Ease into weaning with love and compassion
Ending the breastfeeding relationship was an emotional rollercoaster I was not prepared for. I felt “prepared” for pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, but when I began thinking of closing this special chapter, I felt overwhelmed. Most of the advice I found seemed to focus on the younger child around 1, maybe 2 years old. As my son was rounding the corner of age 3 and going through his own emotional development, I knew it was important to face weaning in a way that would be emotionally healthy for both of us.
The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding until age 2 or longer, as long as it is mutually desired. I feel like that is a pretty loaded statement. Some babies “self-wean” long before mom feels ready, and others will go until mom leads the weaning. There is no right or wrong here; do what is emotionally and physically best for the whole family. But… how, exactly?
Well, I wanted to share some of the tips that I learned as I recently navigated through weaning with my son. My hope is that sharing my thoughts and experiences may help you find some inner peace and confidence as you begin to think through your own plan for weaning your child.
Let go of the “shoulds”.
You’ll hear plenty “you should do this” or “you should do that,” but only you and your child will know what’s best for you. I had a goal in mind of 3 years, which wound up working well as a starting point for us as we did cut back at that time. We were in the sweet spot of enjoying a couple feeds a day (mainly at nap/bedtime), and I was able to still use this “superpower” for sleepytimes, which worked great for another year! Goals are great, but don’t stress out over fear of not meeting those goals. Rather, staying in the moments and taking it one day at a time can be freeing.
Let go of the idea that there will be this perfectly clear time.
At least, a clear time was certainly not my experience. It is a big transition that comes with big feelings for mama and baby, so don’t rush it if you aren’t ready. I like to call it a soft plan instead of a hard cutoff date. Maybe allow space for a range of dates such as, “Sometime after he turns 3…” or “When we get back from our summer trip…” or some other age or event. We talked A LOT about it and processed our feelings, and then one week when I was feeling a bit more rested mentally, emotionally, and physically, we just dove in.
Journal and talk about it to take the power out of any fear and to help find clarity.
Honor the feelings by getting them out of your mind and into an outlet that feels safe to you, whether that’s a journal, talking to a trusted friend, or even a therapist. The best thing you can do for your child is to be courageous and regulated so they can draw on that and mesh into that regulation. Talking about all of these feelings or journaling may seem uncomfortable at first to some, but I want to encourage you to be willing to take it a day at a time and ride the wave of temporary discomfort. The clarity will come.
Lean into the growth opportunity for both of you.
I will never forget the feeling of pride that came over me after the first few nights of night weaning when he actually accepted the water and cuddles instead of “nursies” to get him back to sleep after a night wake. It was like our relationship had this new level of trust, like we bonded even deeper after overcoming a challenge. It was a beautiful feeling. That happened after each time we dropped a feed and came out the other side with a new tool in our connection tool belt.
Have compassion for yourself and make it fun.
Schedule extra treats for both you and your little sidekick. Provide a soft place for both of you to land during this transition. Trips to the beach with pizza and ice cream was our go-to, and a pedicure for mama. Staying busy and shaking up the usual routine at home can also help adjust to the dropped feeds by providing a welcome distraction.
Drop one feed at a time.
We chose to start with overnight feeds at about 20 months. I had a baby with LOTS of nighttime needs, so mama was due to catch up on some sleep! Choose a feed to start with that feels the safest for you and your little one.
A little caveat to night weaning… We ended up reverting to overnight feeds/comfort nursing for a few more months as things like teaching and colds came up. I wasn’t quite ready to retire my superpower to sooth him and get us ALL back to sleep in the quickest manner.
Practical steps that helped with nighttime weaning.
Read books. Nursies When The Sun Shines by Katherine Havener was our favorite to set up night weaning and talk A LOT about how “nursies need to sleep when it’s dark.” I also had water available to offer at wake ups. Toddlers thrive with the sense of control, so little things like letting him go to the store and pick out a new fun cup was super helpful.
If your kiddo is attached to a stuffed animal or toy, that can be another tool. If they don’t, then practice habit stacking in the weeks leading up. Basically, have the stuffed animal involved in the nursing experience. Have them hold/play/snuggle with them. And of course, comfort with short and sweet reassuring words and snuggles.
Letting go of that final feed.
Now this was an emotional step! Johnny was approaching his 4th birthday and I knew that it was time. I wanted to ride the wave of his birthday milestone to help him understand the transition better. Basically, I explained that “Mommy’s body isn’t going to make milk anymore. God made mommy’s breastmilk to help you grow. Look, you are so big and strong now!” The book My Milk Will Go, Our Love Will Grow was just precious (cue the tears!).
I really leaned into the change in my body being the driver, instead of taking away something from him. He really took to that logic. Of course, there were tears and sadness on both our parts, but I feel because we weaned so slowly there was a feeling of trust that we were going to be ok. As a mom it’s a wonderful feeling to watch your child process sadness in a healthy way and gain coping skills. We are about 3 weeks in now, and some nights he still asks at bedtime, but we can quickly pivot.
Invest in a special keepsake.
A keepsake is a beautiful way to honor and remember your journey. I chose to get a ring made from my milk and I just LOVE it. The flood of memories and emotions come back every time I look at it. Other ideas are to make soap or lotion. There are many DIY ideas online.
As a final note, I want to share one way we made space for this transition by setting up age-appropriate avenues for him to express and process his feelings. I asked him to choose two stuffed animals (even though he hadn’t really used them as a soothing tool before), and I said “Hey buddy, did you know giraffe and elephant also just turned 4 and they are feeling sad because their mommy’s bodies also stopped making milk? What do you think will help them feel better?” He took them and gave them big hugs. It was so sweet. I feel like that helped normalize his feelings and provide comfort.
Find ways to meet your child where they are and gently guide them towards processing their feelings. After all, isn’t that a cornerstone of successful parenting?
You got this, mama!!
Erin Sears Basile
Certified Breastfeeding Specialist