Extended NursingWeaning

When Is the Right Time to Wean?

Your weaning experience deserves as much time, attention, and effort as your early breastfeeding experience. I think we would all like to believe that kids just wean themselves. We would love to think that it is a gentle, graceful process that happens at the “right time.” But, most of the time, that isn’t the way it goes. Usually baby weans before mom is ready or mom weans before baby is ready.

But I do want you to be ready for that time–just in case–so you don’t look back and wish for just one more nursing session.

So, how do you know if it is the right time to wean? There are four questions you must answer to know how to identify the right time to wean. The way you answer these four questions will help clarify if the right time is now and if it isn’t, then it may help you determine when that time is.

How Do Others Feel About You Breastfeeding Relationship?

There are only three people who get to have a say in your breastfeeding relationship and when it ends. You, your baby, and your partner.

There seems to be a threshold in this country for how long is “okay” to breastfeed. It used to be three months or so. Currently, people seem to be okay with you nursing your baby until he is around six months. The general public will begrudgingly tolerate a baby that nurses to one year, but anything past one? Get a room, and the bathroom works just fine.

Suddenly, when your baby turns one, your biggest supporters start asking the question, “So when are you going to be done with this breastfeeding thing?”

Coworkers say, “Wait, you are still pumping?!”

Strangers who may have smiled at you when you were nursing your three-month-old at the park now look confused and maybe even a little embarrassed when they realize what your toddler is doing.

Again, the opinion of only three people matter. You, your baby, and your partner. If commentary from anyone other than those three people is bothering you a lot and you are constantly questioning if you are doing the right thing by continuing to breastfeed or pump, then it is time to take a close look at your confidence.

Understandably, as baby move out of infancy and into the toddler years, your resolve about breastfeeding may start to waive. After all, you may have never imagined in a million years that you would actually be nursing past 12 or 18 or 24 months.

So, get really, really clear about this question: Do you feel like it is the best choice for you, your family, and your baby to be breastfeeding today? Who knows what will happen tomorrow, but today are you proud to be breastfeeding your child? If the answer is no, then it is time to make a change and take positive action toward weaning.

If the answer is yes–if you know that breastfeeding your baby at this age today is the right thing to do–then, well, screw everyone else and their opinions.

What’s Up Next For You and Your Family?

A big trip? A child-free vacation alone or with your partner?

Thinking about getting pregnant and you want a period of not breastfeeding before you conceive again?

Perhaps there is a medical procedure coming up that needs to happen.

Whatever is coming up for you, the next thing you have to ask yourself is whether or not you want or need to wean completely for this.

If you are looking to conceive and you have gotten your period back, you can start trying without weaning! Just know that your supply will decrease significantly once you get pregnant. If you choose to nurse through all or part of your pregnancy, go for it! But, once your supply goes, your baby will need a secondary form of milk to drink. If he is younger than 12 months, that needs to be formula. Older than 12 months, it can be cow’s milk.

If you are having a medical procedure done, you may or may not need to wean. There are a few procedures, like a radioisotope that require weaning, but most are actually pretty safe with little to no pumping and dumping. Even if you are told you must wean or pump and dump with a particular procedure, if you aren’t ready to do so, double check that recommendation.

How Does Your Baby Feel About Breastfeeding?

Let’s start with a reality check about self-weaning. Most babies don’t just self-wean. No babies will self-wean before 12 months. Now, I am sure you have heard about babies who have self-weaned before 12 months, but I would make the argument that those babies were either on a nursing strike and mom thought it was weaning and let her milk supply drop OR choosing another form of food in place of breastfeeding, like bottles.

A baby can’t wean from breastfeeding to nothing. A baby must wean from breastfeeding to another form of nutrition and at younger than 12 months, it is developmentally inappropriate for them to go to all solid foods.

And, if your baby does stop breastfeeding for whatever reason before 12 months, it is really important that they have formula in place of breastfeeding. Although you can introduce cow’s milk and foods made from cow’s milk (such as yogurt) before baby’s first birthday, baby cannot replace breastfeeds with cow’s milk until they are one year old.

But it is completely feasible that your baby thinks breastfeeding is just too time consuming for their busy lives. This distractibility gets particularly noticeable with each major developmental milestone. For instance, at four months babies start to become very aware of the world around them, so they pop on and off the breast any time they see or hear something interesting.

At seven to eight months when they start crawling, they may cut a feeding short to get back to practicing their new skill. Likewise around 12 months when they start walking.

Once you pass 12 months and approach 14 months, something changes about the way babies regard their boobs. Suddenly, boobs are much more of a friend and security than a source of nutrition. Around 14 months, it doesn’t matter what they are getting to eat from the boobs, they will take them just for the sake of sucking. Typically, once you hit this point, you will see little to no initiative from the baby to wean. You now have a kid who may want to nurse until two or two-and-a-half (if not longer).

Basically, you have a small window in the 10-12 month region when your baby may be interested in weaning for real. If you miss that or you aren’t ready to wean and you head into the toddler years nursing, be prepared to be the one to pull the plug or set boundaries around when, where, and how often nursing happens.

How Do You Feel About Breastfeeding?

This is the most important question. How do you feel about the way breastfeeding is going right now? All of it, night feedings included?

Do you still love it? Every minute of it?

It is okay if you are sometimes feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, resentful, or “touched out.”

It’s okay if you sometimes like it and sometimes don’t.

But, if you are starting to feel negative feelings around breastfeeding, chances are you at least need to start with a change.

For instance, it is okay to say no to your baby’s request to breastfeed when you are feeling like she doesn’t need to “eat” and you just don’t feel like nursing.

It is okay to end a breastfeeding session when your baby is being annoying at the boob: pulling, tugging, nipple twiddling, biting.

Once you have made some positive changes around breastfeeding, you can reassess how you are feeling. If you have returned to a place of enjoying breastfeeding most of the time, great! Stay right there for a while and reassess in a few months.

If decreasing feedings, setting limits, and making positive changes still doesn’t feel like enough, it is probably time for you to bring breastfeed to a close, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, because you never really know when breastfeeding will come to a close, take my advice.

Here are three things I am going to ask you to act on today:

  • Be present. Slow down. Don’t rush. Memorize the feeling.
  • Capture it. You know I asked for contributors to the topic of weaning on my Facebook page and I only got five entries. Do you know why I think that was? Because I made the stipulation that mom be in the picture. How many pictures do you have of you nursing your baby? I have four. For the 34 months that I breastfed that kid and the hundreds of pictures I have of her, there are four of me nursing her. Take videos. Take pictures. Have professional photos done!
  • Record it. Write your breastfeeding story. Keep it for yourself or share it with me. Just write it. Every time I get a story the mom tells me, “Wow that was really cathartic to write.” Your memories will fade too fast. Document it now.

Even if your baby decides to wean tomorrow, you will have created a treasure of memories of your nursing relationship that will last a lifetime.