Breastmilk continues to provide nutrition for toddlers and older children, together with support for their immune system. Many mothers find that the emotional security that breastfeeding provides to their child is one of the most important parts of their feeding relationship and lets their child outgrow infancy at their own pace. See the Breastfeeding your toddler article on this website.
How to start weaning toddlers
When you are breastfeeding a toddler or older child it is okay to set limits on feeding that are realistic for you and your child. One way to start weaning your toddler or older child is to work with the idea of 'never offer but never refuse'. Some or all of the following ideas may help you do this.
Weaning gradually can help both you and your child adjust to the change. As you wean, you may still make milk for quite some time. If your breasts begin to feel uncomfortable, express just enough to make your breasts feel comfortable. Try to reduce one feed at a time, allowing a few days before dropping the next feed. It may take several months before your child stops breastfeeding completely.
Talk to your toddler
Toddlers can often understand more than they can say. Prepare him by talking about what is about to happen so that he knows that breastfeeding will stop soon. You can point out older friends who are weaned and tell him that one day he will be big like that and not need your milk any more. Praise him. Say: 'Aren't you growing up! You went all morning without a breastfeed!' If you are pregnant and your nipples are sore, tell him so. Many toddlers will agree to just a few sucks and a cuddle, with a book and something to eat or drink afterwards. This may help teach him to delay a feed until 'later' and can help you in awkward situations too.
If you share your bed with your toddler and he usually has an early morning feed, you could try getting up before he wakes. If you are already dressed and have his breakfast ready when he wakes, he may eat and then start to play, forgetting about his breastfeed. Older children or your partner can help distract him.
Try to get your child to do something else instead. Have set times for feeds: eg only at home, only after lunch, not between meals. Have plenty of healthy snacks and drinks available. Toddlers who can understand seem to be able to cope with this. Watch your toddler carefully and avoid situations where he would normally look for a breastfeed. Be ready with a change of activity before he gets bored, tired or restless. You might like to try offering something new – iceblocks, ice in a mug, frozen yoghurt, drinks or favourite snacks can help distract him.
Discourage long feeds
If you have always left your baby at the breast until he has finished or falls asleep, it may take a while for him to accept that you're taking control of his feeds. Try to substitute something interesting eg ‘Time to finish now, let’s go for a walk.' Or, 'We will just have a little feed and then we will go and see if Grandma is home.' An older toddler might like to count the sucks.
Reduce the need to feed to sleep
These feeds can be hard to drop as they may be the only way your toddler will have a nap, go to sleep at night, or settle again in the middle of the night. Gradually increase the time between his sleep-time feed and actually putting him to bed, so that the two events are no longer linked. Work on building a new bedtime routine where you are not feeding to sleep (eg feed in another room), but give as much time, love and comfort as you can to help him fall asleep — singing, rocking, reading a story, patting — whatever helps. Gradually reduce the time at the breast to just enough to relax him, placing the emphasis on the story, song etc rather than on the breastfeed.
If your toddler wakes during the night and wants a feed to get back to sleep see if your partner can settle him, perhaps with a cuddle and a drink of water. Sometimes toddlers will accept this, as your partner does not remind them of breastfeeds. Even if you still take your toddler into bed with you during the night, try comforting them in other ways before offering a breastfeed. You will see a gradual change from feeding for comfort to being comforted in other ways.
Wear different clothes
When you go out with your toddler avoid wearing clothes that allow easy access to the breasts. Avoid undressing in front of your child, as this may remind him to ask for a feed.
Change the routine
Having friends or relatives look after a toddler during the day may help change the routine. You can stay close by at first, in case you are needed. A child usually reacts differently with people he knows well and will take other drinks and food and forget a favourite breastfeed.
Consider your child's sucking need
If your child really seems to need to suck, weaning on to a bottle may be better than going directly to a cup. Give a short breastfeed, then the bottle. Take it slowly, at the child's pace.
If you are weaning because you have had enough, but your toddler is unwilling, you are likely to have times when you feel very tense and even angry about feeding him. Your toddler may sense this and his anxiety may make him ask for more feeds. This can become an unpleasant cycle; he becomes more anxious and more demanding and you become more upset and irritable.
Have a good look at the situation. What is it about feeding him that is really difficult for you? Are there specific times and places when you really resent it? Perhaps you can't sit down at the phone or with a book without him helping himself. Perhaps family or friends are pressuring you to wean. Or is your sleep being disturbed by constant night-feeding? These are the things to tackle first.
You might find it easier if you talk to someone else (for example, an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor) about what is happening. Often it helps to share your feelings with a partner or an understanding friend. Together you may be able to think of ways to overcome these problem situations.
Your feelings about weaning
You may feel sad, weepy, or even depressed after the last feed, even if you really wanted to wean and it went smoothly and calmly. These are very natural feelings. Your hormones take time to get back to normal, especially if you have had to wean quickly. Some women do not begin to menstruate immediately and some even find the return of their ovulation and menstruation is delayed for some months. Some find that they still have a little milk weeks, or even months after they wean.
‘Weaning stirs up many emotions in mums, regardless of the age of the child’, says Shona, an ABA breastfeeding counsellor. ‘The feelings can be intense, especially if weaning is earlier than a mum intended. Talking to other mums can be helpful, as all of us have to wean our children.’
You may be surprised to find that your newly-weaned baby or toddler behaves differently for a while. Even if he has taken the initiative and weaned himself, he still may take a little time to get used to the idea. Occasionally, he may be clingy or cross, or he may push you away for a short time as he swings between wanting to be a baby again and trying to be independent.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed October 2012