Do babies under 12 months self-wean?

August 22, 2011. Posted in: After the First Year,Considering weaning,Older Infant,What is Normal?

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By Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC

Introduction

True SELF-weaning before a baby is a year old is very uncommon. In fact, it is unusual for a baby to wean before 18-24 months unless mom is encouraging weaning. However, it is very common to hear a mother say that her baby self-weaned at 9 or 10 months old, or even earlier. How do we reconcile these statements?

What is self-weaning?

A baby who is weaning on his own:

  • is typically well over a year old (more commonly over 2 years)
  • is at the point where he gets most of his nutrition from solids
  • drinks well from a cup
  • cuts down on nursing gradually

Child-led weaning occurs when a child no longer has a need to nurse – nutritionally or emotionally. The solids part should rule out self-weaning in babies under a year since, for optimum health and brain development, babies under a year should be getting most of their nutrition from breastmilk.

What factors might lead mom to think that her baby is self-weaning?

When a mother says that her baby self-weaned before a year, there is a chance that she interpreted a normal developmental stage (perhaps combined with her own wishes) as baby’s wish to wean. Low milk supply can also play a part.

Low milk supply

If mom’s milk supply is reduced, baby may become less interested in nursing, and of course decreased nursing will lead to an even lower milk supply. If milk supply is low, baby may grow to prefer a cup or bottle simply because he can get more milk this way. As long as baby is nursing on cue and removing milk thoroughly, mom’s breasts will produce the milk that baby needs. There are a number of things that might interfere with the milk production process after lactation has been established. Some factors that commonly come into play in baby’s second six months include:

  • Scheduled feedings or other things that reduce baby’s nursing frequency too much (for example, pacifier overuse or sleep training). The answer to “how much is too much?” will depend on the particular mother-baby pair. A consistent decrease in nursing frequency will signal your body to decrease milk supply.
  • Rapid weight loss. A sudden decrease in mom’s calorie intake can result in decreased milk supply.
  • Medications or herbs that reduce milk supply (hormonal contraceptives, for example).
  • Early introduction of solids (before 6 months). Besides interfering with baby’s immunologic health, solids before six months often results in baby taking less milk at the breast and thus results in a decrease in milk supply.
  • Overly rapid increase in the amounts of solids. Again, this results in baby taking too little milk at the breast and thus a decreased milk supply. Keep in mind that mom’s milk supply will naturally and gradually decrease as baby begins to eat greater quantities of solid foods – this is fine and expected. What you want to avoid is increasing solids/decreasing milk supply too quickly, as breastmilk is what baby needs for proper growth, health and brain development through the first year and beyond.

For more on milk supply, including how to increase it, see Got Milk?

Normal developmental stages

It is common and normal for babies to show less interest in breastfeeding sometime during the second six months. This is developmental and not an indication that baby wishes to stop nursing.

Older babies tend to be distractible and want to be a part of all the action around them. Your baby may be more interested in learning about the world than in eating during the day (these same babies often increase their night nursing to make up for their busy days).
If baby is being given a bottle or sippy cup frequently, he discovers that he can walk/crawl around with it and not miss a thing, whereas nursing generally requires sitting still and not looking around for a few minutes. For this reason, some babies develop a preference for the bottle or cup at this developmental stage.

Milestone times, such as crawling and walking, and stressful times like teething or illness can also cause baby to be less interested in nursing – these types of things are common in the second six months. Nursing strikes (when baby quits nursing suddenly) also tend to be more common around this age, perhaps due to the same factors.

Our society tends to produce the expectation that babies can and should become independent as quickly as possible. Babies are considered more independent when they sleep alone, sleep through the night, potty train, wean, etc., As a result, babies are often pushed toward these milestones before they are ready – emotionally or physically. Because of this societal mindset, many moms don’t even consider the idea that baby’s disinterest in breastfeeding might be temporary, but simply go ahead and wean.

This is not saying that a mother’s choice to wean a baby this age is necessarily a bad choice for her family. A mother who wishes to wean her child at this point can certainly take advantage of baby’s temporary disinterest in nursing to initiate mother-led weaning.

However, it should understand that this is not self-weaning but a temporary developmental stage. Mom is making the choice, not baby. Once mom knows that she has a choice in the matter, she can better make an informed decision of whether to wean or to seek the benefits of continued nursing.

Tips for avoiding premature weaning

The following suggestions can be helpful in preventing baby from weaning prematurely:

Keep breastmilk primary in baby’s diet during the first year

  • If you feel that your milk supply is low, take measures to increase it.
  • Offer breastmilk first, before any solids, through at least the first year. Don’t let solids become more important than breastmilk during the first year.
  • Increase solid foods gradually. An example of a gradual increase in solids would be 25% solids at 12 months, 50% solids at 18 months, and 80% solids at 24 months.
  • Sugared drinks (and juice, too) are “empty calories” and will keep baby from feeling really hungry – limit or eliminate these. Water can also fill baby up and decrease nursing frequency. Click here for suggestions on offering water and juice.

Minimize the risk of baby developing a preference for the bottle or cup

  • Limit (or eliminate) bottles. If baby must be supplemented due to separation from mom, then only use bottles when you are physically separated from baby. Use a newborn-flow nipple, no matter how old your baby is, to reduce the risk that baby will grow to prefer the fast flow of a bottle. If baby is older than six months, seriously consider using a cup rather than a bottle.
  • Limit or eliminate pacifier use when you are with baby, so that your baby’s desire to suck encourages him to nurse more often.
  • Avoid allowing baby to walk around with bottles or sippy cups.

If baby is very busy and doesn’t want to stop and nurse

  • Try different and novel nursing positions in which he can have more control and perhaps see what’s going on around him – baby standing up, sitting on your lap facing you, etc.
  • Try singing, talking, telling stories, playing finger games, reading, etc. while nursing.
  • Try wearing a nursing necklace or bright colored scarf to help hold baby’s attention when nursing.
  • Give baby a small toy to hold and play with when nursing.

Be aware of your own subtle cues that encourage weaning

  • Offer baby the breast often; don’t wait until he “demands” to nurse. Be aware that the “don’t offer – don’t refuse” method of breastfeeding is a weaning technique.
  • Be available to nurse when baby wants to. Saying “not now, but later” is certainly part of the natural give and take of a nursing relationship as your child gets older, but don’t overuse it and don’t forget the “later” part – offer to nurse later, rather than waiting for baby to ask.
  • Diversion/distraction by mom is a weaning technique, particularly if used frequently.
  • Avoid limiting times or places for nursing. This is another weaning technique.
    • Allow baby to nurse at night if he wishes. Baby will nurse more often if he is in your room and/or bed, and many families get more sleep this way.
    • If you feel you need to phase out night nursing before baby does it on his own, then it may be helpful to make a conscious effort to increase daytime nursing.
  • Keep in close contact – carry and hold your child often. This will make breastfeeding more accessible to baby. Restricting access to nursing is a weaning technique.

Be aware of normal developmental stages

  • Pay attention to your child’s natural growth rhythms. Be aware of times that are not true weanings.

 

Additional Information

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