Breastmilk continues to provide both nutrition and immune benefits for toddlers and older children. Many mothers find that breastfeeding provides their child with the emotional security that ends up being one of the most important parts of their feeding relationship. It lets their child outgrow infancy at their own pace. See the Breastfeeding your toddler article on this website.
If you are ready to wean, but your toddler is unwilling, there are likely to be times when you feel very tense and even resent feeding your baby. Your toddler may sense your frustration and this may actually make them ask for more feeds. This can become an unpleasant vicious cycle: your baby becomes more anxious and more demanding, and you become more upset and irritable. In the first place, it can help to try to reflect on the situation. What is it about feeding that is really challenging for you? Are there specific times and places where you feel that you really resent feeding? Is your toddler asking for feeds when you you’ve just started something, such as a phone call. Are family or friends pressuring you to wean? Or is your sleep being disturbed by constant night-feeding? 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.
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 'never offer but never refuse' your child feeds. Some or all of the following ideas may help you do this.
Gradually weaning can ease both you and your child into the transition. As you wean, your breasts will take time to adjust and you may still make milk for quite some time. Try to reduce the number of feeds you offer one feed at a time. This means that you are dropping one feed every few days. It may take several months before your child stops breastfeeding completely. If your breasts begin to feel uncomfortable, you can express just enough to make your breasts feel comfortable.
Talk to your toddler
Toddlers can often understand more than you think they do (in other words, they may just not be able or willing to show or tell you quite how much they understand). You can try preparing your toddler by telling them what’s about to happen, so that they know that breastfeeding will stop soon.
If you share your bed with your toddler and they usually has an early morning feed, you could try getting up before they wake. If you are already dressed and have their breakfast ready when they wake, they may eat and then start to play, forgetting about their breastfeed. Older children or your partner can help distract them.
Try to get your child to do something else instead, to teach them that there’s an alternative. Have set times for feeds: for example, only at home, only after lunch, not between meals. Have plenty of favourite healthy snacks and drinks available. Watch your toddler carefully and avoid putting yourself in situations in which they would normally breastfeed. Be ready with a change of activity before they get bored, tired or restless. You might like to try offering something new: icy poles (iceblocks on a stick), ice in a mug, frozen yoghurt or drinks. Favourite snacks can also help distract them.
Discourage long feeds
If you have always left your baby at the breast until they have finished or fall asleep, it may take a while for them to accept that you’re taking control of their feeds. Try to substitute something interesting, for example, "Time to finish now, let’s go for a walk." Or say, "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.
Feeds at night or before nap times can be hard to drop, as they may be the only way of getting your toddler to sleep. It may also be the only way to get them back to sleep again (settle them) if they wake, particularly in the middle of the night. Gradually increase the time between their sleep-time feed and actually putting them to bed, to try to break the link between feeding and sleeping. Introduce a a new bedtime routine in which you are not feeding to sleep (for example, feed in another room), but give as much time, love and comfort as you can to help them fall asleep—singing, rocking, reading a story, patting—whatever helps. Gradually reduce the time at the breast to just enough time to relax them, 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 them, 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 bring your toddler into your bed, 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 them 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 they know well and will take other drinks and food and forget about a breastfeed.
Consider your child's sucking need
If your child really seems to need to suck, weaning onto a bottle may be better than going straight to a cup. Offer a short breastfeed, then the bottle.
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 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 bit of milk in their breasts for 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 they have taken the initiative and weaned themselves, they still may take a little time to get used to the idea. Occasionally, they may be clingy or cross, or they may push you away for a short time as they swing between wanting to be a baby again and trying to be independent.
Again, you might find it helpful to talk to someone (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 any concerns or challenges to do with weaning your toddler.
Breastfeeding: weaning booklet
Breastfeeding: Weaning is a helpful guide to weaning your baby or toddler, covering such topics as mutual weaning, baby-led weaning and mother-led weaning.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed January 2020