Bob is 18 months. He is breastfeeding on demand. This usually means breastfeeding at least 6 times in 24 hours.
Billie is 3 years old. She breastfeeds in the morning, at bedtime and usually once during the night.
Let’s imagine you are Bob or Billie’s mum and you want to end breastfeeding.
First, let’s take a moment to check this is a decision you are happy about. Am I going to try to talk you out of it? Nope.
I breastfed both my children until they self-weaned and I speak to mothers breastfeeding toddlers every day. I know it isn’t for everyone.
If you are in the tiny minority of mothers breastfeeding well into the second year and beyond, that is something to be celebrated and praised and baton-twirled.
You get to choose when you stop.
The job of the breastfeeding support community is to enable each mother to reach her own breastfeeding goals. When it comes to breastfeeding an older child, we are allowed to listen to our own maternal instincts. Not everyone’s maternal instincts tell them the same thing.
However this is an important decision so let’s do a few checks.
If you are 100% confident with your decision, feel free to skip to the row of asterisks.
Are you ending breastfeeding because you want to conceive again and you believe weaning will be necessary?
Every woman’s fertility responds differently to breastfeeding. To conceive, we need oestrogen levels to rise again and ovulation to occur and then we need the womb to receive a fertilised egg and give it enough chance to hang around and implant properly. Most women do not need breastfeeding to end completely for this to happen. However most of us do need at least one gap of 5-6 hours without any breastfeeding in 24 hours.
It might be worth experimenting with night weaning or extending intervals in order to trigger your period before ending breastfeeding entirely if you’d rather not. Get familiar with your cervical fluid (or as my friend Sarah Panzetta, a fertility expert, calls it, ‘your lady liquid’) and get a sense of what it’s likely to look like when you ovulating (stretchy and egg-whitey). Some people are told they need to wean from breastfeeding in order to start another round of IVF. That is a very difficult and personal decision.
We can probably say that is likely that you would be maximising your chances of conceiving by ending breastfeeding. You may still decide you’d rather continue breastfeeding.
Are you ending breastfeeding because you need to take medication and the doctor says you have to?
Check. Many many women are told this inaccurately. In the UK, the Breastfeeding Network is a great source of information – both their medication factsheets and the ‘drugs in breastmilk’ helpline. You can also check with LactMed or the resources (book and website) of Dr. Thomas Hale. There are many lactation consultants available through Twitter who would be happy to check for you.
Are you ending breastfeeding because someone else is putting pressure on you?
Is this someone who you feel has a right to comment on your body and what you choose to do with it? Is it someone who you feel has as much right to make decisions about your child’s health and happiness as you do? If you answer yes to both of those questions, then you may feel you want to listen.
However, you should also feel you have the right to explain very clearly why this matters to you and carry on. You have the right to continue even though other adults in your life are uncomfortable. Just because we live in a society which squirms at the idea of breastfeeding older children, it doesn’t mean a push into unhappy weaning is the ‘right’ opinion. You have science on your side.
This is a decision you will live with for a very long time. You have invested a huge amount in making breastfeeding work up until now. For many women, it has taken literal blood, sweat and tears. You have spent hours and hours and hours breastfeeding. One day, decades from now, you may be a grandmother and breastfeeding will be part in your world again. Wouldn’t it be great to look back with no regrets and know that you stopped breastfeeding at a time that was absolutely right for you?
Your nursling can’t speak up. If you are being pressured to wean when you don’t want to, you may need to be brave and speak up for them.
Are you ending breastfeeding because you aren’t getting enough sleep?
One possibility is to night wean and see how that feels. It may enable you to continue breastfeeding for longer than you imagined you would. You can follow the suggestions below and pause at any point in the process.
So we’re going to try and wean Bob. He’s breastfeeding a lot. He breastfeeds in the morning and at naptime. He falls asleep breastfeeding at the beginning of the night and breastfeeds during the night several times. He uses the breast for comfort when he feels sad or shy. It’s the first thing he wants when he falls over. When you sit together on the sofa, he wiggles over and lifts your shirt with a big smile on his face. He loves it all.
Have you done anything wrong by parenting this way up until now? No, you have not. You have followed your instincts and met his needs and what a lucky little bloke Bob is.
This is clearly going to be tough and Bob may be sad but YOU ARE STILL ALLOWED TO WEAN. This is your choice and you will be able to make it happen with the minimum amount of upset if you are sensitive and careful.
Some things to bear in mind before we start:
This is not about milk – completely. This is about YOU. Bob is connecting with you and being as close to you as he possibly can. He is feeling safe and loved and cosy and warm. Your milk still contains immunological properties and Vitamin A and protein and all the other useful things. However Bob’s breastfeeding behaviour is about security and love and not much about Vitamin A.
So don’t offer milk in a bottle or sippy cup instead and not in response to a request to breastfeed. Don’t offer milk in a cup at bedtime instead of that connection with you. That’s like you asking a loved one for a hug and he gives you a sausage roll. You may be a big fan of sausage rolls but right then, in that context, that’s a rejection.
We need to talk about ways of trying to avoid the ‘rejections’. It may not be entirely possible but we want to minimise them as much as possible.
Don’t offer another person instead. Does it seem entirely logical that at the moment we are pulling bits of ourselves away from our nursling, we pull our entire self away?
Does it seem logical to leave your toddler for a night or longer just to wean from breastfeeding when breastfeeding was about connecting with you as much as the milk?
We need to show that you are still there and you are still very much there for connecting – just not at the nipply bits.
You will still be there at bedtime when he feels scared and vulnerable. You will still be there for comfort. You will be there for him when he’s going through this really tough transition of losing breastfeeding. Does it seem sensible to pull yourself away when he’s potentially going to be losing something that really matters? You are the person he really needs to help him through this.
Of course partners and dads are a key part of this process but in addition to mum – not instead of. I hope daddy/partner is part of the bedtime process and able to comfort your child. I’m just not sure it’s brilliantly sensible for you to be stepping away and leaving them entirely to it.
Together – all 3 of you (mum, partner and nursling) – you will be making new routines and patterns and developing a new parenting language.
That doesn’t take a night and it probably doesn’t take a week. It might take a week for the 18 month old who is only breastfeeding a couple of times in 24 hours and falls asleep without the breast in his mouth – but that isn’t Bob.
While it’s true that this isn’t simply about milk, Bob has been having quite a lot of milk which have met a lot of his nutritional demands and provided a portion of his hydration through the day. We need to look at his diet. Is Bob confidently using a cup? Would he be able to indicate if he was thirsty? Can he help himself?
What will be Bob’s sources of calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals and good quality fats? It might be that Bob enjoys drinking cow’s milk but he also might really not. Does he eat dairy? He would ideally get around 300ml of full-fat cow’s milk a day. If he won’t drink milk, he can eat cheese and yoghurt and you can use cream and butter in cooking. He might like a yoghurt-based fruit smoothie or a milkshake. There are other sources of calcium and other minerals like green leafy vegetables, nuts and tofu. Bob doesn’t need to drink a commercial formula. Full-fat cow’s milk is the recommendation.
Take a moment to reflect on what his nutritional sources will be. Do some research. He’s been taking a significant portion of his calories overnight so you will need to look at extra snacks and opportunities to offer food once that’s gone.
Now it’s time to look at sleep skills. This may be the most difficult aspect of the process so we need to address it from the beginning because it could take the longest.
Bob right now has a prop dependency – a loving and comforting prop dependency. He’s using the breast to aid his drop-off to sleep and he’s using it to transition between sleep cycles at night. As he moves between sleep cycles, he fully rouses and seeks the breast to help him move on to the next sleep cycle. Some babies need dummies replugged or a pat. Bob has a breast as his sleep prop. For lots of mums, this is not really something that bothers them and it can continue until it naturally fades. But if you want to wean from breastfeeding, it’s a problem for you.
You can’t end breastfeeding until you have helped Bob find a new way to sleep. If we just take breastfeeding away suddenly, it’s really not very fair. This has been the way Bob has fallen asleep for a very long time. Sleep time is often when we feel the most vulnerable and when we can really get into habits.
Imagine you’d always fallen asleep by putting your head on a pillow and turning out the light and thinking peaceful thoughts and someone suddenly announces sleep isn’t allowed to happen this way anymore and you have to touch your nose with your thumb while whistling the star-spangled banner. You’d quickly become distressed and angry and think the whole thing was entirely unreasonable. You literally wouldn’t know how to do it.
You would probably prefer to make any transition gradually and with the support of someone you love.
A really good resource for this stage is ‘The No-cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers’ by Elizabeth Pantley. You may already have read about her ‘pull-off’ method in her book aimed at babies. You would start a feed as normal but then resist the temptation to feed right to the end when your toddler is in a deep sleep and absolutely out for the count. You would use your little finger and break the latch just before they completely fall asleep. The first time, it really would only be seconds before. You want them to do the final drop-off from drowsy to deep sleep without the breast actually being in their mouth. You are right there but the breast has been removed. If your nursling fully rouses at this point and searches for the breast, you may gently place your hand on their chin to see if they might still settle. If not, and they wake further, you latch them back on again and try a few moments later. Then, over several nights, you would gradually detach them earlier and earlier in the process. After a while, you may feed them and after the feed they may still pretty much be awake. It has been a gentle and slow process. They learn how to fall asleep without actually sucking. What then often starts to happen is the nursling who can do the final drop-off without the breast being in their mouth is less likely to rouse between sleep cycles during the night. They semi-wake (as we all do between sleep cycles at night) but feel safe about moving onto the next sleep cycle without needing their prop.
At the same time as working on the pull-off technique, you can work on introducing a different structure for bedtime. Before you even start, you could introduce a lovey – a comfort object that could become associated with sleep and bedtime. It could be cuddled between you during night time breastfeeds. Then as the feeds start to change, the lovey is still there. You could also think about singing a little song that is your ‘bedtime song’. This is a song that you initially sing during the breastfeed and as the breastfeed fades, it’s a new part of your routine. It might happen during the final cuddle or if they appear to rouse and be looking for comfort. It’s calm and soothing and – this is the important bit – you don’t mind singing it every night for a while. If you are feeling very creative, choose a tune you know well and write your own lyrics about your day and your loved ones. Or choose a little poem and phrase that says, ‘this is sleep time now’.
As the breastfeeds end, the song or the poem is still there. It remains consistent. It’s the sign that it’s sleep time now. You are still there and we’re just removing the prop of the breast.
As your nursling finishes a breastfeed more and more awake, you’ve got the chance to insert other things as your new ‘final stage’. You could read a story. It is sometimes said that sharing a book with your toddler is more similar to breastfeeding than offering a cup or bottle of milk. You are devoting yourself to your child. You are sharing a connection. They have your attention and a cuddle.
There are even some books on the process of weaning and night weaning that you might find useful. I don’t mean books for you about technique but picture books for both of you that will usually have illustrations of jolly toddlers and rested mothers greeting the sunrise. ‘Nursies when the sun shines’ is a classic example.
You could also make your own book. Make a photo book using one of the online photo companies about your night weaning journey. Toddlers at this age love seeing photos of themselves and their friends and family. It could just be something as simple as saying ‘goodnight’ to all the things he loves. And I dare you to have ‘good night mummy’s boobs’ on the last page. ‘See you in the morning!’
So the breastfeeding moves back further. After it comes the story and the song (bored of it yet?). Then one day, breastfeeding happens in a different room and then before bath and one day, it gets dropped. Perhaps that night something exciting happens instead – a new toy in the bath, some ice cubes to play with. The breastfeed is something that he will want to get out of the way to get onto the fun stuff.
Some people prefer to leave the bedtime breastfeed as the very last one that gets dropped when full weaning happens. You may have been working on daytime feeding while this whole process was going on. The point is though that we may need to start AND finish with the weaning the bedtime feed because the process of setting up a new routine could take a while.
When a nursling wakes up in the middle of the night, we can hopefully develop new techniques that help them transition without using breastfeeding. Ideally now that we’ve done the pull-off, we are getting fewer night wakings but we may still see some. What else will make your toddler feel calm and safe? You may be able to use some of those techniques from bedtime. The lovey is there. You can sing your special song and use your special phrases. You may stroke and pat. You may put on a gentle piece of music or white noise. You’re going to be finding your own strategies.
There may be tears. It may be tempting to offer the breast because this is too difficult to manage. You have to follow your instincts. You may discover you are not ready to wean and you can cope with just one feed at night. You may decide that some tears of frustration are going to have to happen because you are absolutely ready to end this stage of motherhood. Try and be consistent.
Daddy can be a great help but you also need to develop your boob alternatives now. – the way you will show physical love and give your mothering comfort.
Some 18 month olds are verbal enough that they can understand that milkies are sleeping now and they will be awake in the morning – cuddles instead.
What about weaning breastfeeds in the daytime?
Once you have broken the sleep prop, the process will get easier. You will need to ensure of course that naps can happen without breastfeeding. Now the rest of the weaning is about distraction.
We are trying to avoid the need for refusal. This is a key aspect of weaning all older nurslings. You sometimes hear the phrase ‘Don’t offer, Don’t refuse’ used as a weaning technique. It will work for everyone in the end but sometimes we need to jiggle our day around so we don’t actually get to the point of being asked if we want weaning to happen more quickly.
Once we get to the point of being asked, refusal means rejection. Not just a missing out on milk but a rejection from mummy. The request and breastfeed was a way that toddler communicated with you. He asked and it happened and it was magic. It was a dialogue between you that made him feel empowered and special. Really not just about the milk.
What other things can be ask for? Make a special box of books he can request. Make a snuggly book nest with pillows and beanbags. Instead of asking for a breastfeed, he could lead you by the hand and ask for a ‘book cuddle’. Or a dance? Or a big squeezy cuddle with a raspberry on his neck?
You may need to restructure your day for a while - more time outside or at activities. Perhaps meals as a picnic if he normally asks for feed at the dinner table and climbs onto your lap. Perhaps moving the special chair where he normally asks for a feed. In the morning, it’s a big hug and a scoop out of bed and a race downstairs to find the little ice cube tray full of fun snacks to avoid the morning feed. Or Thomas The tank Engine says good morning in a silly voice before mummy says a word. Distraction.
You may need to get up a little earlier for a while so you’ve got the energy to think ahead before he wakes and starts asking.
When you see the glint in his eye that indicates an ‘ask’ is on its way, think imaginatively. It’s really not about offering a cup of cow’s milk instead.
Some toddlers will do really well with limits. Some are starting to become fascinated by counting. If you’ve not managed to avoid ‘the ask’, how about? “We’ll have milkies for as long as it takes mummy to count to ten”. Count as fast or as slow as you like. You are in control. Talk about what you will be doing next. If there’s a big protest at the end of a feed? “OK, one more. Do you want ‘count to ten’ or ‘count to eleven’?” He is control too.
A lot of the techniques will be the same for three-year-old Billie. She’ll also need to learn how to drop to sleep without the breast and transition between sleep cycles in another way. It’s likely she’ll have a much greater understanding of what’s going on and you can talk about your plans together.
You may decide to use a token system. Each morning you could give her 2 or 3 (or however many) tokens and she can swap them for breastfeeds at any time but she won’t get new tokens until tomorrow. The tokens may be plastic gold coins (that one seems a bit too ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ for some) or perhaps little stretchy bracelets that she wears in the day and takes off each time she wants to ‘buy’ a breastfeed.
Again – you are both in control. She gets to decide whether to hold on to her tokens. When she requests a feed you might talk through her decision: “Are you sure? Because that means you only have one left for tonight? It’s up to you but maybe check you’re really sure.” You may well find she gains comfort from keeping that last one ‘just in case’ and it never gets used. Gradually there are fewer tokens given.
She would also be old enough to talk about a weaning party or special treat. We don’t want too much emphasis on the ‘you’re a big girl now’ stuff because that sounds pretty scary. Big girls want cuddles and mummy too – but she might be ready for something new that celebrates her moving on.
It’s OK to talk about what’s happening. This is her first intimate relationship and you are teaching important lessons about empathy and understanding. Mummy’s milkies are getting ready to stop breastfeeding soon. We will find new ways to give cuddles and be close. A three year old may also have ideas about a cosy reading corner and a new bedtime routine.
This might not be easy but you are allowed to stop. You have given such a magical gift to your child but that doesn’t mean you have to continue breastfeeding beyond a point that feels right for you. I once heard a mother of a toddler say she simply couldn’t ‘bear’ breastfeeding anymore. She counted the seconds in her head until each feed finished and felt physically uncomfortable. Is it in that toddler’s interest for his mother to carry on?
If we say mothers of older nurslings are not allowed to wean, we will be frightening people of younger children who will feel stuck on a path. We do not want a world where mothers of nine month olds are ending breastfeeding because ‘it’s easier when they’re younger’.
Breastfeeding can continue when it’s right for toddler AND mother. It can also end when it feels right.
There are forums and Facebook pages with other mums in your situation who you may be able to share your decision and your journey with. You can make up your own rules. You may decide to pause along the way. Perhaps when you have finished night-weaning, it will suddenly seem more manageable for a while. Just see how you feel.