Frequently Asked Questions about Weaning

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

Comfort measures for baby during weaning

Mother-led weaning can be a hard transition for your child, depending upon how close this is to his own natural timetable for weaning.

If you’re actively weaning, offer lots of cuddling, lots of one-on-one time, lots of kisses and hugs. Many moms who are weaning are often afraid to do this for fear that it might encourage their child to nurse again. Your child needs this to make up for the decreased physical contact that results from decreased nursing. Spend time rocking and lying with him, rubbing his back, stroking him, etc. Make time to hold baby and focus on him much like you did when you were nursing. Sit or lie down together. Look at him; talk to him. Do something with him. Don’t watch TV, answer the phone, or try to do anything else. At some times, a quick cuddle may suffice but try to make time for at least one lengthier session together once a day. Let him know in every way you can that you still want closeness with him. Try to meet those needs that nursing meets in as many different ways as you possibly can.

If baby expresses a strong need to nurse, don’t refuse. But if you’re in the weaning process and your baby doesn’t indicate a desire to nurse, you may prefer not to offer, either.

Is weaning going too fast for baby?

Watch your baby for signs of stress; he’ll let you know if weaning is going to quickly for him. Some signs that may indicate that weaning is going too quickly:

  • a new or increased fear of separation
  • increased crying, whining, clinginess, or tantrums
  • sudden increase in night waking
  • biting when it has never occurred
  • a new or increased attachment to a stuffed animal, toy, or blanket
  • new thumb or pacifier sucking
  • stomachache, constipation, vomiting, refusal to eat
  • new or increased withdrawal, aloofness

Dr. William Sears, in one of his books, mentions that certain behaviors of children; i.e. aloofness, aggression, excessive whininess, frequent mood swings, etc. may all be “diseases” of premature weaning. He talks of weaning as a “ripening” which implies a state of readiness. Weaning should not be a detachment from the mother but rather a state in which the child feels “so full and so right that he is ready to take on other relationships” and move on to other things. Weaning a child before his time can leave a child feeling unfulfilled and his sense of trust violated, according to Dr. Sears. Many of these behaviors, he believes, can at least in part be traced back to premature weaning and pushing a child into independence before he is completely ready.

Weaning readiness is a developmental milestone and some children reach it before others. If weaning seems to be going too quickly for your child (or you — nursing is a two-way street), then there’s no reason not to slow down the process or even back up a bit. You don’t have to pick up all the nursing sessions again. But you can, if you want to, pick up those that your child seems to need the most. Or, don’t offer at all, but don’t deny him to the point that he gets desperate. Be flexible and understanding of your child’s needs.

If your child is having a hard time with weaning, then time may be the best remedy. You may find that by waiting a while longer your child will be more ready for this milestone and the whole process will be easier. Now may simply not be the right time.

What if baby gets sick during the weaning process?

It’s very normal for nursing children to want to nurse more often when ill. Breastfeeding provides them with fluids and nutrition that they many times refuse from other sources when ill. Children who are not nursing are sometimes at risk of dehydration during an illness because they refuse to drink. This is rare for the nursing child (one of the many benefits of continuing to nurse into toddlerhood!). Nursing is also very comforting to your child at a time when he feels bad. More here on nursing when baby is sick.

We normally would never encourage a mother to initiate or progress with weaning when a child is sick. Weaning during a good time, when your child is well, is a drastic change for the child, especially if he is not ready. Weaning while he is ill and not feeling like himself is even more drastic.

If your child gets sick during the weaning process, seriously consider allowing him to nurse as he needs until he is well again. Continued, unrestricted nursing will probably speed the healing process and to be honest, there’s really no better way to comfort an ill toddler than nursing. Once he’s recovered, you can take more deliberate approaches to weaning.

How much additional milk does baby need during the weaning process?

If your baby is older than 9-10 months and still breastfeeds regularly (at least a few times a day), and is expanding his interest in solid foods, he does not require any additional milk (formula, cow’s milk, soy milk, rice milk or the equivalent nutrients from other foods).

Instead of additional milk you can offer your child solids, with water or juice (no more than 3-4 ounces a day) and any expressed milk you may have stored.

The dairy industry has done a great job at convincing us that our diet is lacking in something if we don’t drink cow’s milk! Cow’s milk is really just a convenient source of calcium and other nutrients – it’s not required. There are many people in many parts of the world who do not drink cow’s milk and still manage to get all the calcium, protein, fats, vitamin D, etc. that milk has to offer. Too much cow’s milk in a child’s diet can (1) put him at risk for iron-deficiency anemia (because cow’s milk can interfere with the absorption of iron) and (2) decrease the child’s desire for other foods.

After the age of 12 months (or sometimes later, depending upon your child), milk becomes a more minor part of your child’s diet. If you have a child who refuses to drink regular milk and is no longer nursing regularly, you can offer yogurt, cheese, and ice-cream as substitutes. Also, you might put milk into various food products: pancakes, waffles, French toast, scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and baked goods. Added protein may be offered via creamy peanut butter and a well-cooked egg yolk; calcium may be derived from calcium-fortified juice or green vegetables. More info here on many other nondairy sources of calcium.

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