Weaning from the breast

Weaning from the breast - Transcript

Over the years I’ve known lots of breastfeeding ladies who have struggled in the early weeks to get breastfeeding established – but then as time has gone on things have really improved. They’ve begun to enjoy breastfeeding, and things have gone a lot more smoothly.

Then the baby has got older, gone into toddler hood, and she’s continued to breastfeed. Suddenly, ladies will turn up at a drop-in with their toddler and they’re now asking, ‘how do I stop breastfeeding’?

So if this is you, with your toddler and you’re thinking about weaning at this stage, bear in mind that you have already started the weaning process – even when you started giving solids around the six month mark, gradually introducing something other than breast milk, and maybe offering some other fluids at some stage too. All of this contributes to a gradual weaning.

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and that means no water or solids or anything else, just your breast milk – but then to carry on with breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond. So there is great flexibility and there isn’t a cutoff point, in actual fact, after the two year mark.

So think about you and your toddler being on a journey really where there is great flexibility and at the right time and in the right way you can bring breastfeeding to a close. I can categorically state to you that the myths that abound that breastfeeding doesn’t have any benefits past a certain age, are just not true. Your breastmilk is still contributing to nutrition but it’s also still providing antibodies to help to protect your baby from illness.

I find it really interesting to know that as your baby becomes a toddler and feeds less frequently there is more concentration of antibodies. Breastmilk almost becomes more like colostrum again. It’s also important to learn that little ones tend to wean at different times, different ages, even, so it might be that your child is ready at 18 months or two years or three years. Some have been ready at four years – and this is normal across the world.

We know that when you take every mother and baby pair in developing countries, and in the West, the average age was found to be three to four years. Because you and your little one are a unit, you have a very close connection there, -it’s a great rule of thumb, if at all possible, to wean gradually over a few weeks or months even, so that your milk supply can reduce very gradually and it won’t be as traumatic for you both.

You’ve probably already discovered that breastfeeding is an excellent mothering tool and it’s also providing the comfort and the reassurance and that wonderful closeness that your little one needs.

Across many cultures this natural kind of weaning is seen as completely normal but not generally in the West. We tend to talk about partial weaning. If you do decide to partially wean your toddler from the breast, this is going to involve a bit of effort on your part, by substituting and distracting your little one, instead of feeding at the breast.

Gradually your body will reduce the amount of milk made, and this can happen over a period of time, and it’s a great option as opposed to just going cold turkey and completely stopping feeding at this point.

So how can you start to implement this partial weaning? Now one of the most common, gentle approaches is to not proactively encourage feeding at the breast, but if your toddler comes to the breast you don’t refuse. It’s also really important that as your supply starts to drop you could potentially get engorged at some point. If that happens you MUST hand express, just a small amount of milk if you feel uncomfortably full at any point, to keep yourself comfortable and prevent a blocked duct. We know blocked ducts can lead to mastitis, and I have known women to get mastitis even at this late stage.

Another strategy you can try is to simply drop a feed and do this at the same time for maybe two to four days, just to give your milk supply time to reduce. You could also use the tactic of reducing the length of the feed – maybe just counting, or distracting your little one or even postponing the feed. Once you’ve got rid of one of those nursing sessions and you’re confident that you’re not getting engorged in the process – so your milk supply has really settled down and reduced, then you can add another one in, and do that for a few days, as well as the original – gradually cutting out these opportunities to feed.

While you’re in the process of this gradual reduction always think about a little snack for your little one or a distraction of some description – it could be going out to the park or looking at something or playing with a toy – just something that is going to take your toddler’s mind off that nursing session.

Also in this process things don’t always work as smoothly as you might expect. If your little one starts to get more clingy or maybe starts to get an illness, a cold, for instance, your little one is likely to want to come back to the breast again – so flexibility is needed and you may need to re-look at the strategies or delay them for a little time longer.

I think that when you are starting to drop certain feeds it’s good to remember that your little one is likely to associate certain times of the day with a really cosy feeding, and that can be the nap times first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They’re often the hardest times to let go of in some way, so they bear that in mind with your little one. Take things slowly -it might be that you keep those particular ones right till the last – and that can carry on for as long as you want.

You know your child better than anybody and so you can anticipate when he is likely to want to nurse, and preempt that, getting that distraction ready or a little snack or whatever it is. Your toddler is likely to anticipate those feedings, maybe because you always sit in a particular seat, or something that’s a very regular occurrence – so if you can alter some of those practical things all the better.

If your child prefers to be feeding when he’s at home, and that’s a regular occurrence, then during the weaning process it would be a good idea to go out more and do more things and distract him in that way.

It could of course work the other way round – that your little one is more likely to feed when he’s out and about, so it might be in that situation that you have to stay at home more. I try to encourage breastfeeding women to keep this time as flexible as you can and to reassess things because it might be that the strategies you’re trying to put into place at the minute are just not working well for the sensitivities of your little one, or even your own -because you’re both connected in so many ways physically and emotionally. So sometimes for one or the other, it’s just not the right time. So keep flexible. It might be that you wait a few more weeks and retry those strategies when your toddler is a little bit older.

So if this is you then know that there is this flexibility -reconsider; it might be that you just look at the tactics that you’re using and set more specific limits on where you are going to feed. Maybe give your little one a code word so that you can feed out and about and not be embarrassed when your little one wants to feed – using that word, so nobody else is aware of that.

I have known women who have carried on for weeks or months longer, or even years because ultimately they didn’t want to stop, and they wanted to carry on, and that is possible.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

V1 published June 2017. Next review date: April 2020


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