The Child under Three
Because of the good results, both for their children and for themselves, parents are becoming more comfortable with allowing nursing to take its course and waiting for weaning to occur on its own. Some people choose such an approach because it makes the most sense to them, as did the mother who writes, "She hasn't shown any signs of weaning, and I'm not going to push it. Why put a strain into a so-far carefree experience? I believe it should end as it started – naturally." Others, like one mother of six, have more practical reasons. "She'll have to wean herself," she says. "I don't have the time to worry about it, and it doesn't matter." For these reasons and others, more children these days have the good fortune to be born into families in which they do not have to give up nursing in anyone's time but their own.
A few children, of course, come to a spontaneous finish to their nursing before their second birthday. For the few who leave behind this part of their babyhood very early it will be in some other behavior that parents will likely see signs of their immaturity for some time yet. They will continue to need babying, but they will need it in other ways.
One mother, disappointed when her fourteen-month-old weaned, realizes now that weaning came from her approach to breastfeeding, not an active weaning campaign. She emphasized solids, offered other food before nursing once her child was eating solids, and did not nurse her child just for comfort. As this mother found out, children who start taking other foods and liquids before four to six months may come to depend upon these foods for most of their nourishment in the second half of their first year, a time when most nurslings still thrive for the most part on mother's milk. Often, children who take in a great deal of food and liquid other than mother's milk at six to twelve months tend to lose interest in nursing sooner than they might have otherwise. They will wean from the breast and cling to other objects for comfort.
Some children seem less interested in nursing and become easily distracted sometime between nine and fourteen months of age. Many advisers suggest that you take advantage of your child's decreased interest, if in fact her interest does show a decrease, to initiate weaning. If you don't want to nurse a toddler, this may be the least traumatic weaning time there will be for at least two or three years. But if you expect to find it easier to care for your child if she continues nursing, do not hesitate to remind her to nurse a few times daily until she outgrows this phase. If you do not want to wean, the time around nine months, a little later sometimes, may be a sort of danger time in which you may want to make sure your nursing relationship is not interrupted or disturbed.
Most children nurse without a pause through the months before and after their first birthdays, and a very few will wean in spite of efforts to the contrary, but you can nearly eliminate the possibility that your child might wean prematurely just by offering the breast a few times a day during those weeks or months.
Most youngsters around their first birthday still enjoy receiving a nice tummy full of milk when they nurse, and if other forms of feeding and sucking take the place of feedings at the breast, there will be, as a direct result, less of the milk that so many of these children look for. This is an effective way to encourage weaning, whether that is what mother has in mind or not. For many children such a pattern constitutes a satisfactory parent-initiated weaning. Also, if bottles and pacifiers are handy to offer children, mothers are likely to make use of them to put off a feeding while finishing this or that project they are working on. This also will lead to an earlier weaning, whether intended or not.
The way to achieve a natural weaning, if that is your objective, is to feed and care for your infant without contrived interferences. Nurse on demand from birth. Forget about other foods until your child shows he is ready for them (and not before a minimum six to twelve months of age). Then feed your child sensibly. Eating foods other than your milk in the first year is more for fun than for nourishment. Except in very hot weather, a baby who nurses often but has begun to ask for other foods does not need any more liquids besides your milk than he mooches from your cup or glass. Quenching his thirst with water or juice in a sippy cup can result in less interest in nursing. An excellent way to avoid overfeeding or over-watering your baby is to make tasty foods available and attractive, but let her feed herself, in her own way, and in her own time.
Unless you are in a situation where you absolutely cannot nurse your baby, a pacifier is no help to you or to your baby. It is mostly a nuisance that, unlike your breast, is always getting dirty or lost. There is no need for bottles, either. Both pacifiers and bottles tend to become mother substitutes and are not satisfactory replacements for the full embrace of nursing.
Without the distraction and confusion brought on by pacifiers, bottles, and too much other food too soon, your child can nurse and wean in his own time and have a chance to outgrow his baby needs so completely that he can leave them behind, whether that be in his second year, or fourth, or whenever.
Not all children give up nursing gradually. Some children seem to reach a new plateau in maturity all at once and turn their backs on this or that baby behavior seemingly overnight. One mother writes of her two- year-old:
He had always nursed to sleep, but one afternoon he got two new trucks and was afraid his brother would take them while he was asleep. When I sat down to nurse him he pushed me away, took a truck in each hand, and plopped down on the bed. He never nursed to sleep after that, though he did not wean from other nursings for several months.
It is very common for little people to toilet-train themselves all at once. A few children also wean this way, especially when they are not nursing very often anyway. Surprisingly, the events that can bring on weaning in a child who is ready may be the same ones that may cause an increase in nursing at an earlier stage. A new baby, a move to a new home, or lots of company, often threatening to very little people, may at other times be so exciting and pleasant to your older child that he will drop nursing to have more time to devote to the happy new circumstances. If your child is weaning quickly just because that is her way of doing things, and if your breasts do not become overfull, then let the matter rest and go on to other ways of being with your child.
Most of my experience is with children who weaned between three and four, but clinical observations and research suggest that completely child-led weaning is unlikely to take place before the child turns four. (1, 2) Mothers in East Bhutan, where nursing well into childhood is socially acceptable, say that self-weaning usually occurs between three and five years. (3) In any case, weaning may come dramatically enough that your child will brag about it as one little girl did, telling her grandmother, "I'm going to be a big sister when I'm almost four – and now I'm weaned!" Or it may be so gradual that no one will know for sure when it happened.
For most children in this age range weaning is a slow, unpatterned change in behavior, so unpredictable that it is not always even headed in the same direction. At times, maybe even for long periods, your child will nurse frequently and intensely. When conditions change, either around your child or as a result of his own growth, he will begin to prefer other things over nursing – playing, eating, sleeping, or even cuddling with you sometimes. Then things may change again for him so that he needs to be at your breast almost as often as before.
As the weeks go on, though, there will be movement, whether you notice it or not, away from many periods of frequent nursing toward more periods of less nursing. In some children this movement is regular and swift. In others it is so erratic and unpredictable that it is easy to understand how people come to believe some children would never wean without urging. Some children even wean from one breast long before the other.
Such is the unpredictable course of an uncoerced weaning. At some age, very young or "shockingly old," your child will not find nursing so absolutely essential to her well-being. And you may even miss it, as did a mother in India, who found herself unable to answer her e-mail messages as soon as she had gotten used to:
You know how things get with a busy four-year-old around the place! Sadly he's stopped automatically latching on when he sees me sit down at the computer, and pulls me off to play instead!
Your child may be distracted from nursing by anything and everything. You can see that, though he may have some months to go yet, he is on his way toward a time when he will no longer need you in this exact way.
Is child-led weaning completely child-led? Yes and no, depending on your definition. You will probably respond, and appropriately so, to your child's increasing distractibility as he matures. He may pull you to your favorite nursing spot, sit you down, latch on, and then instantly abandon you to chase his sister or watch a TV commercial. When this has happened several times, you will very naturally and with hardly a thought respond less quickly to his requests to nurse, at least when he seems to be asking rather superficially, and when the world around the two of you is busy and interesting. In this way, even without planning it, you play your part in his weaning. You are following his cues and your own common sense.
You will probably come to a time when you yourself are impatient with nursing. If you have been enjoying loving your child this way, you may be puzzled at the change in your feelings. No doubt your impatience will flare at times and subside at others, depending on what is going on in the rest of your life. Some of what you may be feeling, though, is part of natural weaning and an indication that you are gradually outgrowing the relationship. You too are growing toward being ready when the time for weaning comes.
In time – how much time no one can say – your child will abandon all but a very few favorite nursing times, usually the times when he is falling asleep or first waking up in the morning. When you are down to these few times, your milk production will dwindle. Then some children who have especially liked the milk will quit nursing in favor of a breakfast or bedtime snack. Others continue to enjoy one or more of these special nursing times for a long time yet, dropping them slowly until a few days, then a few weeks, go by with no request to nurse.
Every spontaneous weaning is unique, however, so it is impossible to guarantee anything about it except that it will happen.
Resuming Nursing after Weaning
For most children before age three or so, weaning, spontaneous or mother-initiated, is all but final when two or three weeks have passed without your child's tugging your shirt. After this amount of time most of these little ones do not ask again, or if they do, they find they have forgotten how to suckle. "Is it broken?" one little guy asked when he could not remember after a year just how to go about nursing.
Once in a while someone suggests that your milk may become "poison" or "spoiled" if your child does not nurse for some certain amount of time. This is an old wives' tale, one that is heard in many parts of the world. In rural Zimbabwe, for instance, mothers are told that if milk remains in the breast for a whole day, it will hurt the child. (4) But you can be assured that milk doesn't spoil in the breasts any more than blood does in the veins. Your child can nurse safely after any interval.
Occasionally a child will ask to nurse again after you have regarded her as totally weaned, but most forget how. A mother who was sad because her body just would not cooperate with her son's need to nurse during her pregnancy wrote:
I still have regrets because I see many LLL moms nursing their two-and-a-half-year-old sons, and I know that if I hadn't gotten pregnant I'd be nursing my son too. I think it would help because he doesn't talk, and it would be a great way to stay connected to him. He has tried to nurse since the new baby was born two months ago, but he doesn't remember how. I let him try whenever he wants (it's not very often).
The most likely circumstance for such requests is when you have a new baby, but also once in a while when a child discovers that mom is pregnant. Or your child may be upset about something, as in this situation recalled by the mother of a now grown daughter:
It was a disastrous time ending up with a breast abscess and an angry weaning at about two-and-a-half. She missed nursing so much though that we gradually started up again, nursed through a pregnancy and tandem nursed. She finally weaned by contract a couple months after her sixth birthday.
There is no reason that you can't allow your child to try nursing again, even though you have probably told all the relatives he is weaned. Chances are that he is weaned. A request to nurse from a child who has not nursed for a while is usually a request for reassurance and acceptance. You may not be able to discover any explanation for your child's desire to return to nursing other than the mysterious workings of his growing little mind. It feels good to a little child to know that if he ever did need you again that way, you would be there for him with open arms. One mother says of her weaned twins that they both had to try nursing several times when the new baby came, but gave it up after a few tries. It is much easier for a little person to wean himself if he knows that his decision does not have to be final.
One mother had nothing but positive feelings when her child wanted to nurse again a few times after over a year without asking for the breast: "I never realized just how important and memorable those nursing days were to her and that she would actually remember at all. This was her 'thank you' for the loving patience and time I took when it was needed." A brief return to the mostly outgrown way of loving can be a chance for mother and little one together to enjoy a bit of reminiscing.
Another mother writes of a child who resumed nursing – sort of:
When our daughter was about eleven months, [her two-year-old brother] started to become very interested in what nursing was. He shocked me one day by pretending to nurse on one breast while his sister was at the other. I didn't try to discourage him because by now I had read a little about tandem nursing and I hoped if he was to start nursing again after two years that it would help our relationship. I had already noticed the difference between my two children's behavior that I attribute to our nursing relationship. My son is a very energetic boy who likes to tell me "No!" as often as possible while my daughter is helpful and calm most of the time.
Now that she is fifteen months and he is two-and-a-half years old, he still continues to pretend but doesn't actually latch on. He even tells Baby, as he calls his sister, that it is time to nurse and he directs her to the breast he chooses. I am kind of sad that I didn't nurse him as long as I have nursed his sister but it is wonderful that he has joined our breastfeeding relationship.
For a child who is apparently weaned to actually resume nursing for a while, sometimes for no reason that you can perceive, might make you feel panicky, especially if you are very happy for your child to relate to you in a different way. Yet it will be helpful to your child for you to go along with him if you can. Just as we adults sometimes make a mistake in deciding to wean our children too soon, occasionally very small growing people make mistakes in deciding to wean themselves too soon. There is a reason, no doubt, whether we can see it with our adult eyes or not, that your child needs to nurse again for a while.
Although it may seem like it at first, you and your child are not going back to the beginning of the weaning process. After a few days of adjustment your child is not likely to nurse any more than do other children his age. He is not returning to babyhood, but picking up a behavior that is appropriate for his age. He will nurse and wean also in a way appropriate to his age – maybe in the next few days, or maybe some months hence.
Weaning need not be any more dramatic and final than toilet-training. We are not surprised when a child who is supposedly toilet-trained forgets and "backslides" for a while. It should be no more disconcerting that a weaned child would remember and nurse when he needs to. In a household with a new baby, being welcome at mother's breast, if he feels the need, can be quite a help in overcoming a child's feeling of displacement. There is no harm done by stepping back to baby things for a while – and considerable good in the long run.
Spontaneous Weaning in Children over Four
We commonly hear that most younger children do not ask to nurse again after they are weaned because they forget about nursing. This may be true, though I am not sure. It is certain, however, that children over four (or even over three sometimes) do not forget. As I have said, many of them will remember nursing as long as they live. So it should not be surprising that children over four are notorious for going about weaning each in their own way. Many seem to give a lot of consideration to weaning. One little girl, asked when she would wean, thought about it and then replied, "Oh, probably I will try when I'm five, 'cause you can't come to school – can you?!"
Children usually wean at a time that is easy for them, when their lives are otherwise stable. From their behavior it is often evident that they are making quite a rational choice for so young a person. Some children tell their parents that they are weaning because they themselves decided to do so, and it is easy to see from watching other children that this is the case with them as well. In some children the process that leads to weaning is not readily apparent; but this is probably not because it is so much different for them, but because they are children who keep their own counsel about it.
In the months that follow a decision to wean (or at least what appears to be such a decision) many children encounter rough spots that cause them to reconsider. These times can worry you if you have regarded the child as weaned. But you have not lost progress toward weaning. A child this age who goes weeks or months without nursing is definitely working on growing up. When she asks to nurse again after such a long time you can be sure that she has just come to a time in her life which she can handle better if she can still nurse a bit. Once she works her way past it, she will get back to the business of weaning.
Many mothers are quite hesitant to say that their over-fours are weaned, even after months without nursing. So often it seems that the minute mother pronounces her child weaned, he needs to nurse again. Needless to say, spontaneous weaning with older nurslings can be gradual indeed!
1. Lawrence, R. A. and Lawrence, R. M. Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession. 5th edition. St. Louis: The C. V. Mosby Company, 1994; 345.
2. Sugarman, M. and Kendall-Tackett, K. A. Weaning ages in a sample of American women who practice extended breastfeeding. Clinical Pediatrics 1995; 34(12):646.
3. Behler, E, and Ingstad, B. The struggle of weaning: Factors determining breastfeeding duration in East Bhutan. Social Science and Medicine 1996; 43(12):1809.
4. Cosminsky, S., Mhloyi, M, and Ewbank, D. Child feeding practices in a rural area of Zimbabwe. Social Science and Medicine April 1993; 36(7):944.
Purchase Mothering Your Nursing Toddler on Amazon, or visit the MYN Toddler website today.
Additional Information on Natural Weaning and Nursing Strikes:
A Natural Age of Weaning
A Time to Wean
How Weaning Happens (book)
Natural Weaning Age (pdf) from The Baby Bond (book)
The Joy of Nursing Toddlers Gallery & Resource Collection
Do Babies Under 12 months self-wean? (KellyMom.com)
Breastfeeding Older Children (book)
Adventures in Tandem Nursing (book)
La Leche League International Nursing Strike FAQ
Is Your Baby on a Nursing Strike?
Toddler Nursing Strike
Is Your Baby on a Nursing Strike?
Help! My Baby Won't Nurse (KellyMom.com)
Surviving a Nursing Strike
Breastfeeding Latch Trick (if baby is young and latch is a problem)
When a Baby Won't Nurse
La Leche League International: Helping Babies Reluctant to Nursing
Helpful books, articles and websites for nursing mothers linked at Breastfeeding Resources