Gently Weaning a Preschooler
Between my two children, I have nursed for somewhere around 74 months (which includes ~18 months of tandem nursing). My daughter, my oldest child, weaned when she was four years old. I’d like to share the story of our weaning journey.
When my daughter was 3 and a half, I’d been tandem nursing her and my son for a year at the time. Tandem nursing was a wonderful experience all around, one I am sure to recommend to mamas who ask! My daughter had always been a high-touch, long-duration breastfeeder, and at that time, she was still nursing nearly as often as my son. I was starting to feel rather “touched out.” I remember starting to feel a bit worried that I’d never have time to nurse “only” my son, the way I had with my daughter. I was starting to dislike the demands of always nursing on cue, and our bedtime routine was getting lonnnnnnng. I really felt like something had to change — but I knew weaning my daughter cold turkey just wasn’t the right route. She had big needs, and nursing fulfilled a lot of those needs.
It was my intention that when the time for weaning came, it would be a gentle, child-led process, and up until 3.5, nursing was mostly a whenever, wherever occurrence. I knew changing our routine could be a challenge, but in the end, weaning ended up being a relatively smooth process, where everyone felt respected and more comfortable.
Choice and Limits
My husband gets the credit for this first tip. When I expressed to him that I was feeling touched out from nursing both children frequently, but that I didn’t want to wean my daughter right away because I didn’t think she was ready, he said, well, why don’t you limit your number of sessions, but give her the choice? Ask her, he said, how many times per day she would LIKE to nurse, and then go from there.
Brilliant! It’s exactly what I did. I expressed to my daughter that I was feeling like we were spending an awful lot of time nursing during the day, and I’d like to figure out if we could come up with a good number of times per day we could nurse where we’d both be comfortable. Amazingly, she was very receptive to this idea, and chose five.
I’m often surprised when my children respond so well to choice – but I shouldn’t be! Giving a child choice empowers them. They feel like they have some control, some say over their own lives; it gives them confidence, making them more willing to sail with you, if they feel like they are guiding the ship a bit. Don’t we all feel that way in life?
So, we started with establishing our five nursing sessions. We named them: morning, naptime, after nap time, late afternoon/evening, and bedtime. We would nurse only at these times, and only if she asked. Just knowing that we’d only nurse a certain number of times per day really helped me feel more comfortable as well. Having a specific limit meant that I had something specific to say if my daughter did want to nurse suddenly at a time when we hadn’t agreed on. I’d remind her gently, “we have nursed 3 times today, and we have two left – afternoon and bedtime. Let’s do something else until it’s evening nursing time.” Because we’d talked about our limit, and she was included in the choice, she was comfortable with the reminder, and would mostly accept my response, and choose a different activity.
One at a Time.
After a few weeks of this routine going relatively smoothly, I was starting to feel like we were both ready to cut back a bit more on her nursing. I was able to determine which nursing session was the shortest – and likely easiest to be able to encourage my daughter into doing other things – the late afternoon/evening session. We concluded it was time to drop that one session, down to four.
Again, I included my daughter in the decision. I told her that I wanted to change our nursing time from five times aa day to four. She was at first dubious about this change; she didn’t want to stop any of her nursings, but I was really ready to keep incrementing down. I understood my daughter’s concern and my desire to keep our weaning plan mostly child-led was important to me, so we came up with another plan that honored both of our needs and wants: A “free nurse” time.
As an amendment to going from five sessions to four, I gave my daughter the ability to also choose a “free nurse” session, if she felt she needed one that day. That meant that while we’d stick to the current plan of nursing four times a day when she asked — morning, nap, after nap, and bedtime — I also gave her an option that if she wanted to nurse more than four times that day, she could choose one time, ask me with kind words, and I would say yes.
Interestingly, this worked as I hoped, and she didn’t use this free nurse every day. She seemed to want to stick with the plan of our prearranged sessions, understanding it was important to me, and that we’d made an agreement. But, having the option to add one more back into the plan when she needed gave her some freedom & power. It worked brilliantly.
Distractions and Substitutions.
After another month or so at this pace, I was ready to try to transition down to three sessions per day. By this point, my daughter had mostly stopped napping regularly, and had reached a level of maturity which allowed her to be able to play quietly and independently while I’d nurse her brother to sleep. This being the case, the naptime sleep session was the next to go.
In lieu of lying down and nursing before sleep, I offered a different, interesting distraction each nap time, on the floor by the bed: a game, a puzzle, or a flashlight with a book, all within close proximity of nursing brother, but independent of me – so it felt special. Each morning we’d talk about what we were going to do at nap time and immediately afterward, so that when naptime came, she was prepared.
On days when she did not need a nap, this arrangement worked well: She was more interested in the distraction than she was in waiting to nurse or nap. However, on the days when she did need a nap, it presented a challenge. On these days, she liked to nurse to sleep (and I wanted to nurse her to sleep, because it was effective), yet I didn’t want to “backtrack” in our progress.
So, as we did with nightweaning when I was pregnant, instead of nursing to sleep, we used a comforting substitution. We’d settle down in sleeping position, and then I’d sing or recite a story super-quietly and repetitively, while she’d fiddle with my belly button or a stuffed animal. Sometimes she’d fall asleep, and sometimes she wouldn’t. In the cases where she wouldn’t, we’d move right into another activity, outside of baby brother’s napping space.
This was probably the most challenging and time-consuming transition. Nursing to sleep is a comforting routine that is firmly rooted in children’s memory from infancy; it’s not easy to change such a firmly entrenched positive habit. It’s also tough on Mom to go from having napping children (and the moment of free time that offers) to non-napping children. It was a big shift for both of us!
Get Up and Go.
We had three nursing sessions left about 4 months into starting our weaning plan: morning, after nap, and before bed. The morning and the after-nap sessions both fell away relatively naturally at the same time. Similar to the idea we used to distract from nursing before naptime, I made sure to have an activity planned for immediately after naptime, and for the morning. I found that if I got myself up and quickly out of bed, before my daughter was fully woke, and immersed myself in an activity, she was more interested in moving on with her day than she was in staying in bed nursing. Once school started, the morning nursing session was all but forgotten.
Talk It Out.
So far, moving from five nursing sessions per day down to one (the before-sleep nurse), took around 4 or 5 months. I was going slowly, because I wanted it to be gentle for her, and easier on me. I am certain we could have moved at a quicker pace, but doing so could have meant tears and upset on my daughter’s part, and guilt and doubt of my own. Moving gradually, with gentle encouragement, and naturally adopting more “big girl” activities instead of nursing, made the transition from nursing often to nursing rarely, a more smooth and accepted one, so we stuck with the slow pace, even though it meant a bit more effort on my part.
Just after she turned four years old, we arrived at the time where she was nursing only right before bed. Part of me wanted to continue this way for as long as she wanted or needed. Just one extra breastfeeding session beyond her baby brother’s wasn’t so demanding, and most evenings, it was a nice time for us to reconnect.
However, by this point, she was no longer falling asleep while nursing, so she’d nurse, awake, for a lonnnnnnng time, and then we’d have to transition into sleeping. This would happen after I’d spent time nursing and cuddling her brother to sleep, and the whole process could take upwards of two hours before both children were asleep. I knew that my daughter had the ability to fall asleep without nursing, and I was ready for our bedtime process to be streamlined a bit.
So, just as I had six months previously, when we had established our original five-session nursing plan, I talked with her about what I hoped to do – which was to stop nursing before bed.
I will tell you that I was conflicted going into this conversation: On one hand, I really didn’t want to stop breastfeeding my daughter. I loved nursing both of my children, and the thought of ending that part of our relationship made me sad. I knew that by eliminating our last session, she’d likely be completely weaned, and that chapter of our story would be done. On the other hand, I wanted to have an opportunity to enjoy nursing my younger, and last, baby – just him, without having to “share.” I also wanted my daughter to move along into feeling more completely “grown up” – she’d recently started school, and she was becoming so much more independent, and I really knew she’d be perfectly okay without nursing any longer – she had the tools she needed to continue on her path of maturity without breastfeeding.
I started our conversation by talking in the evenings, before our nighttime nursing session, of the possibility of stopping breastfeeding altogether. We talked about what it meant to wean. I told her that I was proud of the way she’d cut back her nursing sessions, and I asked her how she felt about stopping altogether. She wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but she wasn’t terribly upset either. I suggested the idea of a “weaning party,” but she didn’t like that. I offered the idea of picking a specific wean date, but she wasn’t too interested in that, either.
So, for awhile I let things be, just now and then interjecting into our everyday conversations the idea of weaning and other things we could do at night to fall asleep that were special instead of nursing: things like Mommy singing her favorite song or reciting her favorite story. And we talked about how as you get older, you don’t really need Mommy’s milk as much as you did when you were a baby. I let her know that whenever she was ready, she’d know it was okay to stop. We also talked about my feelings – that I was okay with her not nursing anymore – that I still loved her, and felt close to her, and would still fall asleep with her every night, but that we’d have something different from breastfeeding as our sleep routine. Still, each night, after our talking, she would ask to nurse, and I still would say okay.
Then, one night, when the lights were out, and she was calmly listening to me talk, and hadn’t asked yet to nurse, I took a leap: I decided to ask her outright, if we could try not nursing that night to sleep. She thought for a bit, and agreed. She chose the song she wanted me to sing, and we fell asleep cuddling, without nursing. She may have nursed a few times after that, when she wasn’t feeling well, or just “to try” as brother was getting older and starting to wean himself a couple years later, but after that one final night of talking, and agreeing to fall asleep without nursing, my firstborn was weaned. Four plus years of mother’s milk, my big girl was done breastfeeding.
Slow and Steady.
It’s been more than 2 years now since my daughter last breastfed. I am mostly comfortable with our weaning process, and while I do not think our path conformed to what would be considered entirely child-led, I do feel it was child-honored. I made certain to offer my daughter choices, to keep her involved in the process, and not move more quickly than she was comfortable, while gently offering my encouragement and suggestions. I’ve talked with her about weaning in the meantime, and she has positive memories of both breastfeeding and weaning. As time has passed, any concerns I’d had over making that last night’s strong suggestion have faded.
From breastfeeding and weaning two children over six years, I can offer this: As with any process your child is going through, the best way I’ve found to introduce new concepts or routines, or to help your children find their way along their path, is with slow, consistent encouragement, while honoring your child’s needs and abilities. Listen and talk to your children – they often are more capable than we realize. Weaning is just a stop along an amazing journey of childhood and parenthood. It isn’t a final destination, and it doesn’t need to be a rough stop. Remember to keep calm, carry on. Honor your child, and yourself, and all will be well. Peace to you.
Kelly Moore, Author of KellyNaturally.com Kelly is an attachment parenting, gentle disciplining, vegetarian, working mom of two Montessori-schooled kids. She’s been a family bed sharer, tandem breastfeeder, and babywearer. Kelly loves to garden, read, help her husband run their business, and find fun places to go adventuring with her family. She blogs at KellyNaturally.com.
Kelly is an attachment parenting, gentle disciplining, vegetarian, working mom of two Montessori-schooled kids. She’s been a family bed sharer, tandem breastfeeder, and babywearer. Kelly loves to garden, read, help her husband run their business, and find fun places to go adventuring with her family. She blogs at KellyNaturally.com.
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