Weaning Toddler Bob and Pre-Schooler Billie: How Do You Stop Breastfeeding an Older Child?

Photography: Kimberley Rich Photography

By Emma Pickett, IBCLC

Bob is 18 months old. He is breastfeeding on demand. This usually means breastfeeding at least six times in 24 hours.

Billie is three years old. She breastfeeds in the morning, at bedtime and usually once during the night.

Let’s imagine you are Bob or Billie’s mum and you want to end breastfeeding.

First, let’s take a moment to check this is a decision you are happy about. Am I going to try to talk you out of it? Nope.

I breastfed both my children until they self-weaned and I speak to mothers breastfeeding toddlers every day. I know it isn’t for everyone.

If you are in the tiny minority of mothers breastfeeding well into the second year and beyond, that is something to be celebrated and praised and baton-twirled.

You get to choose when you stop. 

The job of the breastfeeding support community is to enable each mother to reach her own breastfeeding goals. When it comes to breastfeeding an older child, we are allowed to listen to our own maternal instincts. Not everyone’s maternal instincts tell them the same thing.

However this is an important decision so let’s do a few checks.

If you are 100% confident with your decision, feel free to skip ahead.

Are you ending breastfeeding because you want to conceive again and you believe weaning will be necessary? 

Every woman’s fertility responds differently to breastfeeding. To conceive, we need oestrogen levels to rise again and ovulation to occur and then we need the womb to receive a fertilised egg and give it enough chance to hang around and implant properly. Most women do not need breastfeeding to end completely for this to happen. However most of us do need at least one gap of 5-6 hours without any breastfeeding in 24 hours.

It might be worth experimenting with night weaning or extending intervals in order to trigger your period before ending breastfeeding entirely if you’d rather not. Get familiar with your cervical fluid (or as my friend Sarah Panzetta, a fertility expert, calls it, ‘your lady liquid’) and get a sense of what it’s likely to look like when you ovulating (stretchy and egg-whitey). Some people are told they need to wean from breastfeeding in order to start another round of IVF. That is a very difficult and personal decision.

We can probably say that is likely that you would be maximising your chances of conceiving by ending breastfeeding. You may still decide you’d rather continue breastfeeding.

Are you ending breastfeeding because you need to take medication and the doctor says you have to?

Check. Many many women are told this inaccurately. In the UK, the Breastfeeding Network is a great source of information – both their medication factsheets and the ‘drugs in breastmilk’ helpline. You can also check with LactMed or the resources (book and website) of Dr. Thomas Hale. There are many lactation consultants available through Twitter who would be happy to check for you.

Are you ending breastfeeding because someone else is putting pressure on you?

Is this someone who you feel has a right to comment on your body and what you choose to do with it? Is it someone who you feel has as much right to make decisions about your child’s health and happiness as you do? If you answer yes to both of those questions, then you may feel you want to listen.

However, you should also feel you have the right to explain very clearly why this matters to you and carry on. You have the right to continue even though other adults in your life are uncomfortable. Just because we live in a society which squirms at the idea of breastfeeding older children, it doesn’t mean a push into unhappy weaning is the ‘right’ opinion. You have science on your side.

This is a decision you will live with for a very long time. You have invested a huge amount in making breastfeeding work up until now. For many women, it has taken literal blood, sweat and tears. You have spent hours and hours and hours breastfeeding. One day, decades from now, you may be a grandmother and breastfeeding will be part in your world again. Wouldn’t it be great to look back with no regrets and know that you stopped breastfeeding at a time that was absolutely right for you?

Your nursling can’t speak up. If you are being pressured to wean when you don’t want to, you may need to be brave and speak up for them.

Are you ending breastfeeding because you aren’t getting enough sleep?

One possibility is to night wean and see how that feels. It may enable you to continue breastfeeding for longer than you imagined you would. You can follow the suggestions below and pause at any point in the process.

So we’re going to try and wean Bob. He’s breastfeeding a lot. He breastfeeds in the morning and at naptime. He falls asleep breastfeeding at the beginning of the night and breastfeeds during the night several times. He uses the breast for comfort when he feels sad or shy. It’s the first thing he wants when he falls over. When you sit together on the sofa, he wiggles over and lifts your shirt with a big smile on his face. He loves it all.

Have you done anything wrong by parenting this way up until now? No, you have not. You have followed your instincts and met his needs and what a lucky little bloke Bob is.

This is clearly going to be tough and Bob may be sad but YOU ARE STILL ALLOWED TO WEAN.  This is your choice and you will be able to make it happen with the minimum amount of upset if you are sensitive and careful.

Some things to bear in mind before we start:

This is not about milk – completely. This is about YOU. Bob is connecting with you and being as close to you as he possibly can. He is feeling safe and loved and cosy and warm. Your milk still contains immunological properties and Vitamin A and protein and all the other useful things. However Bob’s breastfeeding behaviour is about security and love and not much about Vitamin A.

So don’t offer milk in a bottle or sippy cup instead and not in response to a request to breastfeed. Don’t offer milk in a cup at bedtime instead of that connection with you. That’s like you asking a loved one for a hug and he gives you a sausage roll. You may be a big fan of sausage rolls but right then, in that context, that’s a rejection.

We need to talk about ways of trying to avoid the ‘rejections’. It may not be entirely possible but we want to minimise them as much as possible.

Don’t offer another person instead. Does it seem entirely logical that at the moment we are pulling bits of ourselves away from our nursling, we pull our entire self away?

Does it seem logical to leave your toddler for a night or longer just to wean from breastfeeding when breastfeeding was about connecting with you as much as the milk?

We need to show that you are still there and you are still very much there for connecting – just not at the nipply bits.

You will still be there at bedtime when he feels scared and vulnerable. You will still be there for comfort. You will be there for him when he’s going through this really tough transition of losing breastfeeding. Does it seem sensible to pull yourself away when he’s potentially going to be losing something that really matters? You are the person he really needs to help him through this.

Of course partners and dads are a key part of this process but in addition to mum – not instead of. I hope daddy/partner is part of the bedtime process and able to comfort your child. I’m just not sure it’s brilliantly sensible for you to be stepping away and leaving them entirely to it.

Together – all 3 of you (mum, partner and nursling) – you will be making new routines and patterns and developing a new parenting language.

That doesn’t take a night and it probably doesn’t take a week. It might take a week for the 18 month old who is only breastfeeding a couple of times in 24 hours and falls asleep without the breast in his mouth – but that isn’t Bob.

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