FAQ 9. Weaning

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Q. I have heard of “baby-led weaning”. How long will my children tend to breastfeed if I allow them to wean on their own?

A. The World Health Organization recommends that mothers breastfeed for up to two years or beyond.

If allowed to wean at their own pace, most babies will tend to nurse until toddlerhood. The world average length of breastfeeding duration in many parts of the world, across lots of different cultures and periods of history is over four years.

Compared to this, two years is really quite an early weaning — and it is not at all uncommon to see a three or four year old with a bottle or sucking their thumb, so the sucking instinct does still exist at an older age in toddlers who were never breastfed. But I think that the urge to suck is inherently tied in with the urge to connect with one’s mother — the one who nurtured you and who you got to know for a long time before you were even born.

Breastmilk is always the perfect food while baby is breastfeeding. And even when you start giving solids, breastfeeding an older baby continues to give lots of nutrition and antibodies to protect against illness for the next couple of years or even longer. There is growing research that is indicating the long-term effects of breastfeeding: beneficial effect on a child’s immune system as they mature, and other long-term benefits.

Perhaps more important than the nutrition or even the immunologic factors, is the fact that breastfeeding offers a lot of comfort to a baby or young child and also is a great way to learn how to be close to and trust another person. A way to learn what giving is — and in time, the child wants to give back. They learn gratitude and learn how to care about others. That is the amazing power of breastfeeding.

At first, when you have a newborn who depends on you so intensely, it can seem like a long time to imagine breastfeeding for two years or more — especially when you have a newborn in your arms who seems to breastfeed all the time — or at least several times a day every day (and at night too). But an older baby does not breastfeed on and off all day like a newborn. Things evolve. Just as they start to crawl and then walk, or nibble at the table and then eat full meals, or babble and then start to talk, the breastfeeding evolves into different stages, over time.

A tiny baby who breastfeeds every couple of hours becomes a toddler who is busy playing with toys, enjoying the company of other kids, has fun building sandcastles or playing at the playground, loves having some banana to snack on, and only breastfeeds from time to time along with everything else that happens in their busy day.

Also, older babies can understand when we talk to them, so they can usually wait if necessary. If they want to breastfeed in the shopping line-up, they tend to understand that they might have to wait until you get outside where you can sit down. (Remember to remind your toddler that you promised to breastfeed once you do get outside, so that your baby learns that you are trustworthy!) It helps to allow for, that is, budget some breastfeeding time during outings, and then you never feel that breastfeeding cuts into what seems more important.

Sometimes toddlers only want to breastfeed at bedtime or when they hurt themselves or when they are frightened. What a wonderful way to help them feel happy fast — often faster than any amount of other comforting we might try.

Some of us call this “touch-base” nursing. With the security of being able to touch base, they feel recharged, and have the confidence to face the world again, venturing out little by little, knowing they have that security to return to when they need it. And little by little, they need that comfort less and less the more self-reliant they naturally become.

There is a trend these days in some places to encourage “self-calming” in a baby. But instead of actively trying to teach self-calming, which can actually make a child insecure and clingy, why not trust that they will do that when they grow into it? It makes parenting so much less work.

So I encourage you to adopt a relaxed approach to breastfeeding and weaning and just develop an approach to breastfeeding that is mutually enjoyable as time goes on.

Breastfeeding and weaning do not naturally happen in a linear way. Sometimes toddlers like to explore the world and become somewhat independent for a while and cut back on their interest in breastfeeding. Then they might go through a period where they need more comforting, especially if there is some new challenge in life, such as an addition to the household, a change in living habits, a move to another location. And along with that they might want to breastfeed more often.

So if mom can be flexible and not worry about measuring breastfeeding frequency, or comparing today to last week, it can all be so easy. Like the ebb and flow of our own changing emotional needs, little growing people have their own varying needs that change from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

Eventually they outgrow the need — and if allowed to evolve at its own pace, the end of breastfeeding can be so unremarkable that no one even really notices that they are not breastfeeding any more. They just don’t happen to think of it. And they do not seem to miss it if they are allowed to decide when to go on to the next stage without coercion.

If anyone misses anything, it’s mom, who remembers those sweet days fondly. But if allowed to happen in its own time, weaning is like a bud that eventually blossoms. A bird who flies from the nest. And the child is happy to move forward into a new independence.

Babies were breastfeeding long before clocks or calendars were invented. What matters is your own baby’s needs, and the relationship that develops between baby and mother, and a mother’s desire to always give her baby the best food, nutrition, and comfort that she can at any given time, to help the baby eventually grow into an independent, self-actualized individual.

If you want to read more about the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding and healthy weaning ideas, please check out this very interesting and well-referenced article from world experts: The optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding