Weaning: How does it happen?
Child-led weaning occurs when a child no longer has a need to nurse nutritionally or emotionally. A baby who self-weans is usually well over a year old, is getting most of his nutrition from solids, is drinking well from a cup, and cuts down on nursing gradually. If children are truly allowed to self-wean in their own time, most will do so somewhere between the 2nd and 4th year. Obviously, some will wean before this time and some will wean after this time, too.
If you feel that you need to encourage weaning before your baby is truly ready, it is possible to gently and lovingly “help” your child along the way, while at the same time remaining as flexible and as respectful to his needs as possible. Some children, even though they’re not truly ready, can be gently weaned without too much of a protest. It’s important to always conduct mother-led weaning in a way that is gentle, gradual, flexible, patient, and as respectful to your child’s needs as possible. Be aware of any signs that the weaning process is going too quickly for your child and be ready to slow things down some if necessary.
If you want to take an active approach to weaning before baby show signs on his own, you might consider waiting until at least the age of 18 months. At this age most children can be told “no” and asked to wait on nursing more easily than a younger child can.
Stopping breastfeeding abruptly, or “cold turkey,” can be very distressing for both mother and baby and can cause plugged ducts, breast infection, or even a breast abscess. Hormone levels are also more likely to take a drastic plunge, causing mood swings, depression, etc. It’s very rare that sudden weaning is truly necessary. If someone suggests to you that this is required, get a second opinion. It would also be helpful to talk to a lactation consultant and/or a La Leche League Leader, who will be able to suggest alternatives and, if necessary, help you to wean with as little distress to mom and baby as possible.
Gradual weaning allows you to gradually substitute other kinds of nutrition, affection and attention to compensate for the loss of nursing. Gradual weaning also allows the immunity levels in your breast milk to increase (as overall milk supply decreases) and thus give your child a last bit of extra protection against infection. Weaning should occur as slowly as your situation permits to make it easier on both you and your child.
How long weaning takes depends upon too many variables to predict. Be as patient and as flexible as you possibly can. Weaning will happen, but you may feel at times that you’re taking one step forward and two steps back. When you’re actively weaning, be sure to offer lots of cuddling and extra affection during the day. As your child grows older, nursing becomes much more than a way to satisfy hunger and thirst. It provides him with much comfort, security and closeness, so be as sensitive to his needs as you possibly can be throughout the process.
Weaning is not an all-or-nothing process. You can always keep one (or more) feedings per day and eliminate the rest.