As a breastfeeding counsellor supporting the National Breastfeeding Helpline, I am well versed in the topic of weaning. In fact, it is my favourite one to provide support to families about.
This is because it is often a very controversial or ‘taboo’ area within our Western society when we think about nursing older children. I feel very rewarded when parents are empowered to do what feels best for them and their child.
The World Health Organisation encourages breastfeeding for at least two years or beyond. This means that the ‘end’ of nursing or the time frame is open-ended. As nursing is a two-way relationship, it ultimately comes down to the parent and the child only. Nobody else’s input should be prioritised.
Parents may find that somewhere along their journey, they no longer enjoy nursing and some may even experience ‘aversion’. Nursing aversion is when the whole nursing process or some of it can become incredibly frustrating and downright difficult to manage.
Parents may find that somewhere along their journey, they no longer enjoy nursing and some may even experience ‘aversion’
After addressing any potential issues leading to aversion such as positioning and attachment of older children or nursing ‘manners’, parents may look to begin the weaning process if it feels right for them.
Parent-led weaning approach
Parents may want to adopt a more parent-led weaning approach. This means that it is initiated by them because of the way they are feeling and this is perfectly acceptable. If a child is under one year of age when a parent decides to end their breastfeeding or chestfeeding journey, then they should ideally gradually reduce the amount of nursing sessions they have whilst also introducing substitute milk, whether this is expressed breastmilk or formula milk.
Parents may want to adopt a more parent-led weaning approach. This means that it is initiated by them because of the way they are feeling and this is perfectly acceptable.
If they are over one year old, formula milk is not required and cow’s milk can be the main milk drink. If parents want to discuss the appropriate milk that their baby or child should be receiving, they can contact their health visitor for support and the most up-to-date information. Weaning should still be done gradually to avoid breast discomfort leading to blocked ducts and potentially mastitis. A gradual approach will also support the child’s emotional attachment to nursing.
Parents can become creative in their approaches depending on the age of the child. For example, if the child is over eighteen months of age, it is usually easier to manage parent-led weaning, by adopting gentle techniques. Some of these may include shortening the length of nursing sessions, changing the routine, substituting nursing sessions with substitute milk and a comforter. If a child is old enough, reading weaning books could also be considered.
Natural weaning approach
Some parents do not find themselves actively weaning. They may prefer to adopt a natural weaning approach where the child gradually ceases to nurse themselves in their own time. If a child is in full control of this process, it usually happens between two and four years of age. However, there are children that will wean sooner and some much later.
Some parents do not find themselves actively weaning. They may prefer to adopt a natural weaning approach where the child gradually ceases to nurse themselves
It is developmentally appropriate to continue to nurse during these stages of childhood. Parents should be reassured that they are continuing to support their child’s emotional development, immunity responses and nutritional requirements. If you think about how many times young children are exposed to germs in their environment, it is incredible to know how supportive nursing is in helping the child to fight off those viruses!
Parents may feel incredibly sleep-deprived and want to have more restful nights, reducing or eliminating the disruption of night feeds. Bonyata (2018) recommends delaying attempts at night-weaning until a child is at least eighteen months old. This is because their understanding of language is better equipped to accommodate gentle weaning techniques and ultimately, the word ‘no’. However, it is worth bearing in mind that nursing is a wonderful tool and a child may continue to wake up for parental support and comfort even if milk is not provided and it continues to be developmentally appropriate, despite the controversy in this area.
Parents may feel incredibly sleep-deprived and want to have more restful nights, reducing or eliminating the disruption of night feeds.
If a child continues to nurse during the night throughout their toddlerhood, be reassured that this too will come to an end in its own time if the parent does not discourage it. Parents could consider ways to maximise their sleep, gaining support from partners or family and friends where required. It is important that parents are also aware of safe sleep guidance and this can be found from The Lullaby Trust.
Ultimately, the choice of when to stop breastfeeding or chestfeeding your child is a personal decision. It’s a decision that should be made in line with the parent’s own goals for their nursing journey.
For more information and resources on weaning a nursing child:
World Health Organisation – Breastfeeding recommendations
Kelly Mom – Weaning: How does it happen?
Lullaby Trust – Safer Sleep Advice
Emma Pickett IBCLC offers a wealth of information on the subject of weaning.
The National Breastfeeding Helpline is available to those people in the UK.