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Q&A: How do I gently wean an older child who shows no sign of self-weaning?

Posted: Breastfeeding » Weaning | July 1st, 2004



Question: I am breastfeeding my son, who has just turned 3 years. I am all for extended breastfeeding, but he seems to show no sign of diminishing interest. He nurses regularly, day and at night. What would you suggest in order to gently wean him — or do you think it better to let him be until he “weans himself”?

Dr. Palmer responds: I’ve got to tell you a secret: some children “wean themselves” at age 7 or 8. This is normal and great, but we aren’t all up to it and kids certainly do great weaned earlier than this. It’s a little bit of a fib when we are told in our early La Leche League experiences and such that children will wean naturally. Some do, many don’t.

I know of three children in my (very AP-oriented) son’s school class whose moms decided to wean them before starting kindergarten, mostly for social reasons. Unless you are homeschooling, I think this probably works out best in our culture.

Weaning that’s encouraged by mom happens all around the animal world in nature, and I believe it’s a natural part of life. You may have seen a mother cat or dog get up and walk away sometimes when her older pups try to nurse. I saw a mother orangutan (they nurse for about six years) push her older son away and then grab a leafy stick to hold in front of her breast as he predictably returned to try again.

It’s perfectly great if you want to keep going totally with his energy and desires. Maybe he’ll tucker out or maybe you will, some day or year. There’s no outside reason to wean (beyond outside pressures and unfounded judgments), but there’s no big reason not to at this age. He’s been a really lucky guy to have three years. It’s also totally fine to try small increments of weaning at this point, if it feels right for you and not devastating for him.

If you choose to start weaning

If/when choosing to try some weaning, it’s easiest for most to do the daytime weaning first. Most children remain babies at night (and when injured) much more than during their busy days. You’ll likely find that he has consecutive days when he’s feeling clingy and extra close to you and other times when he’s a bit more explorative and distant. Do take advantage of these times in whatever way you need. Don’t combine weaning with potty training, a new home, school, or day care, the arrival of a new sibling or even a vacation.

The wonderful thing about being 3 is that he can understand your conversation about nursing and weaning and you can explain weaning efforts to him, as opposed to a little baby’s wondering why his mom is suddenly “depriving” him and taking herself away from him.

Along with little talks and gentle suggestions, a big key is keeping your son really busy. When he starts to look “nursy,” try going for a big distraction (“Oooh! Look at that!”). Another valuable effort that works for many moms is to have some five- or six-hour blocks of time away from your baby doing something for yourself, if this is at all possible. You’ll likely find that he doesn’t even think about nursing once you’ve been gone for a few minutes — until the moment he sees you again, that is.

Focus on food — not on getting him to eat it, but just activities around healthy eating. Have him help you make decisions in the grocery store and pore over the big selection of fruits and vegetables, learning all of their names and uses. Have some energetic picnics where the food and festivities are both a big focus. Grow some foods if you can. Teach your son to cook, create some food art and do plenty of kitchen chemistry activities. Eventually he’ll think less about nursing during the day.

The same tactic of your being “out of sight” may eventually need to be used at night as well. You can nurse your son down and then slip out to another bed so he doesn’t feel you, hear you or smell you. (Or maybe he sleeps alone already.) Eventually, wearing a bra and plenty of covering-up on top might be enough. Now Dad has the big job of trying to comfort your son when he gets restless, trying to not call in the breasts unless they’re really needed. You’ll likely be needed back in the morning. Eventually you can awake him energetically to a colorful and aromatic breakfast before he wakes you to nurse.

The “New Age” thing is to have a weaning or “growing up” party (with a selective guest list). This may fit into your lifestyle. The downside of this is that it’s both common and ok for a child to want to regress a bit at times, and this may feel like a “failure” if there has been such a final decree.

Good luck!

© Linda Folden Palmer

Dr. Linda Folden Palmer consults and lectures on natural infant health, optimal child nutrition and attachment parenting. After running a successful chiropractic practice focused on nutrition and women’s health for more than a decade, Linda’s life became transformed eight years ago by the birth of her son. Her research into his particular health challenges led her to write Baby Matters: What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Caring for Your Baby. Extensively documented, this healthy parenting bookpresents the scientific evidence behind attachment parenting practices, supporting baby’s immune system, preventing colic and sparing drug usage. You can visit Linda’s web site at www.babyreference.com.

2 Responses to “Q&A: How do I gently wean an older child who shows no sign of self-weaning?”

1 Lucy says:

I have a 27 month old son who I would love to wean. He definatly needs to breastfeed for sleep and wakes up several time a night wanting to feed shortly to get back to sleep. Do you recommed leaving the house a couple of nights? Would that wean him? How many days does it usually take to loose milk supply?

2 Michelle says:

I weaned my 21-month-old daughter when we went out of town and she seemed to forget about nursing for a few days. On day four when she tried to get back into it, I wouldn’t let her. She showed strong signs of resentment for at least three weeks. My son, however, skipped nursing for a few days when he was about the same age that she had been, but after that, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So making your child skip a few days of nursing may or may not work. It is definately not the easy way out.

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