WEANING: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Weaning is not a negative term, nor is it something that you do to a child. Weaning is a journey from one relationship to another. The Hebrew word for wean is gamal, meaning “to ripen.” In ancient times, when children were breastfed until two or three years of age, it was a joyous occasion when a child weaned. It meant the child was filled with the basic tools of the earlier stages of development and secure and ready to enter the next stage of development. A child who is weaned before his time may show anger, aggression, habitual tantrum-like behavior, anxious attachment to caregivers, and an inability to form deep and intimate relationships. We call these traits diseases of premature weaning.
While we advocate extended breastfeeding that comes to a natural end when the child is ready, we realize this ideal is not always attainable in every family situation. Breastfeeding is meant to be a pleasurable experience. When one or both members of the mother-infant pair aren’t enjoying it anymore, it’s time to wean. After all, all good things must come to a timely end.
In many cultures a baby is breastfed for two or three years. Our western culture is accustomed to viewing breastfeeding in terms of months. This is not the norm the world over. While weaning is a personal decision, nutritionists and physicians advise breastfeeding for at least one year because by that time most infants have outgrown most of their food allergies and will thrive on alternative nourishment. We urge mothers to think in terms of years, not months, when contemplating how long to nurse. Breastfeeding is a long-term investment in your child. You want to give your baby the best emotional, physical, and mental start. Extended breastfeeding is nature’s way of filling your baby’s need for intimacy and appropriate dependency on other people. If these needs are met early on, your child will grow up to be a sensitive and independent adult. We have noticed that children not weaned before their time are:
- more independent and self-confident
- Gravitate to people rather than things
- Are easier to discipline
- Experience less anger
- Radiate trust
Former Surgeon General, Dr. Antonia Novello, proclaimed: “It’s the lucky baby, I feel, who continues to nurse until he’s two.” A baby’s sucking need lessens sometime between nine months and three years. The age at which this need lessens is individual, yet very few babies are emotionally filled and ready to wean before a year. Have confidence in your intuition. While this beautiful breastfeeding relationship may seem like it will never end, you are laying a solid foundation for the person your child will later become. Cutting corners now will only create problems in the future.
The key to healthy weaning is doing it gradually. Remember, you are helping your child into a new stage of development, not forcing him into it. This is not the time for you and your husband to go on a week-long vacation to the Bahamas. Weaning by desertion is traumatic and may backfire. The following are suggestions for gradually weaning your child:
- Start by skipping a least favorite feeding, such as in the middle of the day. Instead, engage in a fun activity together, such as reading a book or playing a game. Nap and night nursings are favorite feedings and will probably be the last to go.
- Minimize situations that induce breastfeeding, such as sitting in a rocking chair or cradling baby. If you put baby in a familiar breastfeeding setting, he will want to breastfeed.
- Use the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” method. Don’t go out of your way to remind her to nurse. However, if your child persists, or her behavior deteriorates, this may indicate that breastfeeding is still a need rather than a want. Watch your child and trust your intuition.
- Become a moving target. Don’t sit down in one place for any length of time. But, remember, weaning means releasing, not rejecting. Breastfeeding helps the child venture from the known to the unknown. If you don’t let your child make brief pit stops, he may insist on lengthy feedings when he finally gets you to sit down. Checking into homebase and refueling reassures him that it’s okay to explore his environment, and gives him the emotional boost to venture out. Rejecting this need could developmentally cripple your child.
- Keep baby busy. Nothing triggers the desire to breastfeed like boredom. Sing songs, read books, or go on an outing together.
- Set limits. Putting limits on nursing, such as: “We only nurse when Mr. Sun goes down and when Mr. Sun comes up” does not make you a bad parent.
- Don’t wean baby from you to an object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket. Ideally, you want to wean baby from your breast to an alternative source of emotional nourishment. This is when dad should begin to take on a more involved role in comforting. As dad’s role in baby’s life becomes bigger, nursing will be less important.
- Expect breastfeeding to increase during times of illness. These are times when your child needs comfort and an immune system boost.
Life is a series of weanings for a child: weaning from your womb, your breast, your bed, and your home. The pace at which children wean go from oneness to separateness is different for every child, and this should be respected. In our experience, the most secure, independent, and happy children are those who have not been weaned before their time.