Whether you’ve spent the past year (or more) nursing, pumping, supplementing with formula or any combination of the above, you’ve now reached the point where you’re ready to stop breastfeeding. Congratulations! Getting your boobs back is cause for celebration, but before you break out the bubbly, know that weaning is a gradual process (which is a good thing both for the sake of your mini and to keep issues like engorgement at bay). “Weaning is not straightforward,” lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor tells us. A few factors come into play, including how old the toddler is, how often they nurse, how often they eat solid foods and what else is going on in their lives. But with a few clever tips and some expert guidance, the transition can be a smooth one. Here’s how to wean a toddler, according to a team of lactation consultants.
When to Start Weaning
There’s no right time to start weaning a toddler. Some moms breastfeed well into toddlerhood, which is perfectly acceptable, provided that it’s comfortable for both of you. Allowing the child to decide when to stop breastfeeding is called child-led weaning. But if you’re ready to wean first (aka mother-led weaning), leave your guilt at the door. Breastfeeding for any length of time is an amazing accomplishment and now you can move on to the next chapter in your family’s journey.
As long as your baby is at least 12 months old (i.e., officially a toddler), a healthy diet of vegetables, protein, grains and whole cow’s milk or an alternative milk can likely replace the nutrients she was getting from nursing. But it’s always a good idea to check with your pediatrician before weaning, in case there are any nutritional concerns worth discussing.
There are, however, a few times when transitioning a toddler from breastmilk is less than ideal. Experts advise weaning when home life is relatively stable—not, say, right before you go back to work or when she’s not feeling well. “Weaning serves both parent and child best when it happens gradually and when there are other activities and routines that will keep everyone happy, calm and connected,” says lactation consultant Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit.
How to Talk to Your Toddler About Weaning
“One of the joys of nursing beyond the first year is that the parent and child can talk about their nursing relationship,” says Weiss-Lewit. The way you do this is up to you, but she suggests making a deal with them about when they can nurse (say, before bed) or using a song to limit the time at the breast. If night weaning is a concern, try enlisting the help of the book Nursies When the Sun Shines, to help them understand the concept of night and day. Another idea is to talk to your toddler about all the “big kid” things they can do that babies cannot, like eating spaghetti and meatballs or climbing the monkey bars in the playground. Then explain that weaning is a special and exciting part of growing up (instead of something they need to give up).
6 Tips for Toddler Weaning
- Shorten the length of feedings. This is a good first step in the weaning process, lactation consultant Rebecca Agi tells us, particularly for those kids who like to linger at the breast. Start by gradually shaving a few minutes off each feeding time. This should make the sessions less satisfying for your tot, to the point where you may be able to reduce the number of feedings each day. (Just remember to go slowly so that you can gently reduce your supply.)
- Employ distraction techniques. The same tricks that work when your toddler is about to throw a temper tantrum can work to delay feedings, too. When your kid starts to reach for the breast, try saying, “Yes, we can nurse, but first we are going to have this snack,” or “Let’s play this game first.” He may end up forgetting that he wanted to nurse, or at the very least you’ll have extended the time between sessions.
- Explain why you’re weaning. Tell your mini in a way she understands (every child is different, and you know yours best) why it’s time for breastfeeding to stop. “Being open and honest about your own feelings and needs will help your growing child learn about healthy boundaries,” says Weiss-Lewit. You can explain to your toddler that your body will no longer be making milk, but just because nursing is coming to an end doesn’t mean there will be any less cuddling or bonding to go around. Or let them know that less time feeding means more time for playing or snuggling. Give your tot lots of affection during the weaning process, especially during the times of the day when she was most dependent on breastfeeding.
- Don’t offer, don’t refuse. This technique means you breastfeed the child when he asks, and don’t offer when he doesn’t. For some parents, this simple method is enough to wean toddlers completely.
- Change daily routines. “If you usually breastfeed in a specific chair, avoid sitting in that chair so the child is reminded less often of breastfeeding,” suggests Agi. Or if you usually nurse before bedtime, try doing another cozy activity together instead, like reading a book or snuggling with his favorite stuffed animal.
- Be flexible. “You may find that your child barely nurses some days and other times they need more of the connection that nursing provides,” explains Weiss-Lewit. “Especially during times of high stress, you may choose to pause weaning, knowing you can resume your efforts when life is feeling more peaceful.” In other words? Don’t stress about it.
How to Tackle Nighttime Weaning
These can often be the trickiest feeds to drop, but enlisting the help of a partner or family member can help. It may be easier for your spouse to soothe your toddler in the middle of the night rather than you since your breasts are just too tempting for him.
“Depending on the child’s age, you may also be able to provide positive incentives to curb night nursing,” says Weiss-Lewit. Think “We aren’t going to do milkies in bed anymore so in the morning we both have lots of energy and we can go to your favorite playground.” But cut yourself some slack if things don’t go quite according to plan, she adds. There may be some nights when nursing back to sleep is best for you both—don’t beat yourself up about it.
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Mom
While engorgement is less of an issue for most toddler-nursing moms (since their milk is often nutritionally dense but not as plentiful as it was during the early months), you should still wean gradually to prevent any issues. You can also use massage and hand expression to help prevent clogged ducts, Agi tells us.
How Long Will It Take to Wean a Toddler?
It can take weeks to months to gradually move your toddler away from breastmilk. To keep tears to a minimum, replace the time you used to spend nursing with extra attention, cuddles and affection. If you notice an increase in toddler tantrums, clinginess or anxiety, it may be a sign that the weaning is happening too quickly for your child. Try slowing things down to a more comfortable pace for your toddler. And remember, your child won’t be breastfeeding forever. We promise.