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Baby-Led Weaning--What Does It Mean?

Lynette Quigley
From LEAVEN, Vol. 23 No. 2, March-April 1987, p. 23

After attending a recent Southern California Area Conference, I am convinced that there is much confusion in LLL about the term "baby-led weaning." The phrase itself seems to be misleading, particularly since LLL's concept statement says "Ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need," not even mentioning the term "baby-led weaning."

To some Leaders, baby-led weaning seems to imply that mother does nothing, or should do nothing, and that total responsibility for weaning must be given to the child. Now I will agree that with an infant, the control of how long and how often that baby should nurse really does lie with the child alone and rightly so. We cannot begin to know or guess when the baby will be hungry, or how much he needs at each feeding, or whether or not he just wants to nurse for comfort.

However, as that child grows, develops, discovers, and expands his capabilities, our relationship changes and it should change. We begin to know the child and can often anticipate his needs. We can tell by his actions when he is hungry, tired, overstressed, or bored. We can recognize whether he needs to go potty, when he needs to be held, or whether he needs to be given attention in other ways. I can often tell that my son needs a nap even though he says he is not tired. I lie down beside him, maybe read him a story, perhaps rub his back or nurse him, and within minutes this child who said he was not tired is fast asleep.

As a child grows and develops, we can sense when he is ready for various new steps. We do not force these steps, but we are active in leading and encouraging change and progress as the child shows readiness and capabilities for these changes. We do not expect a child to learn to walk, use the toilet, or ride a bike totally on his own. We give him help and encouragement and teach him the skills he needs to use while we lead him gently step by step. It would be cruel to just say "you're on your own kid and you have to learn how to do this by yourself," without offering our encouragement and support along the way.

Some people mistakenly think that baby-led weaning does not include substituting, limiting, or encouraging the weaning process in any way. Yet when we do things to encourage walking, or buy special panties for toilet learning, or become involved in leading the way for other stages of growth, we can see that we are doing the right thing as long as we keep in mind the capability of the child and always consider his feelings.

Considering and validating children's feelings does not always mean that they should do everything their own way. This touches on the topic of loving guidance as well as baby-led weaning. Perhaps that's why both subjects are often misinterpreted.

As a child grows from baby to toddler to child, we do limit many things, out of necessity, or convenience, or even personal convictions. We limit the amounts or kinds of sweets the child eats, how much television he watches and which shows he is allowed to see, how far from the yard he may go, with whom he can play, whether or not we nurse at grandma's or the shopping mall, etc. The child may be happy to go along with some of these restrictions and not happy about others. Sometimes we make exceptions, depending on the circumstances, and sometimes we stick to our limits. We keep the feelings of the child in mind, but we do not necessarily give in just because the child does not like our restrictions. Some may think that setting limits should not apply to nursing, just as we would not limit the number of kisses, or hugs, or "I love you's" we give to our children. But when a mother is feeling frustrated by nursing a three- or four-year-old, particularly if she is tandem nursing, there should be freedom to do some limiting without feeling guilty or feeling that this is somehow going against LLL philosophy. If your toddler wants to nurse all day long or every time the baby does, it may be up to you to change that pattern, for your benefit as well as the child's. We as mothers may be the ones who set up certain nursing patterns in our toddlers. Recognizing these and taking steps to change them does not mean mother-led weaning either. What it means is that we have recognized where changes can be made, substitutions can be offered, or attention can be given in ways besides nursing without denying the child's feelings. This is usually possible with children over the age of two or three who are able to understand and communicate more.

What About Tandem Nursing?

For those Leaders who have never tandem nursed or who tandem nursed several years ago, it may be hard to place yourself in a tandem nursing mother's shoes. If you have never felt some of the frustrations or negative feelings that can accompany tandem nursing or if you have been out of the situation long enough to have forgotten these feelings, try not to place judgment or give pat answers to a mother who is really trying to make decisions that are best for all. She is trying to meet the needs of both baby and toddler during a very emotional and physically draining time in her life. Two years ago I felt very alone when I was going through some rough times with nursing and mothering two young children. I think a mother who continues to nurse an older child or who tandem nurses when a new baby comes along should be praised and encouraged for her efforts.

In my case, setting some limits saved the nursing relationship with my older child when we were tandem nursing. If I had not limited him, I probably would have weaned him. It does not have to be an all or nothing situation. As it was, by limiting his nursings to times that I could deal with, we were able to enjoy it more, and our nursing relationship lasted much longer.

When nursing an older child, I think phrases like "don't offer, but don't refuse" can be confusing. There were times when offering to nurse was the best thing to do for my toddler, particularly when he was hurt, tired, or frustrated. At other times I felt I must refuse or I would go crazy or become really angry. I found that I had to accept this as being "okay" before my child could accept it. If he picked up a lot of ambivalent feelings in me, he would get very confused and not know what to expect.

Many of the women I talked to at the Area Conference were badly in need of approval and encouragement in order to keep going. Tandem nursing is not the same as nursing a single child. Some days it makes mothering two children easier; some days it seems harder--a lot depends on the ages of the children, how often they nurse, and how well the older child can understand and communicate. We must try to give these mothers all the support and recognition they need and deserve.

Nursing an older child and tandem nursing are situations where an individual mother must make decisions for herself. The guidelines provided by LLL philosophy encourage a mother to respect her child's feelings and capabilities. Substituting, limiting, refusing, or compromising may be required in order to meet everyone's needs and keep the nursing relationship enjoyable and satisfying. Remember the concept statement on weaning says "Ideally" not "Absolutely."

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