You’ve loved breastfeeding and you know it’s good for them.
But now you’re ready to stop.
Well done on feeding your baby into toddlerhood! You know how good breastmilk is for your child. You know that breastfeeding helps them feel more emotionally secure.
They continue to love breastfeeding but you may be thinking about stopping. Perhaps you have already tried to wean without success.
When your toddler is unwilling
If you are ready to wean, but your child is unwilling, there are likely to be times when you feel very tense and even resent breastfeeding. They may sense your frustration and this may actually make them ask for more feeds. This can become an unpleasant vicious cycle: your child becomes more anxious and more demanding, and you become more upset and irritable.
It can help to think about what is happening:
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’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 helpful to talk to someone. An ABA breastfeeding counsellor can talk through your situation with you and help you decide what to do.
Prepare your child
Toddlers can often understand more than we think they can. Prepare your toddler by telling them what’s about to happen. You could read picture books about babies growing up. Some mums like to make a story book showing the difference between their toddler as a baby and what the toddler can do now.
Set some limits
When you are breastfeeding a toddler or older child, it’s okay to set limits on feeding that are realistic for you and your child. Some of the following ideas may help you do this.
Tips for weaning success
If your toddler usually has an early morning feed, getting up before they wake may help. If you are already dressed and have breakfast when they wake, they may eat and then start to play, forgetting about their breastfeed.
For example, only at home, only after lunch, not between meals. Have plenty of favourite healthy snacks and drinks available, to distract them. Watch your toddler carefully and avoid putting yourself in situations where they would normally breastfeed. Be ready with a change of activity before they get bored, tired or restless. Or offer something new to eat or drink.
If you've always left your baby at the breast until they finish 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'll just have a little feed and then we'll go to the park."
When you go out with your toddler, avoid wearing clothes that allow them to easily breastfeed. Avoid undressing in front of your child, as this may remind them to ask for a feed.
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.
If you feel uncomfortable about refusing when your toddler asks for a feed, you may like this approach.
Dealing with naps and night feeds
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.
Here are some suggestions:
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 new bedtime routine which doesn't involve feeding to sleep, 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 your child, 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 doesn't 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 may see a gradual change from feeding for comfort to being comforted in other ways.
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.
It may take time
Gradually weaning can ease both you and your child into the transition.
Try to gradually reduce the number of feeds you offer. This means that you are dropping one feed every few days. If your breasts begin to feel full, you can express just enough to make them comfortable.
It may take several months before your child stops breastfeeding completely. Your breasts may also take time to adjust and you may still make milk for quite some time after.
You may feel disappointed, sad 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.
“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 about what is happening. Share your feelings with a partner or an understanding friend or phone the National Breastfeeding Helpline and chat to a counsellor. Together, you may be able to think of ways to overcome any concerns or challenges to do with weaning your toddler.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association May 2022
Read more about weaning
Evidence-led info and practical tips from our Breastfeeding Information Series