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Toddler Tips

Weaning a Child with Developmental Delays

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 1, January-February 2008, pp. 38-40

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My son is mentally challenged and he functions at the level of about two years younger than he is right now. I'm ready to wean him, but a lot of the suggestions for weaning older children do not work with him. I'm having a hard time finding information about nursing and weaning children with developmental delays. Does anyone else have experience with this?

Mother's Response

My daughter has a developmental delay as well and has a cognitive level about one year younger than her chronological age...whatever that might mean! You know your son better than anyone, and my best advice is, first and foremost, to listen to your child.

My first attempt at weaning my daughter when she was two and a half years old was a disaster. She needed to be comforted and have the security of that very close bond that breastfeeding brings. We had tantrums and lots of upsets and, at first, I didn't understand where this was coming from. After working things out, I carried on breastfeeding and let her tell me when she was ready. She stopped feeding at about three years and two months old. She was breastfed on demand from birth, but had only been nursing only at night from when she was about two years, of her own accord.

She's four years old now and I think often longs to be nursing (she's an avid thumb sucker, so her suckling instinct is very strong), particularly when she sees other children breastfeeding. I let her suckle if she persists, trying both breasts, and when she's sure that there is no milk there, she thinks it's hilarious to tell me that it's "all gone" and she's really fine about it.

My advice would be to ignore the "developmental delay" label that your son has and just listen to his emotional needs. Then you can work out a breastfeeding routine or weaning strategy that you both feel comfortable with.

Displacement activities only worked to a point for us and, ultimately, I let my daughter tell me when she was ready to break the breastfeeding bond. As always, listen to your heart.

Grainne Saunders
West Sussex Great Britain

Mother's Response

My son, who is now six, is on the autistic spectrum. He self-weaned very gradually over a period of a few years. I'd nurse him publicly if the alternative was a big tantrum, but I doubt that many of my acquaintances even knew he had not weaned because in the normal course of events we'd only nurse at home.

As a toddler, my son's behavior was often particularly challenging. He was very late in learning how to communicate with language and would get very upset if expected to wait for anything, or if events strayed from their everyday pattern of predictability. I believe the fact that he carried on nursing considerably longer than his older sibling helped me as much as it did him.

We would sometimes return home from a stressful trip during which he had made a massive fuss, fall onto the sofa and both relax by nursing. It was comforting to him to be able to let go of his pent up frustrations with the world and comforting to me as I'd often be really wound up, having failed to calm him down or distract him in the way I had been able to with his older brother.

It is very hard to endure other mothers observing you and your child in difficult situations. An autistic or otherwise neurologically impaired child might appear to be behaving badly, and your attempts to diffuse the situation may be misinterpreted by someone with no experience of our special children. Before I came to a better understanding of my son's autism, I sometimes experienced a burning resentment that he could respond in such a negative way to what I saw as my reasonable approach to mothering him. I thought others would be thinking I was a bad mother. Had I not been able to ground myself by continuing to nurse him, I think our relationship may have suffered from my failure to appreciate what he was going through. Once he was snuggled in my arms, at my breast, I would understand that he wasn't behaving in a "naughty" way deliberately and, while I still had no idea what was wrong, I felt able to forgive him and not be quite so hard on myself.

When your child can't talk or simply repeats back what you say to him, it can be both upsetting and frustrating just getting through every day. Nursing a child is a wonderful way to communicate without words that you love each other. For the child who has more trouble than most making sense of the world, nursing is perhaps even more important, providing a solid rock in a storm of often turbulent emotions.

My little boy nursed through my third pregnancy and tandem nursed a little with his baby sister. While I never imagined he'd be able to cope with all sorts of ordinary challenges, he is now a very secure child who is able to control his emotions even in situations he finds difficult. He has let go of breastfeeding at a slower pace than I expected, but nevertheless did assume his independence from the breast and I'm glad now that I trusted him to do it at his own pace.

I believe all children will wean of their own accord even if some nurse for longer than the prevailing norm! I don't know whether my personal experience will be of any help to you. It sounds like you may be ready to stop breastfeeding now. If it's not going as swiftly as planned, it might help you to remember that weaning doesn't have to be an all or nothing process and that a partial weaning may help. I do hope your son's weaning turns out to be a happy experience for both of you.

Kathy Cooper
Albany NY USA

Mother's Response

I have a son with high functioning autism and sensory processing disorder. He is seven years old -- developmentally he is about three and a half or four years of age. He is nursing usually once a week, more often when he's having a challenging week or in difficult circumstances. I never imagined that I would be nursing a child his age. My own personal choice is to let him continue to nurse until he no longer needs to or I get to a point where I just don't feel comfortable doing so any more. My choice to continue is based on his developmental age. I try not to think about how big he is physically.

Can you talk to your child about nursing or not nursing? Is he verbal enough to articulate his feelings about nursing and whether there is something else that could take its place if you wean him? Do you feel comfortable nursing a little longer to see how it works out for you?

I decided to just take it a day at a time because it was clear he still needed to nurse. I gave some brief thoughts to weaning when I was pregnant with our third child, but by this point he was not nursing on a daily basis and it was clear that he still had a need to nurse even if it wasn't as often. It's been over four years since I decided to continue for as long as it is working out for us and I'm pleasantly surprised to find myself in the situation I'm in now. I cannot imagine how I would be able to calm his fears over doctor's appointments or comfort him after having a big meltdown if I weren't nursing him. I no longer nurse him in public except in extreme cases, like when he was hospitalized for surgery.

While I can appreciate your desire to wean, sometimes you find that the solution was not what you originally thought it would be when you just allow things to unfold on their own. I hope that my response has been helpful and that if your choice is to wean your youngster, that others are able to offer the kind of information and support that is useful to you.

Just know that you are not the only mother out there who has had to face the difficult decision of whether to continue or end the nursing relationship with a child who is developmentally challenged. Sometimes continuing to nurse ends up being the ideal option.

Ridgecrest CA USA

Mother's Response

My son is high-functioning autistic and I weaned him shortly after he turned three. I knew it would take time for him and lots of work on my part. I had to be absolutely sure that this was what I wanted to do. There can be a problem when a mom is ambivalent about weaning.

We used many techniques: counting to 10 out loud or singing the ABC song and then ending the nursing; not offering to nurse; being sure that I carried a selection of snacks and water for him at all times so that he didn't get hungry; having him eat a bedtime snack, being sure that a favorite breakfast was immediately available upon waking; taking naps in the car and/or tiring him out before he could ask to nurse to sleep; having my husband put him to bed; having him sleep on my husband's side of the bed; wearing something that wasn't easy to nurse in and explaining that we couldn't since I wasn't wearing the right clothes (especially at night when reflexes take over); and getting support from every friend and relative I could.

I used whatever worked at the time as I was very determined to get pregnant again and needed to take medication that was not compatible with breastfeeding. The last nursing to go was the bedtime one. The easiest were those times when he'd want to nurse because he didn't have anything else to do, or was just a bit hungry or thirsty. I could deal with those issues without nursing him. I had to get used to the idea of turning to something else before nursing. I couldn't let him get too upset and had to think of solutions to problems before they occurred. What would I do if he was mildly injured? What if a friend was nursing her child? What if feelings were hurt? I found that much of this depended on my actions, rather than on me explaining things to him. He wouldn't have gone along with the explanation because he was very happy nursing. He didn't want that to change, but I needed it to.

Holly Hollander
West Hills CA USA

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