What is weaning? When is it time to wean?

July 28, 2011. Posted in: Considering weaning

By Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC, Becky Flora, IBCLC and Paula Yount

The word “wean” means a passage from one relationship to another -
not a loss or detachment from a relationship.

The weaning process begins the first time your baby takes food from a source other than your breast – whether it’s formula from a bottle or mashed banana from a spoon. Weaning is the gradual replacement of breastfeeding with other foods and ways of nurturing.

From a strictly medical point-of-view, the younger the baby the more important it is for him to receive breastmilk. For the premature baby, the benefits of breastmilk may be even more important than for the term baby. The more immature the baby, the greater the need for the protective features of breastmilk. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for ideal nutrition, your baby should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and that nursing should continue after the introduction of solids for at least 12 months and longer if mother and baby wish. The World Health Organization recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, and that breastfeeding be continued for up to two years of age or beyond. Read more here about the advantages of breastfeeding.

It’s a myth that the benefits of breastmilk stop at a certain point. Instead, they continue and are more significant and longer-lasting for both you and your child the longer breastfeeding continues. In fact, the antibodies in human milk are more concentrated the lesser the frequency of breastfeeding is (say with a toddler or older child). If you nurse on into your child’s toddler years he won’t even need cow’s milk as long as he receives other foods rich in protein, calcium, and fats, and nurses at least a couple of times a day. Read more here about the benefits of nursing past a year.

All children reach an age of being ready to wean at different times. While one may be ready – or at least more willing – at 18 months, another may not be ready until closer to 2, 3 or 4 years of age. The word “wean” means a passage from one relationship to another – not a loss or detachment from a relationship.

In ancient writings, the word “wean” meant “to ripen” — like a fruit nourished to readiness, its time to leave the vine… Weaning was a joyous occasion because a weaned child was valued as a fulfilled child; a child was so filled with the basic tools of the earlier stages of development that she graduated to take on the next stage of development more independently.
– from The Baby Book by William Sears. MD and Martha Sears, RN, p. 187

It’s important to be realistic about your expectations for weaning. Stopping breastfeeding does not make mothering any easier or force your child to grow up any faster. Your baby will still demand lots of your attention; supplying this in ways other than nursing can be challenging. Breastfeeding can be a real work saver when you can count on it as a surefire way of getting a baby to quiet down or sleep. Often there are ways other than total weaning to cope with mothers’ feelings of restlessness or being tied down.

If you choose to do so, there are many benefits to continuing to breastfeed as your baby grows into toddlerhood. This is the most natural path to follow. Babies who are allowed to wean at their own pace usually continue to nurse well past their first birthday (though this does not mean that you would be unable to wean later on if that is what you wish). As your baby learns to eat other foods and to drink from a cup, breastfeeding becomes more important for comfort and reassurance than for nourishment. When allowed to do so, children wean gradually, at their own developmental rate and when they are truly ready.

All children will eventually wean, whether they are allowed to self-wean
or are encouraged to wean on an earlier time frame.

Additional information

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