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Weaning a Milk Monster

May22

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Hi Amy,

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?

Cheers,
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.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Weaning a Milk Monster”

  1. Angela May 22 at 10:09 am Reply Reply

    One thing I would add since she’s older: tell her about the no tantrum rule and all that stuff before you start. At a calm time, maybe first thing in the morning the day you start? That helped with mine because when she was going crazy I could just remind her of the new rule, instead of changing her world when she is already upset.

  2. Jen May 22 at 10:16 am Reply Reply

    the nursing relationship is between two people, so when one of them wants to stop or scale back, it is the right time. Weaning an older toddler/preschooler is more challenging because they are more verbal and harder to distract, plus IMO the emotional attachment to nursing is even stronger.
    Since you are ready to wean from all daytime nursing, definitely pick a phrase to repeat and stick with it. Like Amy said, deal with the tantrums the same way you would deal with them if they were caused by anything else. What I did was say that there was no milk during the day anymore. And there definitely were tantrums and I had to change numerous small things about our routine to make it slightly easier.
    But extended nursing also has its own rewards- try not to lose sight of that during this process. Try to make it so that the remaining nursing sessions are a positive time for both of you– it will be easier once you eliminate the daytime sessions.

  3. Jeannie May 22 at 11:04 am Reply Reply

    My oldest nursed until he was 2.5; my youngest until (eep) 3.5 which was six months too long for me. I second the note above about the tantrums. And What worked for me:

    1. Working up to it: when time X comes (birthday, summer, holiday, etc.) there will be no more nursing except in bed. Get her to repeat it back to you. Tell her there will still be nursing at bedtime. When she asks, during the day, remind her you only nurse in bed now, and redirect.  

    2. Wearing non-nursing clothes during the day. Harder to access meant it was less comfy for all of us to nurse, which in turn meant shorter nursing sessions. I was also able to say “no, mama isn’t wearing the right clothes!” and show her I couldn’t get into my clothes!  In my case I was also *desperate* for regular clothes!

    3. And for the time being, I’d play up those night sessions too …. At least until you’re ready to drop those too!

    Best of luck! And if it doesn’t work, remember that she will self-wean. In my case I was getting pretty desperate when she turned three that she would *never* drop that last nursing session … And then one day she didn’t ask. And it was over in a matter of a few weeks. 

  4. MR May 22 at 12:38 pm Reply Reply

    Amy has it exactly right. She absolutely should not be rewarded for throwing a fit. So, that is phase 1. But, I’d change phase 2 to making her wait a bit to nurse after she has asked politely. Her: “Can I nurse please?” You: “Not right now. We can nurse in five minutes.” Then she needs to learn to accept that without throwing a fit. From there, lengthen the time, “Not right now. When we get home.” or “Not right now. After nap” etc. Until eventually when you say, “not right now”, she just sighs or says, “ah man!” My 3 year old will sigh and throw her arms down and slump her shoulders in the universal, “I’m disappointed” gesture, which is pretty cute. But, she knows she doesn’t get to nurse if she throws a fit, and there are plenty of times where I just say “Not right now” and don’t offer her a time. She’s my last, so I’m willing to keep going at this point, but I know she is winding down.
    Oh, and you can totally switch to non-nursing clothes now. I always just wear regular clothes and pull them up. So much more comfortable than nursing stuff.

  5. April May 22 at 12:52 pm Reply Reply

    This is so my 20 mo. old and me! We nurse on demand and I’ve been really frustrated with the “drop a session” advice because there are no clear “sessions.” I have been successful with slowly implementing rules. Not at night. Not in public. I hadn’t thought to just add more rules. Good idea!

  6. Karen May 22 at 3:08 pm Reply Reply

    I slowly weaned mine starting around 20 months, it took 6-7 months total. I did cave most of the time, and it turned out fine with no lasting problems. Your kid sounds a lot like my second, I didn’t have too much trouble with my first either.

    What really sped the process along for me was dropping the nurse to sleep, maybe around 2 years. That helped me drop the nighttime nursing which in turn improved my mental approach to the whole thing. I was able to continue with the gentle weaning approach while getting past the hump when don’t ask, don’t refuse doesn’t work. Oh, and I also just stopped wearing nursing bra/tank anything. Just pulled up or down on a normal bra as needed.

    Good luck! And something fun to read:

    http://theleakyboob.com/2011/06/toddler-breastfeeding-frustration-and-what-keeps-me-going/

  7. Myriam May 22 at 3:14 pm Reply Reply

    It’s crazy how our brains have imprinted the “breast is best” to such an extent! Amy has it right, just because it’s breast milk and it’s good for her, you shouldn’t encourage and reward unwanted behaviour. Treat these tantrums like all the others, and don’t cave. You are not denying her or traumatizing her, you are doing your job of teaching her how to deal with disappointment at being told no. I also second what Angela suggested : explain the new rules in advance, and you can just remind her, instead of trying to explain them to a trantrumy toddler!

    • Karen May 22 at 4:37 pm Reply Reply

      It took me a while to figure out that toddler nursing is really not about the “breast is best” sort of thing anymore, it’s really more like a comfort mechanism for the kiddo. And weaning isn’t really about replacing the milk, it’s more like dropping a bottle or pacifier, a special blanket of stuffed animal… Imagine a kid who loved his favorite giraffe so much but you needed to get rid of it for some reason. It would be devastating for the kid, but you would still try to be sensitive about it. Same thing here really. It is kind of traumatizing for them, and recognizing that helps the toddler weaning process tremendously.

  8. Olivia May 22 at 5:25 pm Reply Reply

    I’m offering sympathy hugs. My first was fairly easy to wean at around 2.5, except for the bed time session. That took a little more work. My second, though, is taking a lot longer just to night wean. He’s doesn’t ask often when we are out and busy, but at home he wants it all the time. And I totally agree with keeping the toddler and yourself busy, but sometimes I’m tired, too. Also, my son says please and thank you when I let him nurse and it’s hard to deny that sweet face. Good luck!

  9. Nicole May 22 at 6:03 pm Reply Reply

    I fretted in advance of weaning my 2 year old and was surprised at how smoothly it went. She too had no set sessions and we’d basically been doing “don’t offer, don’t refuse” since about 18 months. We talked about it in advance for a few weeks. We also got her a special toy that we showed her and told her it was for when she was all done nursing. She asked a few times the first week or so and I reminded her she was all done. There were actually very few tantrums. It may have helped that I was 3 months pregnant, though. Good luck!

  10. Akweaver May 22 at 6:37 pm Reply Reply

    Agreed 1000x. Plus, remember you’ll need a new routine once nursing is done. Once the temper tantrums cool, instead of then reinforcing the cool down with nursing, try a snuggle and sippy cup session. We replaced “mama milk” with “milk and cuddles”. She asks for some “milk and cuddles” now but the great thing is anyone can be the cuddle-giver. When I’m free, I steal all the cuddles I can, but when her aunt or grandpa visit, she cuddles with them and I melt from the cuteness.

  11. Amber_S May 23 at 12:06 am Reply Reply

    This was a good read for me. I’m currently nursing my 11 mo old and I’m not sure when I plan on stopping (maybe 18 months? Or cut back at 15 to just once a day? It’s challenging because she’s dairy intolerant & there’s no great option for replacement … But I also can’t eat any dairy until she’s completely weaned). 

    I also want to offer encouragement, setting those hard limits is a struggle! It’s one of the most uncomfortable, icky parts of parenting. So, be kind to yourself during this process and maybe find another parenting category to ease up on for a while, just to make yourself feel better. Kind of like when my husband’s out of town, I let my daughter eat more processed foods, or watch an occasional tv show (like, an hour a week max). 

  12. autumn May 23 at 1:39 am Reply Reply

    I’ll offer a counter opinion.  We dropped the night nursing first, as at 14 months, my daughter still would only nurse to sleep (not making that mistake again if we have another one. . .)  Daddy stepped up with bath and stories, I do teeth brushing and putting on jammies, and boob time just didn’t work with that schedule.  She could nurse a bit before we brushed teeth, but not once we got into the “routine”

    She self weaned when we were on vacation in Mexico.  The first day she wanted to nurse, but after that, there was too much fun to waste time with Mommy.  The day after we were home, she asked to nurse, and my supply was gone.  She pouted, then went off to play and that was that.

    Until a year later when she out of the blue poked me in the chest and said “I want to eat those”   Kids. . .

  13. Milk Addict’s Mom May 23 at 2:03 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks Amy, and commenters. Super helpful advice! I did need the encouragement and the reminder that at this stage, nursing is not in a magical category that exempts it from my normal standards of behavior. 

    And those nursing tanks…if I need to be a little discreet and can’t just pull my top down, I have to keep my stomach covered. Girlfriend likes to absent-mindedly pinch while she nurses, and I am super ticklish. Nursing bras leave me vulnerable to a major ticklefest.

  14. MARY May 24 at 7:35 am Reply Reply

    My daughter is the same age. We coslept most of her life as well as nursed on demand. She also just loved it and did not seem to be slowing down so I started saying “later” to her which she did accept better than “no”. We kept up morning, nap and night time and she slowly asked less and less during the day. She was a sneaky one, sometimes curling up on the couch with me and suddenly latched on without me really noticing. It’s just second nature to us now, but gentle coaxing and patience on your part and I think you’ll soon be where you want to be! Good luck!!

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