Weaning: When and for Whom?

If you are or have been a breastfeeding mother, you have probably been asked “How long are you going to keep that up?” or some question to that effect.  And it has probably occurred to you to wonder why that question is so important to some people.  They seem to be looking for some reassurance that you won’t go beyond some arbitrary length of time they have in their minds that feels to them like “too long.”  Or does it seem that they are really not asking a question at all?   Perhaps they are just letting you know that there is a certain length of time that is okay, and beyond that…well.

I remember over a quarter of a century ago (how fun it is to write that phrase!) when I was nursing one of my own babies, and reading the old La Leche League News.  I was actually weeping as I read an account there from a mother who had been pressured by everyone around her—her husband, her parents, her in-laws, her neighbors, her friends—to wean that toddler because he was two years old.

She had not felt any need to wean on her own part.  Her toddler had not shown any readiness to wean.  But it seemed the chorus joy1of voices around her was urgent, insistent and relentless.  She tried ignoring them, but as she had no one to support her against the multitude (she lived in a remote area, far from any LLL group), she began to wonder if it would be best to please them all and calm everyone’s anxiety and irritation.  She weaned her son.  He cried, she cried, but in a couple of weeks, it was done.

And that is when she began to grieve in earnest for giving in to the demands of people who had no need to be interfering in the first place.  They didn’t hold a parade for her or give her a gold medal for caving in to their pressure; they went on with their lives as before.  But she was left with a deep sense of sorrow—and resentment–that she had sacrificed something precious which would never come back.  Those who had demanded that she wean her toddler didn’t even know what that breastfeeding relationship was; they didn’t know what they were asking; they were ignorant, and didn’t even know what they didn’t know.

Dear young mother, when you experience pressure from others to wean your baby before you and baby are ready, those critics are handing you an opportunity to grow.  You could comply in hopes that they won’t think critically of you anymore. (It won’t work, by the way; critical people always find something else to criticize:  it’s what they do.)  Another option is to listen to your own heart and let the critics be frustrated.  (Their frustration is not your problem.)

It’s yet another life lesson.  If you give in to the pressure, you are sure to feel a sense of self-betrayal:  “Once again, just to keep peace, I didn’t stand up for what I knew was right for me.”  If you persist on your own heart-path, you learn that you can, and you build on that for future times in your life when you will have to take a stand or give in.  One way leads to shrinking back into yourself.  The other leads to self-confidence and maturity.

In La Leche League, all those many years ago, I learned about “baby-led weaning.”  I had my doubts and questions about it; it was so counter-cultural.  At the same time, I had my supports in my LLL group, and the example of moms and babies who were ahead of me on the mothering path.  That’s the kind of support that can help mothers to make a choice that seems revolutionary. joy2

When you are struggling with a decision that makes you feel out of step with those around you, try changing up your company.  Spend a little more time with those who share your point of view on mothering; it will fortify you to do what’s best for you.

So, when should your baby wean?  Simple: When you and your baby are ready to wean.  For whom do you make the decision to wean?  For yourself and your baby.

Joy Davy is a therapist in Hinsdale, Illinois, focusing on parenting challenges, postpartum depression, and Mentoring the Motherless Mother. For 12 years she was a La Leche League Leader, and breastfed all of her 5 children. Joy can be reached at 630-935-7915. Check out her website at http://www.joydavy.com.

19 thoughts on “Weaning: When and for Whom?

  1. I came upon this post from the [email protected] Breastfeeder FB page. I cannot even begin to express my sincere thanks and gratitude for your sharing of this message. I have NO ONE in my life (not even my husband) who is supportive of my continued breastfeeding of our almost-2-year-old daughter. She loves it, I love it, and that is ALL anyone needs to know!! She will be done when SHE is ready, and not one moment before!!!! A million times, thank you <3

    1. Dear Julie,
      Thank you for your comment! I appreciate what you have said.

      Science keeps discovering new benefits for extended nursing: the toddler continues to get protection from illnesses, just as the newborn did; the mother continues to get the calming effect of prolactin, which has to be helpful for the mother of any toddler…. Science can keep on discovering, but in our hearts, mothers have always known the uniqueness of this breastfeeding relationship.

      Julie, would you give me the link to [email protected] Breastfeeder FB page? I would love to connect there.

      Thanks again!

  2. Thank you sooo much for this. I am done nursing all of mine but I will be sharing for the sake of other’s . I nursed my z until he was 3 and he still puts a hand over 1 breast at night to fall asleep . I was blessed to have a very supportive husband during this time and I am so thankful for the work that gives mother’s the power to do what they feel is best .

    1. Sarah,
      Mothers do need to have the power to do what they feel is best, as you say. Mothers must support one another. I believe moms truly do the best they know how to do, in the moment.

  3. Such a wonderful article! I am a former La Leche League leader who is now a grandmother of a 2 and a half-year-old who recently self weaned. At two, he was still nursing at night and numerous times during the day. It was on Mother’s Day that he asked to nurse for the last time.

    1. Kathy,
      How wonderful for you, to see breastfeeding continuing down to the next generation. And to think, in the 1950’s, breastfeeding was nearly unheard of in the U.S.

  4. It always astounds me how people feel the need to comment and do so openly about breatfeeding. Fortunately I am what is considered to be an “older mother” to my 2.5 year old little girl, and am still feeding, mostly at night (she wakes 4 – 8 times each night). When I say I am fortunate to be an older mother, I mean that I am confident in what I am doing and am un phased by others opinions. I breastfed my son who is now 16 until he was 2 and he weaned himself, I was only 22 when i had him and I did receive alot of comments as to when I would stop as it was considered “creepy” given he could eat meat. I didn’t really know what I was doing and how beneficial the prolonged feeding was to my son back then, it just felt right and was so easy. I was lucky to have made friends with 2 other mums who were “like minded” so it made things easier. You have to follow those “motherly” instincts, they are there for a very real reason and will get you through your job as a parent.

    1. Claudine,
      How funny:
      “it was considered “creepy” given he could eat meat.”
      I had to laugh, because as a vegan myself, I think eating meat is creepy. A toddler breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.
      Well, it’s all in one’s perspective, isn’t it? I remember when I had my own doubts about it–before I was informed, and before I had become “acculturated” to extended breastfeeding. Now, when I look back, it’s hard to believe I ever doubted. But remembering that gives me patience with others who don’t understand yet.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I have just gone through a horrid time of attempting to wean my 3 year old. We only managed it 2 nights, she only feeds at night time (we co sleep). I denied her breast milk because people (including my partner) thought it was time to stop. In fact my partner said that her bad eating habits (she isn’t a great eater) was down to me continuing to breast feed her. The trauma that stopping just for those 2 days when really neither of us were at all ready was horrific. So i wrote my partner an email (as I was sick of arguing about it face to face why I wanted to continue and wean when we were both ready, sending him lots of links to read supporting extended breastfeeding. He agreed with me and does not want to rush it now. It is so important to have access to information like this article, it reassures me that I am not a bad parent and to go with my gut instinct and what feels right and natural. Thank you so much.

    1. Siobhan, you are so welcome! It’s not easy to be counter-cultural, but it seems we are moving into a time in history where we are being called to do what is right for each one of us, instead of caving into current cultural pressures. When I was a La Leche League leader, I would sometimes see a child fitting the description you give, where it turned out that the child had sensitivities to certain foods. By delaying weaning, the child actually got more protection, and possibly food allergies were less severe. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not understand.” Sometimes our hearts speak loud and clear, and we only need the courage to listen. It is wonderful that your partner supports you now; that will make your way easier!

  6. Thank you for this article. I am currently struggling because I would like to stop but my son has no intentions of stopping soon. What the baby wants he shall get. Not with everything though. I guess I am learning patience because I know when it does end, I will miss it. Thank you again for this wonderful article.

    1. There are baby-friendly suggestions for “encouraging” weaning, such as keeping the little guy busy, taking him out to do something fun just before he’s going to ask, etc. La Leche League leaders and LLL books can give more suggestions, I think. But it’s such a strong need that sometimes all the distractions in the world can’t compete. How wonderful that you are honoring his needs, too.

    2. Have you tried just putting more limits on breastfeeding in lieu of fully weaning? Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can make rules like “we only nurse at home” or “we dont nurse at church” and that’s ok. A child over a year can accept limits if they are gently put into place. And that could give you the break you need to feel ok with nursing again. Good luck mama!

  7. The only person that has the guts to say anything about me breastfeeding for too long is my brother (he started in before my son was even one…and he, himself, was breastfed far past one and isn’t a parent) and I couldn’t care less what he thinks.

    However, my son started to ween himself a little bit after he turned one. He breast fed right after he woke up in the morning, sometimes once to a few times a day, and then before bedtime and a few time during the night (it went for 8 to 12 times just at night to that). Then my Mom’s breast cancer had spread through out her body and she had deteriorated a great deal in only two months, so my son and I traveled to my childhood home to take care of her. The trip and being away from home caused to him to breastfeed every moment he possibly could and it hasn’t really slowed down. I’m afraid that I’ve stunted his confidence by taking him away from home and his father for so long and into such a stressful situation.

    Just to clear it up, I am glad that I got to take care of my Mom and be there for her during her her last days and be there for my Dad and I wouldn’t change that. I love breastfeed and getting those extra snuggles that no one else gets from him and I know for a fact that I will probably cry for weeks after he breastfeeds for the last time, but I want him to be healthy of mind and body. I just thought that maybe someone would have some ideas of ways that I might help my little man be as confident as he used to be.

    Thank you for your time.

  8. SOOOOOOOO encouraging!! I needed this at this moment!! My Lyric Grace and I will carry on (13.5 months old)…best thing ever!

    1. Chanita,
      I’m so glad you found encouragement in my article! I also found encouragement from articles and from other mothers in La Leche League…way back when…so this is paying it forward! The LLL manual used to say that the time you spend breastfeeding is like “gold in the bank.”

  9. thank you for this great article! so helpful and timely, as i am struggling through this with my 13 month old right now. feeling very torn about weaning – my goal was a year and it was so hard for us to get here, i thought i would be very happy to start the process, but now feeling unsure and a bit of dread as i had serious ppd and am worried the weaning will bring it on again. maybe i will put it off for the time being and let my daughter lead the way.

    1. Amy, I’m so glad you are encouraged by the article to let your daughter “lead the way.” Most first-time breastfeeding moms don’t start out planning to nurse into toddlerhood. It’s not something we often see modeled in our culture. And yet when you arrive at 13 months, you see it’s an arbitrary cut-off, and your child is still enjoying the health and emotional benefits of nursing. So there’s no rush at all!

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