Weaning: my hows, whys, and whens

Sometimes when I get a mailbag question, I can't believe I really haven't ever written on the subject before. This was one of those. I've written about breastfeeding (those posts always spark quite a discussion) and getting babies to sleep (conversation AND, um, insults on those posts) but, somehow, I've yet to share how we handle weaning around here. Thanks to Amy for asking!

The Question:

Hi Kendra,

I hope you are well! I just got my baby down for a nap, which took 30 minutes, and had an "I should ask Kendra..." moment.

My baby (first one) is 16 months old. I've read a lot of your parenting posts, especially on breastfeeding and other food related posts, so I know that we have similar approaches in this.

I feel a little bad about this, but I'm kind of ready to stop nursing -- at least the daytime nursing. The morning session seems to be phasing itself out. The pre-nap session is harder. That said, I did just get him to go down for a nap without nursing but it took a half hour for him to settle himself enough to sleep.

All that said... how did you go about "weaning" your babies? When did they totally stop? Did you let them lead the process? Did some take longer than others? Did you ever nurse while pregnant? (I'm not... I don't think... but sometimes I wonder how that would work.)

The Answer:

Great question Amy.

I've been able to exclusively breastfeed all of my babies, and to nurse them for over a year, which has worked really well for us. I'm awfully grateful for the ease and convenience of it, and it has always fit
really well into my lifestyle.

Figuring out nursing was a bit emotionally taxing and physically painful for me with the first couple babies, but then it got pretty darn easy with all the rest (until I got a silly nursing injury with Lulu, my seventh, and spent a few days fighting back tears every time she had to nurse). But I'd say, mostly, I've been very fortunate and have really loved breastfeeding. I'm happy to nurse my babies pretty much on demand, whenever, wherever, and let them start solid foods on their own as they're interested in them. However, for most of my babies, figuring out solid food hasn't translated into not wanting to nurse. I've only have one baby wean himself (it was Frankie, of course). For all the others, at around fourteen months or so, I just start feeling a bit spent on it all. I'm usually pregnant again by that point, and ready to be able to share nap and bedtime routines with my husband (or now with my big kids) and have my body back to myself a bit (as much as that's possible for someone who is pregnant).

I know there are lots of schools of thought on this, and lots of passionately held opinions. So, I'm going to put a quick disclaimer in here saying that I realize that there are many legitimate reasons that a mom wouldn't be able to exclusively breastfeed for as long as I have (thus far) been able to do. I also understand that many moms choose extended nursing, and that that works well for them and their kids.

I haven't felt like extended nursing was something my babies so far have needed, and it hasn't been something I felt like I wanted or needed to take on. And I have found that, for my kids, there has been kind of a magic window between thirteen and sixteen or seventeen months, when they don't really NEED to nurse anymore, but they're not quite aware enough to have the process of weaning be all that traumatic. I only nursed one baby to eighteen months, because we were postponing pregnancy. And the process with her was definitely more stressful than it has been with my others. She could talk about nursing, and she remembered it and wanted it, even if we had already skipped a day or two. It was harder than I think it needed to be on both of us.

That experience with Anita convinced me that I either want to wean by sixteen or seventeen months, or be prepared to wait until past two, when they are a bit more reasonable.

The way I approach weaning is pretty much just what you've been doing.

I start by not offering during the day, and providing baby with snacks and water or milk in a sippy cup. Instead of pulling baby into bed with me in the morning to nurse, or snuggling down in a chair to nurse (and watch TV) after naps, I just get us going right away. We have a snack, and we do something active, so baby doesn't really think about nursing. In that way we get down to just nursing before naps and bedtime.

I co-sleep with my babies for six to nine months or so, then transition them to a crib in conjunction with sleep-training, that still involves some nighttime nursing. I've always sleep-trained my babies before I wean them, so they are already familiar with sleeping in a crib on their own, and with soothing, themselves to sleep, on days that they don't nurse completely to sleep. I have no idea how people wean while co-sleeping. I suppose it's possible, but I can't wrap my head around it.

During the weaning process, daddy takes over the bedtime routine for at least a couple of days. Baby isn't expecting to be nursed by him, so that seems to go more smoothly than me trying to just put a confused baby down with no nursing. After a few days of that, then I am able to substitute reading a book, or singing and rocking for a bit in the baby's room, for nursing, then I can just lay him down in the crib and leave.

For my babies, this has worked very quickly (a day or two) and with only a little unhappiness and no trauma to the baby.

I just try to be really upbeat, and consistent about it. I think if I acted worried about it, my babies would sense that, and I think giving in and nursing every once in a while would probably make the process take a lot longer than if I just go ahead and do it, once we're down to only a couple sessions a day, anyway.

My two outliers have been Frankie and Anita. Frankie flash-weaned himself at twelve months, he just flat out refused to nurse. So that was that. And, like I said, with Anita it was a longer, more difficult process that involved a lot of unhappiness and attempting to reason with and explain to a baby who wasn't really able to understand. But even with her, the whole process only took a couple of weeks. And then she was fine. So perhaps I'm making too big a deal of the age on this anyway.

Like everything with parenting, a calm but firm attitude, having age-appropriate expectations, and being really consistent, seems to make everything go more smoothly.

Anyway, I hope things have been going well with it. You can do it. And it's okay to want to.

Good luck!



Some additional reading . . .

Breastfeeding posts:

Lactivism, aka I'll Teach YOU How to Feel About Nursing

I Want it All: a Nourished Baby AND Good Manners (also superpowers)

Solid food posts:

Starting Baby on Solid Foods for Moms Who Don't Have Time For That Sort of Thing

I Do Not Cook Two Dinners: how we avoid mealtime battles

These two are about sleep training, which isn't what you asked, but mom-lead weaning might well include some crying oneself to sleep for the baby, and I really, really think that's okay.

Have a Baby They Said . . . It Will Sleep Like a Baby They Said

How I Changed My Mind About Sleep Training

Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.