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

First steps:

While it’s true that this isn’t simply about milk, Bob has been having quite a lot of milk which have met a lot of his nutritional demands and provided a portion of his hydration through the day. We need to look at his diet. Is Bob confidently using a cup? Would he be able to indicate if he was thirsty? Can he help himself?

What will be Bob’s sources of calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals and good quality fats? It might be that Bob enjoys drinking cow’s milk but he also might really not. Does he eat dairy? He would ideally get around 300ml of full-fat cow’s milk a day. If he won’t drink milk, he can eat cheese and yoghurt and you can use cream and butter in cooking. He might like a yoghurt-based fruit smoothie or a milkshake. There are other sources of calcium and other minerals like green leafy vegetables, nuts and tofu. Bob doesn’t need to drink a commercial formula. Full-fat cow’s milk is the recommendation.

Take a moment to reflect on what his nutritional sources will be. Do some research.  He’s been taking a significant portion of his calories overnight so you will need to look at extra snacks and opportunities to offer food once that’s gone.

Now it’s time to look at sleep skills. This may be the most difficult aspect of the process so we need to address it from the beginning because it could take the longest.

Bob right now has a prop dependency – a loving and comforting prop dependency. He’s using the breast to aid his drop-off to sleep and he’s using it to transition between sleep cycles at night. As he moves between sleep cycles, he fully rouses and seeks the breast to help him move on to the next sleep cycle. Some babies need dummies replugged or a pat. Bob has a breast as his sleep prop. For lots of mums, this is not really something that bothers them and it can continue until it naturally fades. But if you want to wean from breastfeeding, it’s a problem for you.

Night weaning

You can’t end breastfeeding until you have helped Bob find a new way to sleep. If we just take breastfeeding away suddenly, it’s really not very fair. This has been the way Bob has fallen asleep for a very long time. Sleep time is often when we feel the most vulnerable and when we can really get into habits.

Imagine you’d always fallen asleep by putting your head on a pillow and turning out the light and thinking peaceful thoughts and someone suddenly announces sleep isn’t allowed to happen this way anymore and you have to touch your nose with your thumb while whistling the star-spangled banner. You’d quickly become distressed and angry and think the whole thing was entirely unreasonable. You literally wouldn’t know how to do it.

You would probably prefer to make any transition gradually and with the support of someone you love.

A really good resource for this stage is ‘The No-cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers’ by Elizabeth Pantley. You may already have read about her ‘pull-off’ method in her book aimed at babies. You would start a feed as normal but then resist the temptation to feed right to the end when your toddler is in a deep sleep and absolutely out for the count. You would use your little finger and break the latch just before they completely fall asleep. The first time, it really would only be seconds before. You want them to do the final drop-off from drowsy to deep sleep without the breast actually being in their mouth. You are right there but the breast has been removed. If your nursling fully rouses at this point and searches for the breast, you may gently place your hand on their chin to see if they might still settle. If not, and they wake further, you latch them back on again and try a few moments later. Then, over several nights, you would gradually detach them earlier and earlier in the process. After a while, you may feed them and after the feed they may still pretty much be awake. It has been a gentle and slow process. They learn how to fall asleep without actually sucking. What then often starts to happen is the nursling who can do the final drop-off without the breast being in their mouth is less likely to rouse between sleep cycles during the night. They semi-wake (as we all do between sleep cycles at night) but feel safe about moving onto the next sleep cycle without needing their prop.

At the same time as working on the pull-off technique, you can work on introducing a different structure for bedtime.  Before you even start, you could introduce a lovey – a comfort object that could become associated with sleep and bedtime. It could be cuddled between you during night time breastfeeds. Then as the feeds start to change, the lovey is still there. You could also think about singing a little song that is your ‘bedtime song’. This is a song that you initially sing during the breastfeed and as the breastfeed fades, it’s a new part of your routine. It might happen during the final cuddle or if they appear to rouse and be looking for comfort. It’s calm and soothing and – this is the important bit – you don’t mind singing it every night for a while. If you are feeling very creative, choose a tune you know well and write your own lyrics about your day and your loved ones. Or choose a little poem and phrase that says, ‘this is sleep time now’.

As the breastfeeds end, the song or the poem is still there. It remains consistent. It’s the sign that it’s sleep time now. You are still there and we’re just removing the prop of the breast.

As your nursling finishes a breastfeed more and more awake, you’ve got the chance to insert other things as your new ‘final stage’. You could read a story. It is sometimes said that sharing a book with your toddler is more similar to breastfeeding than offering a cup or bottle of milk. You are devoting yourself to your child. You are sharing a connection. They have your attention and a cuddle.

There are even some books on the process of weaning and night weaning that you might find useful. I don’t mean books for you about technique but picture books for both of you that will usually have illustrations of jolly toddlers and rested mothers greeting the sunrise. ‘Nursies when the sun shines’ is a classic example.

You could also make your own book. Make a photo book using one of the online photo companies about your night weaning journey. Toddlers at this age love seeing photos of themselves and their friends and family. It could just be something as simple as saying ‘goodnight’ to all the things he loves. And I dare you to have ‘good night mummy’s boobs’ on the last page. ‘See you in the morning!’

So the breastfeeding moves back further. After it comes the story and the song (bored of it yet?). Then one day, breastfeeding happens in a different room and then before bath and one day, it gets dropped. Perhaps that night something exciting happens instead – a new toy in the bath, some ice cubes to play with. The breastfeed is something that he will want to get out of the way to get onto the fun stuff.

Some people prefer to leave the bedtime breastfeed as the very last one that gets dropped when full weaning happens. You may have been working on daytime feeding while this whole process was going on. The point is though that we may need to start AND finish with the weaning the bedtime feed because the process of setting up a new routine could take a while.

When a nursling wakes up in the middle of the night, we can hopefully develop new techniques that help them transition without using breastfeeding. Ideally now that we’ve done the pull-off, we are getting fewer night wakings but we may still see some. What else will make your toddler feel calm and safe? You may be able to use some of those techniques from bedtime. The lovey is there. You can sing your special song and use your special phrases. You may stroke and pat. You may put on a gentle piece of music or white noise. You’re going to be finding your own strategies.

There may be tears. It may be tempting to offer the breast because this is too difficult to manage. You have to follow your instincts. You may discover you are not ready to wean and you can cope with just one feed at night. You may decide that some tears of frustration are going to have to happen because you are absolutely ready to end this stage of motherhood. Try and be consistent.

Daddy/partner can be a great help but you also need to develop your boob alternatives now – the way you will show physical love and give your mothering comfort.

Some 18 month olds are verbal enough that they can understand that milkies are sleeping now and they will be awake in the morning – cuddles instead.

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