Charyl O’Quinn-Wetzel had an important reason for wanting to breastfeed her daughter Kiersten. “My husband had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and the doctor told me that breastfeeding as long as possible could help prevent Kiersten from getting it,” she says.
So while she had stopped breastfeeding her first two children at a younger age, this time O’Quinn-Wetzel decided that she would let Kiersten be the one who guided the weaning process.
As parents have become more relaxed about schedules and other “rules” of raising kids, letting baby lead the way when it comes to weaning has become more common. Breastmilk continues to provide important nutrition, antibodies and immune system support for as long as a child continues to nurse, and many parents also value the comfort and closeness that continued nursing offers. Yet like most aspects of parenting a toddler, the breastfeeding relationship can have its challenging moments too.
So what can you expect if you decide to let your toddler wean himself?
The biggest surprise, says O’Quinn-Wetzel, was that the weaning process didn’t happen in a “straight line.” Kiersten went through repeated cycles all through the toddler years — times when she nursed more and times when she nursed less. “It really wasn’t until she was past three years old that I would say it decreased steadily,” O’Quinn-Wetzel adds.
She was also pleased to discover that baby-led (or child-led) weaning isn’t only for mothers who are at home with their children full-time. Although O’Quinn-Wetzel returned to work as a teacher when Kiersten was a year old, her commitment to provide milk for her daughter didn’t diminish. “I would pump first thing in the morning before Kiersten woke up, then she’d feed before I left. I’d pump at recess and again at lunch. Then she’d nurse the moment I got home.” She also nursed fairly often in the evening and at night.
Over time, though, the frequency of feedings decreased and became more predictable. By four, Kiersten was only nursing first thing in the morning and at night and, eventually, over a period of about two weeks, she weaned herself. “One night, she asked to nurse, and then for two nights she didn’t ask. That pattern went on a couple more times and then she just stopped asking.”
A new baby
Other weanings can be more abrupt. Suzanne Denomme-McGreal’s son Owen was 26 months when his baby brother, Hayden, was born. “He happily nursed through the pregnancy and I was very curious as to what would happen next,” says Denomme-McGreal. Owen nursed fine that first night, after the baby arrived, but a day later, something had changed.
“I offered the breast,” says Denomme-McGreal, “he latched on, latched off immediately and made a funny face, and asked for the other side. We switched sides. Latch on, latch off. He looked at me with the most disgusted look on his little face, stuck his tongue out, proceeded to rub his tongue with both hands and said, ‘Inka (his nursing word) yucky!’” Despite continued attempts by his mother, Owen wouldn’t go back to breastfeeding.
While with Owen it was the change in the milk — from the colostrum produced when his brother was born to the mature milk that came in later — that sparked weaning, there are other factors that can make a child decide it’s time to give up the breast: the decrease in milk supply if mom gets pregnant, a stuffy nose that makes nursing difficult, or deciding that a bottle or sippy cup he can carry around with him is easier.
So while child-led weaning can be unpredictable, it can be a positive way of meeting your toddler’s needs. And it creates some special moments for parents too. “I have such fond memories of breastfeeding Owen and Hayden,” says Denomme-McGreal. “I love that I have these nursing stories to share with them.”
Nursing code words
While the community at large is still getting used to seeing nursing toddlers, many parents find it helpful to have a “code word” for nursing that allows the toddler to let them know what he or she wants without drawing too much public attention. If that idea appeals to you, it helps to start using the word early — if you’ve been asking your 12-month-old, “Want boobie?” that’s likely to be the word that gets picked up. Some words I’ve heard toddlers use that most people don’t recognize: ghee, side, cuddle, ninnies and Owen Denomme-McGreal’s word, inka.