Weaning a Milk Monster
A mom would like to partially wean her toddler but she throws temper tantrums and the mom ultimately gives in because it’s nursing related. She needs help following through.
My younger daughter is a month away from her second birthday, and I’d like to start to taper off nursing somewhat. She currently nurses in the morning, after day care, and at bedtime (and multiple times a day on weekends). I’d be happy to keep the morning and bedtime sessions going for a few more months, but the daytime nursing is driving me crazy. She’s easily distracted, off and on, says she’s all done and then comes back two minutes later and wants more, etc. Plus I am damn tired of my nursing tank tops, thank you.
With her older sister, the “never offer, never refuse” method worked like a charm. This kid is a different story. I do sometimes tell her no, I can’t do mama milk right now, I’m in the middle of cooking dinner, eating dinner, working in the garden, etc. She flips. Tantrum city, and lots of “I. WANT. MAMA. MILK. NOW. PLEASE.” (She does always say please, I’ll give her that.)
My normal, and generally successful, approach to tantrums is to ignore them and not give in to the demand in question. I find myself caving on the milk issue, though, and stopping what I’m doing to nurse her, because I’m afraid of making it harder to wean, or denying her some essential comfort that will have her in therapy down the road. It is the milk that she wants, specifically–offering cuddle time, a fun distraction, or a cup of cow’s milk does not satisfy her. She’s generally a happy, confident, very verbal kid, but she loses her shit if she’s denied the boob.
What’s your recommendation? Hold the line and not give in if it’s an inconvenient time to nurse, or try to be more accommodating right off the bat? Any other tips for weaning a total milk monster?
Milk Addict’s Mom
Let me start off and admit straight up that I’m out of my personal experience comfort zone here, as all three of my kids weaned on their own, well before they were two, verbal or tantrum-y. (In fact, all three technically weaned despite me actively fighting against the process; they’d refuse when I offered, or nurse so disinterestedly for so many sessions in a row that my supply dried up. Wah.)
But. I had a gut feeling-type response to your situation, a sense of what I’d do IF I were in your spot, and after Googling my way around a few reputable pro-breastfeeding support sites and forums, I am reasonably confident that my response is not horrifically out of line with the general weaning-without-too-much-emotional-trauma guidance out there.
So you’ve got the right plan — focus on dropping/scaling back one session at a time. The daytime nursing is annoying and inconvenient and bringing out some undesirable behavior on her part, so yes. That’s totally a good place to start. She can drink regular milk and is clearly happy, secure and independent, so nursing has done its job and yet run its course. No guilt, it’s time.
Now, what’s stopping it from happening? Well, you are giving in to that undesirable behavior, and thus reinforcing that if she pitches a fit and throws a tantrum (albeit with a slightly hilarious, missing-the-point “PLEASE”), she gets what she wants. Which, honestly? Is probably a WORSE thing for her in the long run than any possible effect of being refused the boob. Especially since it’s NOT the emotional comfort she wants and is being denied, she just wants a treat. Breastmilk is sweet and yummy. It just so happens to be connected to you, rather than something she needs you to retrieve from the pantry or fridge.
Swap out ANY OTHER THING ON EARTH that she might demand in such a fashion and I’m guessing you would never, ever give in to the tantrum. You’d ignore, or maybe issue a two-minute timeout once it escalated. So I’d encourage you to let go of the guilt and the feeling like breastfeeding should be an “exception” to the behavior rules for some reason. And just flat-out stop caving to the bad behavior. That is not how you ask for or get what you want, young lady, no matter what it is. Full stop. Mama milk does NOT happen when you’re yelling and flipping out, nor does it happen when Mama is cooking dinner/eating dinner/gardening/busy. These are absolutely reasonable rules that she is old enough to understand.
So I’d probably approach the daytime weaning process in two stages. First, you get her to stop flipping out when refused the first time. She’s learned that Mama Milk is an exception to the tantrum rules and that eventually, you’ll cave. She just needs to act hysterical enough. So we have to figure out how to get her to unlearn that first. If ignoring doesn’t work, try moving her (or having your partner move her) somewhere out of your sight to cool down. Not a punishment, just a distracting change of scenery where the boobs are out of view so she has a shot at calming herself down. Use a calm voice, no visible anger, just “that is not how we ask/behave/get what we want/etc.”
(If it’s possible, I would DEFINITELY pawn this off on your partner — the more involved you [and your boobs] are, the harder it’s going to be to get her redirected and calm, unless you’re okay with putting her in her room alone for a few minutes.)
(I’m okay with putting my toddler in his room alone for a few minutes, once a tantrum has escalated and other cool-down/redirect efforts have failed. He gets madder at first, yes, but then almost always calms down on his own within five minutes. Again, I try not to frame it as a punishment, just more of a “you don’t get to act that way and still enjoy other people’s company; you can come out as soon as you’re ready to stop screaming/shrieking/whatever.” Even though he is probably NOT enjoying the pleasure of our company much at all, he tends to lose interest in the tantrum once there’s no longer an audience for his theatrics.)
I’m calling this a first stage because it DOES mean that if she successfully calms down and figures out that if she waits patiently until you’re no longer busy and asks again nicely, she should be rewarded with nursing. Positive reinforcement and all that shizz. Don’t offer once you’re done cooking/eating/whatever, of course, but wait to see if she asks.
To possibly eliminate her asking, keep her as busy and entertained as possible — it sounds like there might be a little bit of boredom tied into her nursing requests? Like she asks when you’re distracted/busy and expecting her to mostly entertain herself? So try no nursing while Mama cooks or eats (AGAIN: PERFECTLY REASONABLE RULES), and then after dinner, let’s go out for ice cream cones! Take a walk to the park! Drive somewhere in the car! (This is especially effective if you’ve established that nursing is primarily an at-home thing.) Blow some bubbles, color with chalk, something. Load her up with activities during the prime witching hours for a week or so and see if you can sort of naturally nudge out the pre-bedtime session(s).
(Oh, and maybe try “once she’s off, she’s OFF.” She says she’s all done, you get up and do something else and repeat the “no, Mama Milk is all done” when she’s back two minutes later. She freaks out, the cycle of not giving in/redirection begins again. Or once she says all done, instead of letting her toddle off to find something to do, you immediately guide her to an activity that will hold her interest [and fill her desire for one-on-one attention] for awhile.)
Once you’ve gone a nice steady, consistent chunk of time without caving to the tantrums and she seems less zero-to-ragey about being told “not now,” you can move on to stage two, which is just telling her “no.” If you haven’t done so already, try nursing her in the same spot in both the morning and at bedtime — preferably in bed or at least in her bedroom. Then introduce a new rule, that Mama Milk only happens in that spot. It’s a sleepy/bedtime thing only. I’ve had several friends who successfully eliminated their older toddlers’ less-desirable feedings with variations on this rule — Mama Milk is closed after bedtime, so no middle-of-the-night session. Or Mama Milk doesn’t happen when the sun is shining, etc. This can then be your lead-in to eliminating the next session (probably the morning one), whenever you feel ready.