Timing and age
Weaning begins the moment you introduce any food other than human milk. For most babies this is around the middle of the first year, when you start introducing foods your family is eating. Ideally, breastfeeding continues until the child outgrows the need. Your child is an individual and will outgrow breastfeeding at his own pace. This may be different from other children you know. There is no particular age at which a child has to wean. Your child continues to receive nutrition and protection from your milk as long as he nurses. Most children choose to wean somewhere after two years of age.
Weaning usually happens gradually. If your child is younger than 12 - 18 months and stops nursing abruptly, this is likely a nursing strike. Natural weaning commonly occurs later and is gradual. With information and support it is usually possible to get through the nursing strike and back to breastfeeding. See Nursing Strikes for more information.
Going back to work?
Nursing parents may be concerned that they have to wean in order to return to work. However, many mothers return to work, even with young babies, and continue breastfeeding successfully. In Canada, most women are able to take a parental leave of one year or longer. If you are planning on returning to work sooner than a year, you may need to express your milk while you are away. Expressing milk will relieve the discomfort of full breasts and provide milk for your baby for the next day. At a year, however, your body will be much more adaptable to longer stretches of time away from your child. And your child will be eating other foods. You can nurse in the morning before you go to work and then nurse as much as you want when you return home. On days off, nurse whenever your child asks. See Storing Human Milk and Returning to Paid Employment.
When weaning happens in the child’s own time
Most children will not choose to wean themselves until sometime after about 18 months of age. Human milk is your baby’s primary food for the first year of life. After your child’s first birthday, other foods become a more significant part of his diet. But nursing continues to support your child’s emotional development through the second year of life. And it continues to supply your child with antibodies and other cells to protect against illnesses. After one year of age, your child will begin to explore further from you. He may wander to the living room while you are in the kitchen, or toddle over to another family member at a party. A strong attachment with you gives your child the courage to explore. Nursing gives him the opportunity to “refuel” his courage from time to time. As your child grows up, he will slowly outgrow his need to nurse. This may take two years or more. But it will happen. Slowly your child nurses less and less until one day he doesn’t nurse anymore at all. See Toddlerhood and Beyond.
When you want to speed up the process of weaning
Sometimes nursing parents find that they want to speed up the process of weaning for one reason or another. If you want to encourage your child to wean a little faster than she might naturally, you can try the strategy, “don’t offer and don’t refuse”. That means, do not offer to breastfeed your child. Instead, you can keep your toddler busy with other activities, like playing outside or dancing or having a snack. It is helpful to avoid sitting in your usual nursing spot throughout the day. Your toddler may see this as an ‘offer’ to breastfeed. But when your child does ask to nurse, take the time to enjoy a little nursing break together.
Doing other activities with your child when you sit down can help the transition to weaning. For example, before or after you nurse, or even while you nurse, you could read a book together, or sing a special song or play a little nursery rhyme game together. Then, as your child gets older, you can distract him from nursing when you sit down and instead read, sing or play.
Children have a strong need to suck when they are young. While breastfeeding, your child is getting her sucking needs met at breast. If your child weans before she is ready, she will likely switch to sucking on something else. Parents often find that when their children wean, they suck on their fingers, thumb, or pacifier instead.
Return of fertility
For most women it is not necessary to wean completely for their menstrual cycles to return. Many women find that their periods return some time after their babies are six months old and start solid food. However, some breastfeeding mothers and parents find that their periods return later. This is even if their babies are older than six months, eating solids regularly and sleeping longer stretches at night. Some women have been known to have a delay in fertility for well over a year or more. You may like this idea or worry that you will not be able to have your next child as soon as you want. As your child gets older and continues the slow gentle process of weaning, your fertility will probably return. Very occasionally, a mother may need to wean completely in order to get pregnant. For more information see Fertility and Breastfeeding.
At some point you may decide that you want to continue nursing, just not at night. It is important to remember that nursing at night is normal and beneficial. Many babies continue to nurse at night well past a year. If you and your child are separated during the day, nighttime can be a wonderful time to reconnect by nursing.
If you decide that you need to reduce or eliminate night feedings, eliminate one at a time. Choose the one that your child is least attached to. When your child asks to nurse you can continue to comfort and be present. If he is sad, it can be helpful to say to him, “I understand you are sad about not nursing right now.” Then you can let him know when he can nurse again. You may say “when the sun comes up” (depending on what time of year that is). Or you can say, “when the night light goes off” or when the alarm goes off” etc. You can consider buying a light that you can set to turn on when your child is allowed to nurse again. You can slowly extend the time before the light turns on, as needed. If you can control the “signal” to nurse then you can decide when you want to let your child nurse again. For example, if your child successfully settles after waking at 2:00 am but then wakes up at 4:00 am, you may decide to “signal” that he can nurse, since he already skipped one feeding. One mother put two socks on her child at bedtime. When her child nursed in the night she removed one sock. When both socks were gone, there was no more nursing until the morning. If your child is sleeping in another room, your partner can try to comfort him. This works for some families, but not all.
Weaning when pregnant
It is not necessary to wean when you are pregnant. But if you want to wean your child, being pregnant can make this a little easier. Most mothers and nursing parents find that their milk supply starts to drop around the 20th week of the pregnancy. Some babies will happily continue nursing in spite of the decreased milk supply, while others will naturally wean at this time.
After the new baby arrives, some toddlers who weaned, will ask to nurse again once the milk is abundant. You may decide to nurse your older child and baby. This is called ‘tandem nursing’. Or you may tell your child: “Mama’s milk is for the new baby in our family.” When nursing an older child and baby, it is important to make sure your new baby gets all the milk she wants before offering the breast to your older one.
Many children, if offered, will try to nurse again. Some toddlers are happy to be at breast again and getting lots of milk. Others choose not to continue after trying it once or twice. If you would prefer not to nurse two, don’t offer the breast when asked. For more information see Breastfeeding Through Pregnancy and Stories: Tandem Nursing.
You may have mixed emotions when your child weans. If you initiate the weaning, you may feel relief and happy to have your body back. If your child weans suddenly, you may be angry or sad. And even if it’s a slow, mutual weaning, parents can have strong emotions. It’s common to feel sad that the breastfeeding relationship is over. All these feelings are normal.
The nursing relationship exists between two people and it needs to work for both of you. Ideally the relationship comes to an end at a time when both you and your child are ready for it to end. This doesn’t always happen. You may be ready to wean before your child is. Or your child may wean sooner than you wanted. If you feel you need to end the relationship earlier than your child wants, you can still help to make the transition as smooth as possible. Slow weanings are easier for a child to adapt to. They are also easier for your breasts to adapt. After the last breastfeeding you can celebrate all the time you spent nursing together and treasure the memories you have.
If you have questions about weaning or any other breastfeeding questions, please contact your local La Leche League Canada Leader for information and support.
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