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Weaning and Mothers' Feelings

Diane Bengson
Bellbrook, Ohio, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 6, November-December 1998, pp, 164-67

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

Weaning is an emotional topic for everyone concerned—mother, baby, father, and those closest to them. Some mothers feel very sad about the idea of weaning, while others may feel very strongly about wanting to wean. A mother may desire to wean yet still feel uneasy about it. Once a mother has begun to encourage weaning, she may feel relieved, sad, frustrated, or exhausted. Acknowledging these mixed feelings can help a mother know how to handle them.

If you don't know anyone who is nursing a child as old as yours, it's common to wonder if you're doing the right thing. Worries such as "He'll never wean" or "I'm making her too dependent" or "She'll turn out odd for having nursed so long" can wake a mother up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Self-doubt is made more intense by criticism from others, especially if they voice the fears a mother has thought about but not said aloud. These anxieties grow larger the longer they are unspoken. When a mother can put her doubts to rest and parent confidently, life becomes easier. This confidence comes naturally with experience and the passage of time, but can be boosted by finding support and information, taking care of oneself and not letting the fears of the night get out of hand.

Disapproval from Others

Friends and family who may have been supportive or understanding of nursing a small baby may become critical once a child passes his first birthday and that criticism is often greatest during the second 12 months of a child's life. For many mothers, coping with disapproval is the hardest part of toddler nursing, and it's a common reason why mothers wean a child who is past one. It's not easy to continue to nurse when society frowns on the choice or misunderstands a mother's motivation for continuing to provide for a child's needs. Mothers who nurse longer may start to hide it from others to avoid confrontations. Few mothers share this information unless they know they are talking to the mother of another nursing toddler.

Many mothers of nursing toddlers feel more limited about when and where they nurse. However, mothers' comfort levels vary. Some think nothing of nursing a two- year-old in most settings, while others weigh each situation individually. Some nurse confidently in public situations where no one knows them, but would never nurse in front of a disapproving family member.

Being prepared with answers to questions or criticism may help. Answer lightly and with humor, and then change the subject. A comment such as "We're in the process of weaning" may deflect criticism. Express confidence by saying something such as, "For right now, nursing is important to him," or "Nursing makes life easier for both of us."

Sometimes we fear disapproval in a certain setting and find that either no one seems to notice, or we actually receive some unexpected support. Ruth Penick of Ohio shares this experience.

When my oldest daughter was 15 months old, I had an experience I will never forget. We were at the airport waiting for my mother's plane to arrive. Reni decided she needed to nurse and it got to the point where I would have to nurse her or I would have a screaming toddler. I couldn't find a secluded place, not even a place where I could sit facing away from most of the activity. So we sat there in the middle of everything and nursed. After we were finished, a lady in her 70s came up to me and very quietly said that she liked to see parents putting the needs of their children ahead of what other people might think. I hope she realizes how much it meant and still means to me that she took a moment to tell me that.

As Ruth's story shows, receiving support is a real confidence booster. The support of like-minded friends, books, and family is invaluable. Often mothers find the support and understanding they need in a La Leche League Group where other mothers may be experienced in nursing toddlers. Hearing that someone else shares the same feelings, struggles, and joys that you do can help you appreciate your little nursing person more, and it may help you decide whether weaning is a good solution for you and your child.

Mother Feels Burned Out

Some mothers want to wean because they feel tied down or they "want their bodies" back. Sometimes a mother wants to wean because her life feels overwhelming. Too many stresses and changes in a short time can leave a mother looking for something—anything—in her life she can control. Sometimes, mothers resent the time spent nursing and feel they're being controlled or manipulated by their child.

Weaning may look like a way to gain independence from your child, but it doesn't always work that way. When children are small, they expect their needs to be met most often by their mother whether or not they are breastfeeding. It may be easier and more liberating to continue to meet your child's needs by mothering through breastfeeding rather than putting in all the energy it would require to encourage the child to wean.

Being aware and honest about her own needs is the best way a mother can avoid feeling burned out or put upon by nursing a toddler. Some mothers are happiest when they get out daily. Others feel better if their balance leans toward staying home. As toddlers get older, they may enjoy dad's company more, and you may be able to get out more often alone. Mary Fleming of Illinois writes about some ways she worked through nursing burnout.

I have experienced different stages of nursing burnout with each of my nursing experiences. I have found that my desire to wean my children has always coincided with the times when I am neglecting my own needs. With small children in the house, a mother's needs often come last. I used to feel selfish when I took time for myself. I have finally realized that when I nurture myself, I have more to give to other members of my family. I have found many ways to nurture myself. Long aromatherapy baths right after my husband comes home from work. Taking a yoga class once a week. Reading novels in the middle of the night. Hiring a babysitter to take the children to the park one afternoon a week. Riding my bicycle for a half-hour. Getting a massage as a special treat. Arranging with my husband for a sleep-in morning on the weekend. Napping when the baby naps.

If you feel desperate for freedom and a sense of yourself, remember you are not alone. Many mothers have these feelings, and find the intensity of them comes and goes.

Night Waking

Many people think babies and toddlers wake up only to nurse, and might not wake anymore if they were weaned. Night waking for months and even years is a common occurrence in many babies and children. Dr. William Sears says that babies aren't designed to sleep through the night, but to sleep in short periods broken by frequent nursing. Frequent nursing contributes to better growth in the early months. Needs are no less for children during the night than they are during the day. For more information on night waking, see NIGHTTIME PARENTING by William Sears, MD, and Crying Baby, Sleepless Nights by Sandy Jones (Available from the LLLI Online Store or from local LLL Group Libraries).

Once they are older and busy during the day, toddlers may wake frequently because they are receiving most of their mother's milk at night. Older children often wake for other reasons. such as teething, colds, allergies, loneliness, or minor tummy aches.

For some children, weaning does lessen night waking. However, your weaned child may still wake at night and it will be more difficult for you because you no longer have a guaranteed way to put him back to sleep. Sleeping through the night is something that will happen eventually. Many children wean from night waking in the same way and in the same time frame as they wean from the breast. Gradually, over a few years, they stop waking during the night. They acquire the skill naturally, at their own pace, and become sound sleepers.

If you are tired from getting up with your baby at night, there are some ways you can feel more rested. You might try taking your child into your bed, or having him sleep on a mattress on the floor next to your bed so you can nurse lying down and fall back to sleep. During the day, take advantage of your baby's nap times to rest. Avoiding caffeine and getting some light exercise during the day can help you sleep better at night and fall back to sleep more easily when your baby wakes. Not checking the clock at night and not dwelling on how little you slept can help, too.

Sometimes you can readjust your child's daytime activities to encourage better sleeping at night. Some children are overstimulated by too many daytime activities and sleep better after a quiet day at home. Others sleep soundly after a day of outside play. Your child may need to eat more during the day, or drink more water. Susan Van Meter from Massachusetts was struggling with night waking, and found that her daytime routine was a factor.

Even though Rebecca had not been indicating a need to nurse more frequently during the day, I instinctively felt that too little time with me was the culprit for restless nights. I immediately stopped worrying about what needed to be done around the house and parked myself in the nursing rocker and let her nurse for an extended time at nap times and bedtime. Her sleep cycles improved on the first night! The additional milk, suckling, and time in my arms seemed to do the trick.

Some mothers choose to wean only from nighttime nursings and continue to use nursing as a mothering tool during the day. La Leche League meetings are a good place to meet other mothers who have had similar experiences. Group Libraries include books with information about weaning.

Needs vs. Habits

Mothers sometimes wonder if nursing is just a habit for their child, and if he might be just fine if he were weaned. Occasionally, this could be the case. In the book The Child Under Six, James L. Hymes Jr. offers this classic definition of how to determine the difference between needs and habits:

If it was easy to break, it was a habit. If you run into any major difficulty at all, beware, you probably are not dealing with an old worn out habit. Chances are that you are tampering with a need. Habits fade away with a little counter-push. If you ignore basic needs, or try to block them, they shoot sky high. If you treat needs as if they were habits, all you do is to make them go on longer and stronger and more powerfully than ever.

One way to decide if your child is nursing out of habit or need is to try some gentle weaning techniques, carefully observing your child's reaction. You will notice quickly if your child balks or becomes distressed. This may indicate nursing is still a strong need. On the other hand, you may be surprised to find that your child is ready to wean and just needed a little assistance from you. In either case, looking to your child will give you the information you need to decide.

Weaning due to Frequent Nursing

Frequent nursing is necessary for the growth of your child in the early weeks and months, but after a child is past a year old, most mothers expect to nurse less frequently. Yet some toddlers seem to nurse as much as newborns. In Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing (Available from the LLLI Online Store), Sheila Kippley writes, "Frequent nursing may continue well into the second or third year of life." She also quotes a study by James Wood, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center, which studied the Gainj people of New Guinea, who nurse for about three years. He noted that infants nursed about every 24 minutes, and three-year-olds nursed about every 80 minutes.

It is wise, however, to consider whether your child is nursing frequently due to something lacking in his life. Sometimes a child nurses frequently because he is bored or because it is the only meaningful contact he has with his mother. If you suspect this may be the case, take time to play with your child, read together, let him help you with housework and cooking, and make eye contact when you talk to him. These kinds of "other mothering" may be just what he needs.

If your child is still determined to nurse often each day, despite attention from you and a stimulating environment, he may have a genuine need to nurse frequently. High- need or "spirited" children often seem to need more—more comfort, more reassurance, more suckling. In other words, more nursing. Your child may have a great desire to be touched and to connect with you frequently. Your child may be an extrovert—someone who gains energy through contact with other people. Children who are very sensitive or emotional may nurse frequently to feel more stabilized, or to retreat from the stress they feel so acutely.

Occasionally, a child's nursing frequency increases. If it is an emotionally stressful time, he may be nursing more for comfort and reassurance. Children may nurse more often during a growth spurt or right before learning to walk, to use the toilet, and other big developmental steps. Children nurse more when they don't feel right because of illness or teething. Letting a few days go by often answers the "whys" of sudden, increased frequency.

Weaning to Encourage Independence

If your child is shyer than most, or doesn't feel comfortable being separated from you even for short periods, you may think it is due to continuing to nurse. In a way, this may be true. Your child sees you as the secure fixture in his life and the place he goes to get his most basic needs met. Your child is lucky to have this relationship with you, and will gain lifelong emotional security from it if he is allowed to separate from you on his own timetable. However this type of closeness is not dependent on whether or not a child is nursing.

Continued nursing may have little to do with a child's bashful tendencies. Any mother with more than one child notices distinct personality differences among her children. Your child may be shy and sensitive by nature. Heredity may be a clue. A child with a stay-close-to-mama manner may take after a parent or other family member who has a quiet, retiring personality.

Weaning is unlikely to change your child's personality. Without the comfort and security of nursing, your child may become more clingy. Continuing to nurse until your child is ready to wean gives your child a sense of security, which encourages independence in the long run.

Setting Limits

Some mothers may feel guilty about wanting to wean, especially if their child isn't ready or if they had earlier thought they would wait until the child weaned on his own. If your child is very attached to nursing, and you are longing to wean, it can feel as though there's no way to resolve the problem except to have one of you lose. Looking instead for a "win-win" solution may help you feel more at peace.

It helps to remember toddler nursing is no longer about nursing on demand in all situations. You may find it helpful to set some limits with your child, particularly in areas of your nursing relationship that are difficult for you. Some rules mothers have found helpful are: only nursing at home, limiting nursing to certain times of the day, and ending the nursing after a certain number of minutes.

Mothers have needs, too, and it's good to work with your child to come to an agreement. When we listen to and observe our children, they give us plenty of clues that show what they need and what restrictions are workable for them.

I'm Ready to Wean, But He's Not

What if, after trying everything, you still really want to wean, but your child doesn't? This is a difficult place to be, but many mothers have had these feelings. Balancing your needs with your child's is possible, but may take some time and creativity. In MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER (Available from the LLLI Online Store), Norma Jane Bumgarner suggests deciding to either be happy with weaning or happy with nursing. Leaving the land of ambivalence makes a big difference for many mothers. If you are feeling defensive, obstinate, powerless, or guilty about weaning, you're probably also feeling ambivalent. Once you believe in your heart weaning is positive for you and your child, weaning will most likely proceed smoothly. How do you get to a place where the decision feels right? Over time, when you are struggling, learning, and looking for answers, things slowly become clearer. You may notice the nice aspects of continuing to nurse, and decide not to wean. Or you may see how weaning can happen gently and gradually, and that it's the best answer for you, your child, and your situation. In either case, you feel at peace.


Bumgarner, N.J. MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1982.

Hymes, James L., Jr. The Child Under Six. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994.

Jones, Sandy. Crying Baby Sleepless Nights. Boston, MA: Harvard Common Press, 1992.

Kippley, S. Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: How "Ecological" Breastfeeding Spaces Babies. Cincinnati: Couple to Couple League International, Inc., 1989.

Mohrbacher, N. and Stock, J. THE BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1997.

Sears, W. NIGHTTIME PARENTING. Schaumburg. IL: LLLI, 1986.

THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, Sixth Edition. Schaumburg. IL: LLLI. l997.

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