Gradual Weaning

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated August 4, 2013.

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When you first start your breastfeeding journey the thought of weaning seems like a long way away.  Every major pediatric association in the world recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life with complementary solids offered alongside breast milk thereafter.  The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding to continue for up to two years or beyond.  No matter how long you choose to breastfeed your babies, breast milk continues to have benefits for both mother and babies.

But, no matter what your breastfeeding goals, your child will one day wean.  There are several approaches to weaning: mother-led, baby-led, or a combination of both. Mothers may need to wean abruptly, though if this isn’t required then it is easier on a mother’s body and for her baby for gradual weaning to take place.

How old should my baby be when he weans?

Worldwide, taking cultural norms and values out of the equation, human babies will typically wean between the ages of 2 ½ – 7 years old.  1 This is not to say that your baby has to self-wean, or wean between these years.  But, most babies have a need and desire for nursing until this time.

Physically, your baby needs breast milk for the first year of life and if you wean before this time then your milk must be replaced with a substitute (either artificial milk or donor milk). After this time, breast milk can be replaced with foods – which could be foods that the rest of the family already enjoys.  If your baby seems to “wean” before a year, it is actually a nursing strike and you can use strategies for resolving a nursing strike to get through the situation.

What is baby-led weaning and how do I do it?

Baby-led weaning watches your baby’s cues and goes with it.  Sometime around the second half of her first year of life your baby will begin to take an interest in solid foods.  Adding these complementary foods in addition to breastfeeding makes weaning a gradual transition that takes years.  Ideally, during a baby’s first year of life her mainstay would be breast milk.  It is the most nutritious food she can eat, and the various flavors of the milk based on maternal diet help to develop her tastes for a wide variety of foods.  At the same time, babies can explore family foods during mealtime by touching, playing, tasting, and even swallowing them while the rest of the family shares a meal together.  Gradually, your baby will begin to eat more solids and ask to nurse less.  Then she will go through periods where she will want to nurse more (perhaps due to illness, growth spurt, comfort with her favorite person in the world, etc.). What is important is watching your baby’s cues and meeting her needs.  Nursing when she asks/needs and enjoying watching her grow and discover new foods and tastes at the dinner table.  Throughout her toddler years she will continue to nurse alongside food.  With this approach, babies will typically self-wean between the ages of 2 ½ – 7, with most weaning between ages 3-4.  Every baby is different.  Some will sleep through the night from early on and nurse throughout the day.  Others will be so busy throughout the day their rarely nurse during the day, but nurse at night several times.  Some babies want to nurse to go to sleep, or first thing in the morning, or both.

Some mothers find this approach works well, but need to set some parameters – some mother-led weaning as well.  You may decide nursing in the middle of the night is too much and your toddler, who is old enough to understand and negotiate with words, has to wait for the sun to come up to have milk, for example.  The important thing is you find what works for you as you lovingly and gently meet your child’s needs.

What is mother-led weaning and how do I do it?

Mother-led weaning is initiated by the mother, but can be done in a gradual way that helps to make the transition gentle for your baby.  Before beginning to wean, many mothers find it helpful to reflect on their nursing experience and the reasons why they want to wean. Some reasons may include the following:

If you are unsure if you really want to wean your child, make sure to talk with a supportive breastfeeding friend, La Leche League leader, etc. It may be this support is all you need to find clarity and peace in your situation.  Also, realize that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  You might reduce the number of times you nurse during the day (say if you must return to work and won’t be able to pump) but continue to nurse at night.  Alternatively, you may negotiate with your child that you only nurse during the day but not during the night. Continuing to nurse when either you or your baby no longer want to can be detrimental to your relationship so it is important to find a solution that works for you both.

Some strategies mothers find helpful in weaning include the following:

  • Not offering to breastfeed but not refusing if baby asks
  • Changing up the daily routine so baby is busy and doesn’t ask to nurse
  • Having snacks prepared and ready so baby eats more solids and is less hungry
  • Postponing breastfeeding or breastfeeding for a shorter duration
  • Having dad take over the bedtime and/or morning routine so the transition is different and easier for baby
  • Avoiding the place(s) where baby was usually nursed
  • Discussing and talking with an older child who can understand with words

Most mothers do a combination of both approaches. What is most important is finding the balance that works for you.  Ultimately it is your breastfeeding journey.  Celebrate your story with all the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and loving bond with your child that will last a lifetime!

 

Show 1 footnote

  1. Dettwyler, K. (1995). A time to wean: The hominid blueprint for the natural age of weaning in modern human populations. In P. Stuart-Macadam & K. Dettwyler (Eds.), Breastfeeding: Biocultural perspectives. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 39-73.
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