Tips for Tearless Weaning January 11, 2014 21:24

Whether you have been nursing your newborn for a few days or your toddler for a couple of years, the nagging question may have crossed your mind; “Will he/she ever want to stop?” Although no one has ever heard of a kid who is still nursing in high school, it may seem like you are in the nursing game for the long haul unless you are going to wean. While many mothers and children enjoy a long-term nursing relationship, there may be practical considerations to consider when weaning. The process does not have to be traumatic if you inform yourself and introduce the new routine to your child gradually. 

When Weaning begins

Officially, the weaning process begins when the child is given solids for the first time, around the age of 5 or 6 months, and, if the child is left to his or her own devices, the process may continue until the child is 2 ½ to 4 years of age. The answer to the question “Will my child ever want to stop?” is, “Yes, eventually.” Even in non-Westernized societies in which children are allowed to wean themselves, there are rarely children who choose to nurse past the age of 4 ½ of 5. Of course, in Industrialized countries, the weaning process usually begins much earlier; less than 20% of babies are still nursing past six months of age. This is perhaps because of the number of women who return to work when their children are around 3 months old. Although the American Medical Association recommends that women nurse their babies up until they reach 6 months of age, nursing up to three months still provides a young infant with a good supply of vitamins, protein, and germ-fighting antibodies, as well as the emotional connection that is so essential for optimal development. Whether you begin your weaning process after a few days of nursing or after a year, you can be confident that your baby’s nursing experience was beneficial.

Reasons to Wean

One of the most common reasons for weaning is that the mother needs to return to work. Although there are breast pumps on the market to suit every need, a mother might find pumping milk at work to be an irritating intrusion in her work day, or she might not have a job that provides adequate breaks needed for pumping. If a woman is in a high pressure environment, she might find that her milk supply might suddenly decrease. As one woman reports, “When I was at work, all I could think about was when I was going to get a chance to go and pump. I couldn’t concentrate. And then, when I finally had a chance to get to a bathroom and pump, there was no milk, because I was so stressed out!” Although it is best to give pumping a try before weaning altogether (breast milk, unlike formula, has antibodies that protect your baby certain illnesses), pumping is definitely not for everyone. It is best to invest in a low cost pump to see if it works out before buying a state of the art model.

Some women find that babies go off the breast themselves. This is the easiest of all weaning scenarios, because the baby doesn’t need to be coaxed into accepting alternatives. However, there isn’t always mutual agreement; many mothers are quite disappointed when their babies go off their milk suddenly. If this is the case, your baby might be going on “strike” for some reason, and will resume their desire to nurse in a few days. You may want to express milk to maintain your milk flow. If you were thinking of weaning, consider yourself lucky, but don’t be surprised if the baby changes his or her mind later. Use gentle words and give your child a lot of love an attention in addition to a bottle of their favorite (or second favorite) beverage.

There are many medications that are considered harmful to babies if it is absorbed into the breast milk. This may lead a mother to conclude that she must wean suddenly. Since gradual, rather than sudden, weaning has been proven more beneficial to a child, make sure that there really is no other alternative. Some doctors choose to play it safe by telling women to wean their babies when they prescribe certain medicines; confirm with the doctor that there truly is a risk. Ask your doctor if there are other medications that are not harmful, or try alternative remedies (but you also need to check that herbs support nursing).

It was believed for many years that women were required to wean as soon as they became pregnant. It has now been proven that as long as a pregnancy is healthy, the mother does not have a high risk of delivering pre-term and she is not carrying multiples, a pregnant woman can usually continue nursing up to and after delivery (many women nurse more than one child at a time. This is called “tandem nursing”). The taste of the milk changes at around 12 weeks, and many babies will self wean if they don’t like the new flavor.

Many women nurse because it just “feels like the right time”. When a mother starts to feel a bit irritated with her child’s breastfeeding demands (which usually become more vociferous with toddlers), or she feels that it is no longer comfortable or convenient, this is usually an indication that it is a good time to wean. Since this is a matter of preference rather than immediate necessity, the weaning can be done gradually in a way that is mutually beneficial for the mother and the child.

Weaning Your Baby

It is especially important to try to wean a small baby gradually, since it is impossible to explain to them what is going on. Replace one feeding a day with formula or solids and let your milk supply diminish slowly. If the baby seems agitated, it is alright to backtrack and resume a feeding you had previously given up, but get back on schedule the next day. The last feedings to go are usually the late night feeding followed by the early morning feeding.

It is important to find the right formula for your baby. Cow’s milk is not recommended for babies under one year of age. The baby will want to satisfy his or her sucking instinct, so give your child a pacifier or teething ring. If thumb sucking begins, don’t discourage it until the weaning process is over; the child might prefer the sensation of skin to a that of a rubber pacifier. Make sure to give your child some extra cuddling, although if cuddling is closely associated with nursing, this might be difficult for a few days. In this case, give your spouse or a close relative a chance to help out. Most families are full of eager volunteers when it comes to cuddling a baby.

Weaning Your Toddler

Toddlers can be more difficult to wean because they are known to be more vocal about their demands and less tractable than babies, but weaning a toddler doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Give it several weeks or months rather than several days; the more a toddler enjoys nursing, the harder it is for him or her to stop.

The best strategy for weaning toddlers is the “Don’t Offer and Don’t Refuse” method. This means that a mother shouldn’t offer the child an opportunity to nurse, but if the toddler demands, time for nursing should be provided. This gives the toddler a sense of independence to make his or her own decisions. Give your toddler regular meals including snacks and drinks. It is possible to bribe him or her away from the breast with a special treat, but this might create a problem if the food is candy something you wouldn’t want your toddler to eat every day. Healthy “bribes” such as Ovaltine or fruit might be possibilities, but make sure you consistently have them on hand. Give your child some structure to his or her day so you toddler isn’t tempted to nurse out of boredom. If you are accustomed to nursing your toddler to sleep, find alternative methods of inducing sleep, such as putting the toddler in a stroller, reading a story, or singing a lullaby. Since a toddler usually nurses for comfort rather than hunger, you can feel confident about limiting the time at the breast. Saying “That’s enough for now” firmly and lovingly is often accepted favorably by a toddler. Don’t worry if your toddler turns into a thumb-sucking and blanket-clutching Linus; a good motto for parenting is “One issue at a time!”


Stopping the Milk Flow

Make sure you wear a supportive bra and nursing pads so the wet spots don’t show through your clothes. Pumping to relieve engorgement is a good idea. Cutting down on fluids does not reduce milk flow, so drink 8 glasses a day as recommended for every healthy adult. Cutting down on salt seems to help many people, since salt tends to cause fluid retention. It is a good idea to take 200 mg of vitamin B6 every day to relieve engorgement.

Cabbage leave compresses are a tried and true method for relieving breast engorgement. Simply remove the leaves from the cabbage, wash them and remove the spine in the center so each leaf lies flat like a piece of paper. Put them in the refrigerator and place a leaf on each breast, leaving the areole exposed. The coldness of the leaves is soothing, but the leaves wither fast and should be changed every 30 minutes.

Another effective “granny” cure is sage tea. Sage contains an estrogen-like compound and helps to dry up milk. Take one teaspoon of rubbed sage and put it in one cup of hot water. Let it steep for 15 minutes and drink it with sugar or honey, since it is quite bitter. Sage is slightly more effective when used as a tincture and can be found in most health food stores.

Weaning can be an emotional time for both mom and baby.  Give yourself infinite love and patience during the transition.  Kathleen Huggins, author of the The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning, reminds us:

“Independence grows out of a child's faith that her source of security will always be there when she needs it.”