Weaning from Breastfeeding in the Toddler Years

This post is close to my heart right now as my son recently weaned from breastfeeding at the age of 25 months. I want to share a bit about my story as well as provide some tips and advice if you are thinking of encouraging your toddler to wean from breastfeeding.

Weaning is a complex topic and everyone’s story is a little different. Generally, child-led weaning or self-weaning is when the parent does nothing to discourage breastfeeding until the child decides they are done. Parent-led weaning is, expectedly, led by the parent. Some families use one or the other, and other families end up in a combination of both.

Before I get started, I also want to preface this by saying that if your toddler is younger than 18 months old, it is unlikely that they are self-weaning from breastfeeding. It is even more unlikely if they are under 12 months old and have “self-weaned” without the parent encouraging weaning. True self-weaning is a gradual process that occurs over months or years, not a sudden drop off in time spent nursing. They also get most of their nutrition from solid foods and can drink from a cup independently. If you think your infant under 12 months is “self-weaning”, please check out this article on KellyMom and see if any of the situations apply to you and your baby before accepting their behavior as such.

Mine and Asahi’s Weaning Story

Asahi and I have been incredibly fortunate to have had such an incredibly successful breastfeeding relationship over the past two years. I was able to nurse him exclusively from the breast for the first six months, and continue on as necessary once he started eating solid foods. I am so proud of what we accomplished together, and even though there were many times when I asked myself WHY I was doing this, I wouldn’t change a thing.

For us, our weaning story really began when Asahi was about 14 months old. It was at this time that he finally got the majority of his teeth in (molars and canines) and we began to night wean because I was experiencing quite a lot of nursing aversion while nursing him in the night. You can read about my night weaning journey here. He was quite wakeful as an infant, and even more so while teething. I knew that our attachment was secure, which is why I decided to night wean and change our bedtime routine. Where I once had been nursing him multiple times per night, by 18 months we were only nursing once before bed and then once in the early hours of the morning. During night weaning, I had also began offering something else to drink (usually almond milk, his favorite) prior to his daytime nap to replace nursing. By 20 months old, we were down to nursing just once per day before bed, and this was very doable for me.

It’s probably apparent to you now that what we did up until this point was not “child-led weaning”. I was actively making changes to our nursing routine to make it doable for both of us by night weaning and limiting nursing to once per day. However, I did this gradually over about 6 months because that’s what seemed to work best for Asahi.

At 21 months, I became pregnant with new babies, twins! Even though the pregnancy was planned, twins were a huge surprise! Throughout my first trimester, I continued to nurse Asahi once per day before bed and luckily I didn’t experience any aversion. However, around 16-17 weeks pregnant, nursing started to become very painful for me. We were traveling to see family in the US and during that time, I noticed my milk was decreasing quite rapidly. Asahi would only latch for maybe a couple of minutes before bed, which let me know that my milk really was changing. I gritted my teeth through those final nursing sessions even though I knew it was close to the end. During our trip, I wasn’t offering to nurse him before bed. He only asked for it twice, and on those occasions I nursed him. Soon it was a week since he last asked, then two, then a month passed by…and that was that.

Our last nursing photo – December 2019

I can’t say I felt too emotional about it. I think at that point in my pregnancy, my feels of aversion and discomfort were strong enough that I didn’t really mind stopping. I did shed a few tears over it though as I thought back on all we had been through together!

Nursing was, and still is, such an incredibly important part of my life and how I parent. Maybe I wasn’t so sad knowing that I will soon have two new nurslings to care for! I feel really good about the decisions I made and how it ended. It doesn’t seem like it was traumatic in any way for Asahi, and that’s all I could have asked for.

I think if I wasn’t pregnant, Asahi would have continuing nursing before bed for quite awhile longer, but who knows! He still loves to give me hugs in the shower and talk about the “mamaka” and how that’s what babies drink. I hope he will feel the same way when our new babies arrive and he sees them nursing too!

Some advice for weaning your toddler

Remember that nursing is a relationship involving two people

And because of that, it’s okay to feel like you may want to change things to make it work for both of you. In a relationship, often one person is more ready to do something than the other. For example, maybe one partner is ready to have kids and the other needs some convincing. It’s funny to think of it this way but nursing is the same! Your toddler may need a little convincing, but if you encourage them gently and respectfully when changing routines, everyone can end up happy!

On the other end of the spectrum, maybe your toddler is dropping feeds and you just aren’t ready for things to change. That’s okay too! You can still offer them to nurse and see if they accept. Often times, toddlers go through phases of nursing more or less for various reasons, so just as soon as your anxiety of them self-weaning grows as big as an elephant, they are back to their old routine. Thus is parenting, am I right?

Expect changes to happen gradually over the course of months (or years!)

Most people don’t do well with sudden changes and toddlers are DEFINITELY not the exception to this rule. Making small changes over time to your nursing routine instead of one sudden change is easier on everyone involved. For the toddler, they tend to not realize the change as much which makes it less likely for negative effects to occur (such as sleep disruption, more meltdowns, etc). Gradual weaning also has benefits for you because it allows your body to adjust slowly to a less and less demand for milk. This reduces your chance of mastitis or blocked ducts (if you’re worried, check out my post on healing them so you can be prepared!) as well as lessens the hormonal effects that tend to come at the end of breastfeeding and can lead to feeling quite low in many cases.

Introduce a snack before bed or at prime nursing times

This strategy is what worked best for us when it came to weaning before sleep. For infants, nursing prior to sleep is a nice little way to ensure a full belly before putting them down. But for toddlers, nursing is not always about filling them up but more about the ritual of it. Introducing a special pre-sleep snack, such as a banana or some milk of your choosing, can be a great way to maintain the ritual of nursing without actually nursing. A small snack combined with lots of cuddles and maybe some book reading is usually enough to comfort your child prior to sleep. Again, this is gradual! Your toddler may continue to ask to nurse for a few days or weeks once this change has been implemented, and you can then decline or accept depending on how you feel. I do think it’s important to be fairly consistent though if you choose to decline nursing sessions. It can be confusing for your child (and your body too!) if you nurse one day but not the next so just be aware of that.

Talk to your toddler about what you are both experiencing

No matter the age of your toddler, they will be able to understand to some extent that weaning is happening. Talking to them about their feelings and explaining why changes to their routine are being made is very important in my opinion. It’s also a way to show respect to them as an equal participant in this nursing relationship.

For me, it was helpful to repeat the new schedule in advance and continue to do so everyday. For example, before nap time I used to tell Asahi that it was going to be time for “mamaka ne ne” (mamaka = nursing, ne ne = sleep) but when we were weaning from that feed, it changed to “almond milk ne ne”. It seems silly, but repeating the new phrase helped him to accept the new schedule fairly easily. He would even change his drink requests to “moo moo milk ne ne”, so he definitely understood what it meant!

Once he was a little older and I was already pregnant, I began to talk to him about how a day may come when he would drink all my milk all gone. Once the amount and taste of my milk changed, he started to say that it was “all gone” as I said it would be. He also knows that babies drink “mamaka” and if you ask him if he is a baby, he will say “No!” So I guess that’s that! Talking to your toddler throughout the weaning process gives them the vocabulary to understand and express their own feelings on it as well.

Do something to commemorate your journey

Breastfeeding is a journey that deserves recognition and there are so many ways to do it. It can be as simple as doing a post on social media, or printing out a photo to keep in your home. Another idea is to commemorate your breastfeeding journey with a nursing photobook. A friend had this idea and I thought it was so lovely! You can create a photobook any way, either online or by hand, and just include photos of you and your toddler nursing at all stages of their life. You could just use photos or you could write notes as well such as, “In the beginning you were so tiny and could only drink my milk. You loved it so much, you even woke up to drink it at night!” This could also be a great way to ease the transition for your firstborn when it comes to seeing a new sibling breastfeeding. Another purpose is simply to keep the memory of your nursing relationship alive in your child. Many children will not remember nursing because they were too young, but a book or photo could maintain it. I plan to make a book for Asahi soon and will share it when I do!

What strategies worked for you when going through the weaning process with your toddler?

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