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My toddler is still breastfeeding, mostly at night and first thing in the morning. Should I wean him? If so, how?

To quote Dr. William Sears, "There is no set number of years you should nurse your baby." If you and your child enjoy breastfeeding, there is no reason you need to stop. Both of you will continue to benefit from breastfeeding as long as you like. Many mothers choose to wean naturally, allowing the child to outgrow the need gradually, in his own time.

Breastfeeding an older toddler or child is different from breastfeeding an infant. Most mothers naturally begin to place some restrictions on nursing as their child grows. Sometimes, the mother of an older nursling may become frustrated by other parenting challenges, and think that breastfeeding is causing the difficulty. In fact, raising children is hard work, and the "problem" may be the result of the child's developmental stages.

In that case, it's very helpful to learn more about typical childhood behavior and needs. A good place to start is by attending La Leche League meetings. There you will meet mothers who have nursed their children and are happy to share information and ideas with you. To find a Group near you, please see Finding a Local LLL Group.

You might also enjoy reading Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, by Norma Jane Bumgarner, The Nursing Mother's Guide To Weaning, by Kathleen Huggins and Linda Ziedrich, and How Weaning Happens, by Diane Bengson. These books are available from the LLLI Online Store.

If you decide that you would like to encourage weaning, here are some suggestions to try.

  1. If the child is sleeping with you, you might consider moving him into his own bed or into bed with an older sibling. However, if the child resists the move, he might actually increase breastfeeding in order to preserve his feeling of closeness with you.
  2. Breastfeed the child when he asks, and don't offer when he doesn't. This simple technique may help accelerate the weaning process when used with other methods.
  3. Change daily routines. Instead of heading home after picking him up from daycare, head to the grocery store or elsewhere instead. Try to avoid the "nursing chair" or other usual "nursing station" in your home as much as possible at the times when he usually would ask to nurse. Stand up as much as possible!
  4. If possible, get help from other family and household members. If he usually nurses upon waking, try getting up before him and have the child's father or someone else do all the morning routine.
  5. Anticipate nursings and offer substitutions and distractions. Try offering a snack or drink at that time. Take him to his favorite place at the usual nursing time. Other distractions: reading, bike rides, visits from friends, a new toy, walking/singing to the child.
  6. Shorten the length of nursings or see if he accepts a postponed nursing. If he doesn't understand the concept of waiting or of time, this may not be helpful.

Generally, these strategies work best for daytime nursing. The nap and bedtime nursings are often the last to go. Again, other family members could help by taking over sleep-time routines, if possible. Some mothers decide to allow breastfeeding to continue at these times, even when daytime weaning is complete.

If weaning is going too quickly for the child, he'll usually let you know by his behavior. Increased tantrums, regressive behaviors, anxiety, increase in nightwaking, new fear of separation, and clinginess are all possible signs that weaning is going too quickly for your child.

Your child may be old enough for you to simply explain to him that you feel it is time to wean. Many children his age or older can understand the concept of stopping nursing. Some mothers let the child pick a date, or choose one themselves, and call that the "weaning day" after which he will no longer nurse. Some mothers will then give the child a "weaning party" with supportive family and understanding friends to help celebrate the milestone. Perhaps the child will receive a special "weaning present."

Some mothers allow the child to choose a coveted toy and buy it after weaning, or buy it before weaning and wrap it up on to be put on a shelf for when the weaning day or weaning party comes.

Obviously, these techniques will not work if the child is extremely resistant to weaning, but many mothers have used them with success. Remember that he will have a continued, perhaps even deepened, need for closeness with you. You can anticipate the child's need for closeness and spend as much of her day as possible having "special time" with the child.

Recommended Reading: Our resource pages on Extended Breastfeeding (past one year) and Weaning.

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