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Thoughts on Weaning…and Child-Led Parenting

Weaning from breastfeeding is an emotional decision whether one nurses for 2 days or more than 2 years. I’ve been thinking more about the subject as Callum’s nursing needs have begun to dwindle and as we near my unofficial nursing goal of 2 years – what will weaning look like for us?

The terms “self-weaning” and “child-led weaning” get thrown about a lot in breastfeeding circles.   Many women will report that they stopped nursing because their child “self weaned,” or rather stopped nursing on his own.  Others are adamant that they wish to practice, “child-led weaning” and let baby decide when he is finished nursing.  Both terms imply that it is the child who decides to end the nursing relationship – or do they?  I’d argue that there’s a good deal of misinterpretation of these terms that puts more pressure and guilt on nursing mamas than they should have to bear.

First we have to consider the facts about weaning.  Babies simply do not self-wean before the age of one.  In fact, some argue (based on anthropological and scientific work) that 2.5 is the minimum age for human weaning and that many children may naturally wean much later.  It is true that some babies under 12 months will become difficult to nurse or even go on nursing strikes – that doesn’t mean they are ready to wean though.  I should add here that there are plenty of reasons that a mama might decide to stop nursing before her child is one – and I do not mean to vilify that choice at all.  But there are also many other mamas who wish to keep nursing, but encounter nursing strikes and such and are then led to believe that baby wants to wean.

Another aspect of weaning that is frequently overlooked is that weaning begins the second we do anything other than put baby to the breast on demand.  Pacifiers, bottles (even pumped milk), introducing solids, scheduling feedings (including night weaning) – all of these begin to lessen baby’s natural demand to nurse.  Again, I’m not saying those things are bad at all; in fact, I think we’d be pretty remiss in our parenting duties if we never gave our babies solid foods!  But we do need to bear in mind that all of these things will impact breastfeeding, perhaps only in subtle ways, but there’s still an impact.

Weaning is typically viewed as a short term event – “I’m going to wean next weekend.”  But it’s not.  It’s a process that may take months or even years depending on other parenting choices we make.  Even for a mama who always nurses on demand and plans to breastfeed well into toddlerhood, weaning begins with the introduction of solids.  Remembering that weaning is a process is important because it allows us to better understand the trajectory of our nursing relationship.  If it’s important to a mama to nurse until at least two, she might do well to avoid the use of bottles and pacifiers as much as possible.  On the other hand, a mama who wishes to wean by one, might increase the use of bottles as that day approaches so that baby is less dependent on the act of nursing.  These aren’t hard and fast rules, but rather things to consider.  I think that understanding weaning as a process instead of as a fixed event makes it an easier decision to make; instead of something that we decide suddenly or our child decides suddenly, it is a gradual shift in our relationship with our child – a transition like so many others we experience as parents.

The relationship component of breastfeeding all too often gets shuffled under the rug;  like all relationships, the needs and desires of both parties must be taken into account for things to work.  My concern with “self-weaning” and “child-led weaning” is that both terms negate the relationship aspect of breastfeeding (or rather the way we typically interpret them does); they make it all about the child and ignore mama.  Mamas are not passive entities who simply lie there and nurse.  Our feelings and needs matter too.  As a nursling grows and changes, so changes the breastfeeding relationship – both our feelings and our child’s.  So while weaning – whenever it happens – is a big change in our relationship, it’s one that for most nursing pairs builds over time.  We also don’t cease to comfort and nourish our children when they wean; we simply offer other forms of food and comfort.

A better way to think about “child-led weaning” is to remember that weaning is both a long process and one that involves the changing of a relationship.  To use my personal example – when Callum was about 16 months or so, I decided to night wean.  Callum had begun to indicate that night nursing wasn’t as important to him anymore; he didn’t nurse as often or for as long as he once did and he had begun to sleep through the night some on his own.  I was hoping that night weaning would kick start my ovulation and I felt that the early morning nursing sessions were beginning to wear on me more than they had in the past.  Taking both of these account, it seemed that it was time to night wean – at least in our situation.   So while I do think that this particular decision was more “mama-led,” I did take Callum’s needs into account.  If he hadn’t been showing signs of readiness or hadn’t been receptive to other forms of nighttime soothing, we would have taken a step back.  But he was and so we moved forward.

Many parents who practice Attachment Parenting (and many who do not) like the idea that our parenting should be child centered – I agree completely.  But also think we must be careful in our interpretation of “child-centered” or “child-led” – these phrases should not be taken to mean that parents are mere observers on their children’s journey.   We are still responsible for guiding them along the path.  It does mean that we should be both aware of and sensitive to the needs and desires of our children and weigh those along with our own.   Our children often need gentle nudges from us to move from one phase of their lives to another; our nudges can be gentle and “child-led” when we are careful to acknowledge where our children are and what their needs are.

Viewed in this light, “child-led” weaning does not mean mama remains a passive entity in the breastfeeding relationship.  While some may certainly disagree with my interpretation, I feel that understanding “child-led” in this way makes for a healthier parent-child relationship, whether we are talking about weaning or any other developmental milestone.  We can only truly attend to our children by also attending to ourselves.

I’m not sure what the end of nursing Callum will look like – I’ll let you know how it all turns out when we get there.

For further information on weaning, consider the following sources:

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Published in Breastfeeding Parenting