursing time, if you can possibly do so. Sometimes, a child just need a few suckle to be contented and go back to his activities.
4. Do not Shame
Whatever you do, do not shame your child and do not allow other people shame your child. This is so common in our local context. Grandparents and other adults who are not informed about breastfeeding tend to shame the child when the child asks to nurse. The older the child is, the worse the shaming. Do not allow it! And don’t do it yourself. Shaming him will only hurt his feelings and crush his self-esteem. In fact, never shame your child for anything, including wetting his pants, or asking to be carried.
5. Loving Assurance
During the period of weaning, you may want to pay more attention to giving your child loving assurances through lots of hugs and kisses and cuddling.
6. Do not hurry
Most important of all, do not hurry. It will only lead to frustration. Be mentally prepared that it may take a while before your child is completely weaned.
No Pressure, No Guilt
Just as you should not be pressured to wean, you should also not be pressured to not wean. Assuming that you have considered carefully the pros and cons, have checked out all the correct information, and finally decided that for whatever reason, you want to wean your child, do not be pressured to go on and on, or until your child self-weaned.
Much as I wish that everyone will breastfeed as long as possible, I believe that everyone’s situation is unique and there is no right or wrong – the only wrong is when you wean against your inclination (e.g. giving in to external pressure) and/or for all the wrong reasons (e.g. mistaken that your milk is not good enough). Just because you don’t breastfeed your child until toddlerhood, or until he self-weaned, does not make you a bad mother. Do not feel guilty about your decision.
Remember that every effort that you have put in to breastfeed your child counts. It does not matter whether you have breastfed for one week, or one month, or one year, every effort, every single day of breastfeeding have contributed to the well-being of your child.
Dominic has never been one of those ‘milk addict’ type of baby. By the time he was 2 years plus, he was only nursing, on the average, 2 times a day – first thing when he woke up in the morning and before his bedtime. Occasionally, when he was really bored, he would asked to nurse more. He was long weaned from night feeds.
As I said, I myself was only ready to wean him after he turned 2. Very gradually, I adopted the ‘Don’t offer, don’t reject’ method of weaning the last 2 feeds. He was absolutely ok with alternatives and distractions. There was no crying or fussing. No trauma.
By the time he was about 2.5 years, he was asking less and less to nurse. He would go some days without asking. About this time, Richard and I were also desperate for a holiday for just the 2 of us. We were tired and needed a child-free break. To prepare Dominic for the impending separation, we started leaving him with his grandparents overnight, which he loved because he got doted on and treated like a king and could stay up late and eat all the candies and junk.
The day finally came when Richard and I went for a 2 weeks holiday in Japan without Dominic. After the 2 weeks of separation, he was completely weaned.
I was already pregnant with our 2nd child before the trip. After we got back, there were a few occasions when Dominic would ask for milk. I offered him my breasts as usual knowing full well that there wasn’t much milk left for him. I was just curious to know how he would take it. He took a few sucks, realised that there was nothing for him to get out, and gave up. In fact, he seemed to find it funny and we both laughed over it. I also found that it was probably time that he wean in a sense that I noticed he seemed to lose his ability to suckle pretty rapidly. You would think that he had been suckling for over 2 years of his life, it was something he won’t forget quickly!
Thus, this is how my firstborn son was weaned after over two and a half years of breastfeeding.
For Memory’s Sake
I actually took some pictures of him nursing, for memory’s sake. I have plenty of photos of him nursing discreetly but there were a few more explicit ones that I took when he was around 1 year. I wanted something to show him that he nursed at my breasts, and I am glad I took the pictures. Dominic enjoys looking at the pictures. Perhaps when the baby comes and start another nursing relationship, the pictures would come in useful to show Dominic that he once had the very same relationship with mommy.
So, if you are still nursing your little one, don’t forget to take some pictures before you lose the opportunity to do so.