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When "Toddler-Led" Weaning Just Ain't Happening

When “Toddler-Led” Weaning Just Ain’t Happening

By Amalah

Help me Amalah, you are my only hope;

I have a wonderful 23-month-old son. He’s the kind of kid who makes you a little afraid to have another one because you might not get such a good model the next time. However, he is very attached to Teh Boobz. I’m not quite ready to cut the cord yet, but that time is going to come, and I’m 99.999% sure I’ll be ready to be done before he is.

I’ve done my googling and scoured KellyMom, and so I’m hoping that you will be able to magic me up a solution even though you never had to deal with precisely this situation.

The Story So Far: I went back to work full time this fall, and had hoped I could get him down to one (bedtime) feeding. That was a failure. Don’t-offer-don’t-refuse…doesn’t work so well with toddlers. He knows what he wants, he knows how to ask for it, and he proudly announces that he was “Drinking the boob” when he’s done. (He came up with that entirely on his own, I swear). The elimination of feedings method didn’t work so well because, other than bedtime, he never had a very set nursing schedule. I had some success with shortening sessions. I sing a song while he eats, once per side, so his non-bedtime sessions only take 2-3 minutes. Bedtime is unlimited, and he often goes half an hour or more. I usually read on my computer during the nighttime marathons, so he resisted the song-timing for a while by asking for my computer, but he seems to have fully adapted by now. We have also restricted nursing to the rocking chair (which means that now he doesn’t ask to nurse – he asks me to go sit in the chair).

He usually nurses 2-3 times a day, plus bedtime. I feel like, knowing his personality and the degree of resistance he puts up for even the idea of postponing a session I will have to go cold turkey. However, it seems like the Nursing Interwebs all agree that that is a Big No No (though the Nursing Interwebs also don’t seem to understand that toddlers are fundamentally different than babies and it’s a lot more difficult to wean them). What should I do? How should I go about it?

Thank you,
Someone whose boobs deserve a vacation before doing this AGAIN

I feel like I’m starting almost every column these days with some variation on the “SO NOT AN EXPERT ON THIS TOPIC” caveat, but here I am, once again, with the caveat: My children all weaned well before the toddler stage, and all well before I personally expected to be “done.” (I suspect it was due to my always-tenuous and hard-fought-for supply: They’d drop one feeding and my boobs would drop two, thus reducing their interest even further.)

BUT. I do have the benefit of 100% understanding and FEELING YOU on the fact that indeed, toddlers are very very different from babies, and that toddler-led weaning simply. Does. Not. Always. Happen. I’ve seen the struggle firsthand with friends and family members who were soooooo verrrrrryy ready to be done nursing but their toddlers (and even preschoolers) were…definitely not.

So here’s what worked for them, and as always I am sure, the comment section will be a hugely helpful secondary source of suggestions. (And all readers please note that this is a polite and supportive corner of the Nursing Interwebs: A woman’s choice to wean at any point during breastfeeding is her choice to make, and we like to trust women to make their own choices around here, ya dig?)

That said, I still don’t think a day AND night cold turkey approach is best at this point, but you should still focus on eliminating the daytime feedings first. THOSE, I’d say go ahead and go cold-turkey on.  It doesn’t matter if they’re unscheduled — when he asks you to sit in the chair, say NO, then offer an alternative/distraction. Tell him you you’d rather do (SUPER FUN THING) instead of sit in the chair. Then do super fun thing with him (or offer a super fun snack). “I don’t want to sit in the chair/at my computer. I want to (go play outside/blow bubbles/watch a show/bake cookies) instead.” Stay standing, stay upright, stay resolute.

If he’s verbal enough (and it sounds like he is), you can straight up explain that boobs are only for bedtime from now on, and aren’t going to come out while the sun’s out, or something. Kind of like weaning from a pacifier or a lovey that prompts thumbsucking — restrict its use to the crib or bed at first. You’ve already restricted nursing to the rocking chair, so now the next restriction is that the chair becomes the “bedtime chair” rather than the breastfeeding/boob chair.

Will he put up resistance? OF COURSE HE’S A TODDLER. Should you cave in or feel guilty? NOPE. Distract distract distract, redirect redirect redirect. Treat it like any other tantrum, and absolve yourself of the guilt I know you’re feeling because its breastfeeding and ahhhh mah god, there’s so much emotional baggage and Interwebs judgment. But you’ve been nursing for 23 months, multiple times a day. You’ve done AMAZING. And it’s okay to decide that you’ve done enough!

When you’re ready to say goodbye to the nighttime feedings, I’d try either 1) handing bedtime over to your partner, who can maybe fib on your behalf that you’re busy doing X, Y and Z and won’t be able to sit in the bedtime chair that night. You might actually need to physically leave the house — schedule some girls’ nights or hit the 24-hour Target for groceries. Then 2) After a few nights without it, you can either decide to come back and just tell him no, sorry, there’s no milk left or (again, if verbal enough) talk to him about the need to say bye-bye to the boobs. “You’ve gone to bed without them now, so we’re ready to say bye-bye and just sing at bedtime instead.” Start explaining now that boobs aren’t a “forever” thing, they’re for feeding babies, he’s not a baby anymore, this is just part of growing up, etc. Then hug and comfort and love on him in all the other ways you can.

Some moms will set a weaning “date” for older kids, like his birthday or any other point in time he can understand. Get him a really coveted/special toy, set it where he can see it, and tell him he’ll get it either on such-and-such date OR whenever he decides to say bye-bye. (That second option is entirely up to you…if you don’t think he’ll ever make that decision, go with a date.) Make it a happy, positive “you’re such a big boy!!” milestone, akin to the big kid bed, potty training, etc. At least one mom I know booked a vacation and told her son that was the end date; the trip would literally leave nursing “behind” and when they got back, it would be gone forever. Still bittersweet, but it worked for him.

So ultimately, you do want the process to be as gentle as possible, but like all other things toddler, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, and drawn firmly by YOU. And to draw that line, you first need to lose all the guilt/baggage that surrounds breastfeeding in general and focus on the positives (23 MONTHS!!) and the fact that it’s okay to do what’s best for you BOTH. He’ll need to wean at some point. He’ll also need to use the potty/brush his teeth/go to preschool/not throw toys/not run away from you in parking lots and all SORTS of things that toddlers are often dead-set against. But it’s all just part of life and growing up. Try to re-frame nursing into that context. Set limits, redirect/distract the tantrums like any other tantrum, and be okay with saying “no” It’ll be everybody‘s favorite word for the next couple years anyway, so you might as well get used to it.

Photo source: Depositphotos/Kobyakov

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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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Comments

  • Joanna

    Yeah, we had this (though at age 3, not 2 – even more verbal!). We got down to just naptime and bedtime pretty easily by limiting nursing to a chair in his room, and then stalled out because I didn’t feel like pushing it into tantrum territory when this was my last “baby.” Ultimately what did the trick was that my kids spent a week with my parents, without me and my husband, and when they got back my supply had dried up. So I told him that he couldn’t nurse because there was no milk, and let him try it once or twice to demonstrate that there really wasn’t any. I had to remind him for a few days when he asked to nurse, but it worked.

  • Lindsay

    I did this with my daughter when she was 15-18 months old because I had to start taking a medication (because I have to justify it for some reason, right?!) Anyway, she also slept in our bed at the time too. So I started during the day. I offered milk instead of nursing and it went well because she wasn’t verbal and milk was a part of her day and all that. Then, night was another story! She was used to the open bar all night long, so to speak. So I started wearing clothes that were a lot more inaccessible. She would try to nurse and couldn’t and would just cry and cry. I spent several nights just cuddling with her, giving her milk in a sippy cup and telling her the nursies were sleeping. All I could do was give her lots of extra love and snuggles and her pacifier. I’m sure it would have been different had she been older. I know how much guilt there can be… Those cries from my baby were just heart rending! We cried together a couple times. And it was definitely not a smooth process…I slipped in my resolve a few times, but just kept at it. I kept reading stories that other women wrote or posted about weaning. One thing I remember doing, though I don’t know how much it helped, was really being careful with what I was wearing. High-necked tops that were harder to pull down, tucked in shirts, and no more nursing bras. It made it harder for me to cave and maybe kept it more out sight out of mind for her.

  • Elizabeth

    Both of my kids weaned at about 27 months. It was a looong process but it worked out well both times. For me cold turkey would never have worked with my highly verbal, strong willed kids. We never had set in stone nursing times either. I cut it down by hours of the day. So when they were around 15 months old I night weaned. When they turned two I did what you’ve done– limited the session time and picked a nursing spot. Then I started pushing back the time–with my son it was not nursing until after breakfast and then not nursing until after lunch ect. My daughter always had a hard time waking up so for her it was the opposite we dropped bedtime nursing first, then didn’t nurse after lunch and then dropped the first thing in the morning nursing last. I waited until each stage was normal and expected for them to limit the time of day we nursed more. That was also easier on my boobs than stopping for a whole day would have been (for me).

  • IrishCream

    I was in a similar situation three years ago…Amy’s advice, and that of the commentariat, was spot on! That dang “never offer, never refuse” mantra should come with a disclaimer that it only applies to babies.

    http://alphamom.com/parenting/toddler-parenting/weaning-and-tantrums/

  • Ettina

    My younger brother nursed until he was four, when my Mom and I went on a three day camping trip and left him with Dad. By the time we came back, her flow had stopped, so he realized pretty quickly that it was pointless to try to nurse any more.

  • Jenelle Little

    Go on vacation. Without your child. For real. You have been nursing for 23 months – you deserve a celebration and a reward and a BREAK. Go to a spa, a B&B, a hotel down the street from your house. Heck, send the kid to grandma’s or auntie’s and sleep for three days in your own bed. If that doesn’t work, have your partner take your son somewhere for a couple nights or stay home with him while you go somewhere. Give yourself a clean slate to start from where he hasn’t nursed in a few days so he (and you!) knows he can do it.

    • Gabrielle

      I will warn you that it doesn’t always work. When my son was two, I did that. My mom took me on a 9 day trip and I didn’t pump or anything, figuring I’d be dry and my son would finally wean. Nope- 9 days later, my body still produced milk for him!

      It took many more months to wean him- I wish I could say it was easy!

  • Sarah in Georgia

    You’ve got this, mom! Sending happy thoughts your way.

    This doesn’t sound like it will work with your situation, but my daughter weaned when our family went on vacation and being in a new place, she never asked and I never offered. It was a little upsetting for her when we got home and didn’t nurse before bed any more, but we were quick to start a “1 book, 2 songs, 3 kisses” routine that actually made naptime easier for the next several months.

    Just for funnies–There is a story that my grandmother nursed her youngest until he could read (precocious three year old). She needed an x-ray for something and explained it to him, and “lead” him to the understanding that nursing wouldn’t be wise after that because of the medical implications.

  • Alice

    I weaned my toddler at 20 months by going on a work trip for four days. Before I left he had been nursing to sleep and nursing most mornings so I wasn’t sure how he’d do with me gone, but apparently it was a super smooth transition. By the time I was back he had decided that a sippy cup and a book was more fun (and probably way more milk too) and didn’t even ask to nurse once. YMMV, but I definitely recommend letting your partner (or parent, or whoever you have available) do the hard work.

  • Robin

    Just chiming in to say that I weaned all three of my sons at around this same age (and they would have kept going) and this is solid advice: daytime first, cold turkey, then nighttime. Treat like other toddler demands (distract, redirect, hold firm), engage your partner to help, switch routines up, etc.

  • JennyK

    I weaned my daughter around this age, too. She was not. Having. It. My best trick was to have a zip up vest and have my husband distract as much as possible. The vest was key, though, to keep her from helping herself. It was also a visual barrier that helped her understand that I wasn’t kidding.

  • Vickie

    One thing I wanted to mention is you are probably going to need to remove the rocking chair from the property when he is weaned. Put it in someone’s basement or garage.

    I also wonder if a higher level of picture/storybooks might help at that time too.

    And if he is that verbal, he might be ready for beginning board type games in the evening. Puzzles work well too. Art projects work well too. Have to time it right so bedtime is kept. But it will give him a different routine that is not centered on nursing and more interesting things to do with you.

    I think it is important to not avoid him, but to transition to a different focus. However that said, it might be easier to have his bedtime ritual be with your partner. If you are considering another baby, there are a lot of pluses to that.

    And be sure to increase his fluid consumption during the day. I am not sure of water vs milk timing these days. But I think the increase needs to be a concentrated effort so thirst is not a factor.

  • Joanna

    I’ve finally got my 3 year old down to once a day before bed and I’ve started setting a timer and slowly reducing the amount of time. I also have one of those “ok to wake” clocks that I used mostly for night weaning but could be at any point in the day. No milk till the clock turns green. Time to stop when it turns yellow. Then the clock was the villian, not me. Each time we did a major change (no more night nursing, no nursing when we wake up, etc) it took about 3 days for him to totally get over it. Bedtime and sleep related feedings are definitely harder to drop than daytime.

  • Sarah

    This is my child! To a tee. Almost the exact same experience. 19 months in. I read everything. I tried everything — eliminating feedings, just doing night, everything. And, I finally had to just go cold cold turkey. Day and Night. when I tried to eliminate a feeding or two or daytime feedings he would basically not eat anything until the feeding (including all day) and then eat like six times at night. I really thought I was going to lose my mind (and I knew we’d be trying to get pregnant again soon). We celebrated the last feeding. We said it was all done. We said bye bye and then, it was over. The next couple of days we kept SUPER busy – lots of walks, playground, meals that I knew he liked were ready to go, and my husband dealt with everything at night — I never went in (and he did wake up). I have to say, I still think he’d be nursing constantly if I didn’t go cold turkey. He was a super fan but I was done.

  • Dash

    Aaaghh, I just did this this month with my 2.25 year old! Mostly painlessly! I’m going to reply to this comment with what we did after I go and read what Amalah wrote!!

  • Dash

    Okay, circling back. I went back to work full-time when she was 9 mos old and she literally weaned less than three weeks ago at 2 and three and a half months. The first thing we cut out [several months ago] was during the day [except as a naptime aid on the weekends]. Then we cut out the pre-nap at roughly the same time we cut out the morning bedtime loll around session. We started doing that on weekdays because I would lie and say we would nurse on the sofa when we went downstairs, and then I would let her watch TV or play with toys downstairs as she ate breakfast, and then I would be like, okay, [clap clap], let’s go to school, and then usually she would look up at me on the way to school and say, “Boobie?” And I would do a very dramatic “Oh no, we forgot, we’ll nurse when I get home from work/at bedtime.” After work she usually wouldn’t ask, so we were left primarily with the bedtime. Around her second birthday (four months ago), I started asking her when she would be ready to be “all done with boobie” (which I tried to call milky, but no dice), reminding her that her big cousins/idols didn’t have boobie, big kids don’t have boobie, etc. We would also talk a lot about whether or not there was milk. (Sometimes yes, sometimes no.) Periodically during/after the bedtime nurse, I would ask her when she would be ready. “Tomorrow or later?” “This week or after Chanukah?” Eventually she said, “After Chanukah.” We would also “snuggle” on her daybed before/after nursing, so that was the plan for what we’d sub in. (Sidenote: she says “suggle” which sounds so much like “suckle.” I thought that was what she was saying the first couple times. Child’s been replaced by an extra from Outlander apparently.) So Chanukah (which she spent with her big cousins and her brand new baby cousin) came and went and lo, it was a time of many exciting toys and lots of youtube videos and also Disneyland. I think we reminded her a couple times that boobie was going to be all done after Chanukah. (I also had to take sudafed for a terrible cold, which apparently dries you up. That may be a nice intervening circumstance so you’re not the bad guy!) So when that first time came, I said, “Oh, it’s after Chanukah now, we don’t do boobie anymore.” There were some tears; surprisingly few, actually. We snuggled instead. She also asks me to hold her “like baby” and “feed cow milk” (in a sippy cup). She kept asking every night for about a week and there was some clinginess at bedtime as well (i.e. lying on the floor holding her hand while she fell asleep every night instead of switching off with my husband–oops, we never sleep trained). She still asks every couple of days (and I did give her a final farewell about five days after the last night so she could nurse in her favorite spot one more time) but I just remind her that it’s after Chanukah. I also, uh, let her touch them when she asks and I’m bra-free. Your mileage may vary on that one.
    Sorry for the book! Good luck! I’m glad we waited til she was very verbal, in some ways. It’s a comfort to me to know that she understands what’s going on, even if she doesn’t like it.

  • Anon

    One other thing – you may have to get rid of the chair. We weaned at around (just after) that age, and I talked about how we were going to get him a big boy bed, and put the nursing chair in the basement. That was our cutoff date.

    Agree with Amy on cutting day boob drinking first, too.

  • I tied it to starting school (conveniently the week she was three). Big kids who go to school only get the boob milk in the morning. She cried for maybe 45 minutes, which is my kid’s standard duration when thwarted. Then she accepted it. She will ask if she’s very tired in the late afternoon, but she accepts “cow milk in a cup with a lid” and hugs instead.

    I’m very very lazy, so the first thing in the morning one has stayed. She wakes me up, we climb in her bed and I get 20 more minutes to lie down. I have started mentioning that not everyone gets boob milk and eventually she might stop even just in the mornings. Thus far, she flatly declined to entertain such an idea. My next idea is some nature shows about mammals, to help her grasp that we all wean eventually.

  • Catt

    My son has been weaned for about four months now. And still he will try to unzip my hoodie to get at the goods. lol I tell him all the milk is gone and he’s fine with it. Good luck

  • biteykitty

    Not personal experience, my kiddo weaned super early, but in the lactation support group I went to, some people used tricks. One told her kid that milk went sour as kids aged, then started putting vinegar on her nipples. Her kid thought the milK was sour now, and quit nursing. Another said she had “ouchies” on her nipples, bandaged them, and used kiddo”s empathy to get him to wean. On the cold turkey route, some mom’s just went on vacation and said milk was gone after…