Gently Weaning a Toddler

When and how to wean your breastfed child is a loaded question and the answer will be different depending on who you ask. Deciding to wean, however, is a deeply personal issue that you have to work through within your family.

The majority of mothers wean before or by the time their child is 12 months old. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

Nursing your child out of infant-hood is referred to as natural term, full term or extended breastfeeding. If you have chosen this path, your child is over 2 years old, and if you are ready to wean, here is one strategy for weaning gently over an extended period of time. This suggested process can take weeks or months depending on how ready you and your child are to stop.

There are three suggested steps to reach your goal of weaning. If you are unsure about weaning and the timing with your child, please talk to your pediatrician or lactation consultant. Keep in mind that you can put a pause on the process if your child is very resistant or distressed. The key is to move through each transition gently.  


STEP ONE – CUT OUT DAYTIME NURSING

The first step in this very gradual weaning process is to cut back on the daytime nursing. Most kids over 2 are not nursing during the day out of hunger. They would much rather have a yummy snack or meal for hunger. Toddlers nurse during the day for comfort when they need a little mama time, or are hurt, or they nurse to sleep at nap time. If your toddler over 2 is still nursing for hunger, transition him out of this habit. When he asks to nurse, offer a snack that you know he loves instead. When you are out of the house, make sure you have some of those favorite snacks packed in case he gets hungry. He will get used to asking for food instead of nursing because he will stop associating hunger with nursing.

Once this transition is complete, and it can take weeks to become a norm, start phasing out the comfort nursing. Offer lots of snuggles and give your toddler extra attention during the day. If you keep him happy, you can avoid the desire to nurse to get some extra time with mama. If your child is doing well with this, try offering hugs and kisses next time he has a boo boo.

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Get a freezer Cool Calm Press and offer that for bumps or bruises. You may find that an exciting trip to the freezer and presentation of the Cool Calm Press will distract him enough that he won’t even ask to nurse.

If your child nurses to sleep for nap time, continue to do so. We will address nursing to sleep during step three of the process. Depending on your toddler, winding down daytime nursing can take a few weeks or a couple months. Being flexible with the timing allows you to be responsive to your child’s developmental and emotional needs.  


STEP TWO – NIGHT WEANING

The second step in gradually and gently weaning your toddler over two is to night wean. For purposes here, night weaning means that your child will no longer nurse in the middle of the night. Once he is asleep, he will not nurse again until he wakes up in the morning. You can night wean gently, you can night wean without leaving your child alone to cry at night, and you can night wean while co-sleeping. Night weaning is tougher than cutting out the daytime nursing but the process is shorter.

The first step in night weaning is to prepare your child for the closing of the all night milk bar. Toddlers over 2 do best with transitions when the transition is explained beforehand, allowing them to prepare and understand the change. Just like giving your child a 5 minute warning before you leave the park, you want to give him a warning for this as well.

A great way to prepare for this very big change is to read the book “Nursies When the Sun Shines” by Katherine C. Havener. Just slip this book into your normal bedtime reading for several nights. Talk to your child about what is happening in the book. See if he has any questions. Personalize the book by substituting the word “nursies” for whatever word you use for nursing. Tell him that he is old enough that he is going to start sleeping all night just like the child in the book. The illustrations in the book are beautiful and in just 12 pages the idea of not nursing at night is sweetly explained. The family in this book co-sleeps so it is extra helpful if this is also your situation at night.

When you think your child has a solid grasp on the concept of not nursing through the night, give him a countdown for when you will stop nursing at night. When you read the book, say “we are going to start sleeping like this in 3 nights.”

  • When your countdown is complete and it is your first night, read the book again and remind him that tonight is the night.
  • If your child nurses to fall asleep you can continue this, just remind him as he is nursing to sleep that once he is asleep there will be no more nursing until the sun shines.
  • When he wakes up, continue to comfort him, snuggle with him and calmly explain that he will nurse when the sun shines. He may resist. He might cry or get mad at you. This can be hard, but if you are calm and gentle, you can comfort him through the night and through this transition toward weaning.
  • Have a snack and a cup of water nearby for him if he says he is hungry or thirsty.
  • If he is crying, it is not the same as leaving him to cry it out as long as you continue to comfort him. He should get used to this night time arrangement in a week if you are consistent.

Get through this challenging step and you will both be sleeping more peacefully and will be that much closer to weaning your toddler.


STEP 3 – NURSING TO SLEEP & THE LAST TIME NURSING

The third step in weaning your toddler over 2 is to get your child to a place where he can fall asleep without nursing.

If your child already falls to sleep on his own, congratulations, you should be ready to prepare your child for his last nursing session and weaning will be complete.

To stop nursing your child to sleep, you need to prepare him by discussing it just like you discussed night weaning. Don’t stop nursing him to sleep cold turkey, as this may lead to a stressful bedtime for you both. As with everything you have already gone through, be patient and gentle.

Make this last step something exciting for your child. Let him know that the time for nursing is going to go away because he is such a big kid now. Show him how proud you are that he is almost done nursing. Say something like “Mama has loved nursing you all this time but you are getting so big and strong now so the nursing time is going to go away soon. We are going to nurse at bedtime and when you wake up, for one more week, and when the nursing goes bye bye you get a very special big kid present to celebrate!” Have your child pick out the special present so he can look forward to that instead of dreading the goodbye to nursing.

It is time to teach your child to drift off to sleep without nursing and you have your week long countdown to accomplish this peacefully. At bed time, let him nurse but stop before he is totally asleep and snuggle with him while he continues to fall asleep.

  • Determine the timing for this trick by how long your toddler normally takes to fall asleep. For example, if he takes about 10 minutes at the breast, on the first night, at 8 minutes slowly stop him from nursing.
  • He might resist but stay calm.  Tell him he drank it all tonight and that he can snuggle with you.
  • Try your other soothing tricks like singing or rubbing his back and he should drift off without too much trouble since he already nursed.

If you are successful on the first night, keep at it but shorten the nursing time a little more each consecutive night. By the end of the week, with the goal of weaning in mind, you will have one last very short (1 or 2 minutes) nursing session at bedtime on day 7. All along, keep explaining to your child that after the last bedtime nursing, he will wake up to his very special big kid present to celebrate. Instead of being anxious, the anticipated celebration will give you both something to be excited about. Get family and close friends to help celebrate as well. Let Grandma know when the big day is so she can visit or call to congratulate your child.

If you gradually develop the new bedtime routine and celebrate the last nursing session, your toddler should wean without distress and can even come through the weaning process feeling proud of his new independence, just as secure in his relationship with you as before.


CONGRATULATIONS! YOUR TODDLER HAS WEANED

Now what’s in it for you, Mama? By weaning slowly, you will avoid painful engorgment and leaking while your milk dries up. You will also prepare yourself emotionally for the end of your breastfeeding relationship with this child. You may be totally over nursing at this point, and experiencing nursing aversion. Nursing aversion is real but try to push through it to finish the weaning process gently as it will be a more positive experience for you and your child.

Whatever the reason for weaning your toddler over 2 years old, you can end your time nursing in a way that you will remember fondly and in a way that is kind to your toddler. Remember that nursing habits are habits that just need to be replaced with new habits. By going slowly through these three steps, you will peacefully create a new normal for you and your toddler. Go forward into this next phase for you both knowing you gave your child an amazing start in life by nursing into toddlerhood and gently weaning.

Make sure you and your big kid are drinking enough water. Read about “Children and Water: The 411 on Proper Hydration”

Photo Credits: Art of Making a Baby, Still Frames Photography, Kristen 


This post is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician, doctor or health care professional. Please read our terms of use for more information.

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Kristen

Kristen lives in Alabama with her handsome hubby and sweet son. Happily, she left behind the life of a Washington D.C. attorney to be a stay at home mama in the south. Her days are filled with writing, photography, and dance parties with her son. On a mission to use her life to love God and love others, you will also find her fiercely working on the many causes near and dear to her heart. She gets it all done thanks to Jesus, chai tea, dark chocolate, and wine.

Comments (2)

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    Ashley

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    This is the perfect transition I was looking for. I love your suggestions and the gradual build to the last nurse session celebration. My third baby is about to turn two and we are starting the countdown. Thank you!

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      Kristen

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      Thanks Ashley! It worked well for us. No drama and no tears and we look back fondly on the time when my son did nurse.

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