Weaning is the process of the baby’s transition from breast milk to other foods. It is a natural process within a child’s developmental journey. If your child is in the same stage of development, you might wonder how to wean a toddler. While some babies wean within the first year, some may continue to breastfeed through toddlerhood. If you have decided that it is time for your toddler to move to other foods, using specific simple techniques can make the process easier. This post tells you the impact of weaning on the mother and toddler and provides tips to help you wean a toddler.
Is Your Toddler Ready To Stop Breastfeeding?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding can continue for two years and longer, along with complementary foods (1). If both the mother and toddler are happy to continue nursing, then extended breastfeeding is not an issue.
But in some toddlers, breastfeeding brings satiety of thirst and hunger thus hampering the introduction of complementary foods. Prolonged nursing and no complementary feeds puts the child at risk of micronutrients deficiency such as vitamins D, B12, and folic acid. So, it is important to keep increasing the amount of complementary feeds and reduce the frequency of breastfeeding.
As time passes, most toddlers outgrow the need for breastfeeding and stop demanding it. A mother may also wish to discontinue breastfeeding once the baby is a toddler. You may consider weaning your toddler after the age of 12 months since a significant chunk of their nutrition would come from solid food.
If you choose to wean or your toddler decides to wean, remember to do so gradually to prevent any inconvenience and discomfort to either of you.
How Will Weaning Affect Nutrition And Development?
Weaning a toddler is usually unlikely to affect their nutrition if they are provided an age-appropriate diet with various food items containing all the essential nutrients. A toddler can consume whole cow’s milk from the age of 12 months (2). Whole cow milk combined with appropriate solid food items could provide the toddler adequate nourishment for healthy growth and development.
In many cases, the toddler may prefer solids and cow’s milk over breastfeeding, perhaps due to their increased energy needs. Therefore, weaning a toddler is unlikely to have any negative impact on their nutrition and development.
How Will Weaning Affect You?
Weaning may not have any impact on the mother when done gradually. However, rapid weaning or sudden cessation of breastfeeding in one day does not give enough time to reduce milk production. It causes excess milk to accumulate in the breasts, increasing the risk of blocked milk ducts. The accumulated milk could also be susceptible to bacterial invasion, causing infective mastitis.
Sudden weaning could cause a rapid drop in the oxytocin and prolactin hormones. A decline in the number of hormones in the body may make the mother feel less relaxed and calm. It may also cause some mothers to feel depressed (3) (4). Thus, it is advisable to wean your toddler gradually to prevent any adverse effects.
Tips For Gently Weaning Your Toddler
1. Shorten the length of each feeding session: You may cut down a few minutes per feeding session gradually. A great way to signal the toddler that the nursing session is over by singing a song, counting up to a number, or saying a funny phrase.
2. Reduce one feed per day: You may cut down one feeding session a day per week or fortnight, depending on your convenience. It is less likely to be noticed by the toddler and even provides ample time for your breasts to adjust the milk production.
3. Drop least important feeds: You may drop the feeding sessions that mainly serve the purpose of comforting the toddler. A common example is a nighttime feed or feeding right before naps. These sessions may mostly provide reassurance rather than nourishment.
4. Try distraction: If your toddler demands a comfort feed, use alternatives, such as cuddles or kisses. Alternatively, distract the toddler with something, such as a toy, object, or activity. Most toddlers could forget about breastfeeding eventually.
5. Feed only on demand: Do not offer a feed. Instead, only breastfeed when the toddler demands it. It provides an opportunity to check if your breastfeeding sessions are on-demand or obligatory due to a routine. If your toddler does not remember to breastfeed or is distracted when it is time to usually breastfeed, it is a win for you since it will be easier to wean a toddler who is uninterested in breastfeeding.
6. Change the routine: Replace the breastfeeding session with another activity and see the toddler’s reaction. For instance, introduce playtime when you would usually breastfeed. If your toddler takes to it immediately, then weaning will be easier.
7. Provide alternatives: You may consider providing cow milk to the toddler when they would usually breastfeed. Toddlers between the ages of one and two years can have up to 24 ounces (710 milliliters) of whole or full-fat cow milk a day. Once older than two, you can serve up to 20 ounces (600 milliliters) of skimmed or low-fat cow milk a day (8). Since it could be similar to breast milk, they are more likely to take to it easily. You may also replace the nursing session with a snack time to serve a specific food, such as fruits, to the toddler.
What If The Toddler Doesn’t Stop Breastfeeding?
A toddler may usually not persistently demand to breastfeed for nourishment since they can reach out to other interesting alternatives, such as solid food items and cow’s milk. Therefore, despite all your efforts, if a toddler is reluctant to wean, it is most likely because breastfeeding is a source of comfort or reassurance to the child.
If your toddler is unwilling to give up breastfeeding, you may consider trying the following steps (9).
- Check the possible cause or trigger for nursing demands. In many cases, you may notice a possible event acting as a precursor. A few examples are the toddler falling down, throwing a tantrum, or having an argument with a sibling. A toddler may commonly turn to you after these events for comfort nursing. Work on alternative ways to comfort the baby in such cases.
- Encourage the toddler to communicate their emotions instead of cuddling with you for comfort nursing. Talk to the toddler and ask them why they are upset to distract them from breastfeeding.
- Older toddlers can be encouraged to wean through communication. You may speak to your toddler about the importance of focusing on solids. You could set a weaning calendar where you and the toddler can mark the days when the toddler could go without breastfeeding.
- Take the help of your partner or another family member each time the toddler demands a feed. You may ask your partner or family member to serve the toddler cow milk in a cup, provide them a snack, or initiate an activity. It will help distract the toddler and dissociate breastfeeding with comfort.
When Not To Wean A Toddler?
There is no right time to wean a toddler, and you may initiate as per convenience. However, you may set weaning for a later date in the following scenarios (10).
- You are unwell, or the toddler is ill. You must always initiate weaning during a phase when you and the toddler are at the best of mental and physical health.
- Do not initiate weaning if your toddler has just recovered from illness since they may require comfort nursing to feel better.
- Avoid initiating weaning when they are new life events in the toddler’s life, such as the arrival of a sibling or change of house. It could make the toddler less emotionally ready to accept that they need to let go of breastfeeding.
- The toddler abruptly stops breastfeeding and does not breastfeed even when offered. This is most likely a nursing strike. Wait for the toddler to resume their normal breastfeeding routine to begin weaning.
If you have blocked milk ducts, you may express breast milk for relief and feed the milk in a cup to the toddler. Once you feel better, you can stop offering breast milk.
Weaning is a notable event for both the toddler and the parents. While weaning a toddler could be challenging, proper planning and the right techniques could help you attain it conveniently. Remember to be gradual with your approach and make modifications in your breastfeeding routine to allow your toddler to sail through the weaning process easily.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long does it take to wean a toddler?
The duration of toddler weaning depends on the approach, whether planned (mother-led) or natural (baby-led). Toddlers are usually fully weaned after a few weeks or months of planned weaning (11), whereas natural weaning is a gradual process that may take longer (12).
2. Do toddlers naturally wean?
Yes. Natural weaning (baby-led weaning) occurs when an infant accepts increasing amounts and types of complementary feedings while continuing to breastfeed on demand. It is usually completed between ages two and four (12).
3. How long after weaning do breasts take to return to normal?
Your breasts may continue to produce milk after completing toddler weaning. They will gradually stop producing milk after a few months.
4. At what age is breast milk no longer beneficial?
At around nine months, some babies begin solid feedings, reducing their number of breastfeeds (13). Solid foods eventually replace the nutritional benefits of breast milk.
5. At what age do toddlers naturally night wean?
When a toddler is around 9–12 months old and has started taking three solid feeds per day, they can begin night weaning (13).
Weaning your toddler can be a bittersweet emotion. Though breastfeeding is a moving process, it can get tiring too. Exhaustion and your baby’s age may compel you to find some tips on weaning your toddler. Reducing the length of each feeding session, dropping one feed at a time, feeding only on demand, and distracting them are some gentle techniques to wean your toddler off breastmilk. In addition, communication, cuddling, and involvement of other family members can help your little one disassociate nursing from emotional comfort.
- You may start weaning your toddler after 12 months of age as solid food is their major source of nutrition.
- Shortening the length of each session, reducing one feed per day, and trying to distract them are some effective ways of weaning.
- Check the possible trigger and encourage toddlers to communicate emotions if they don’t stop breastfeeding.
- Don’t wean if you or your toddler are unwell.
2. Feeding Your Baby and Toddler;C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital
3.Sara McCall, Weaning: Every Mother’s Journey;Breastfeeding USA
4.Michiko Matsunaga et al., Breastfeeding dynamically changes endogenous oxytocin levels and emotion recognition in mothers;The Royal Society Publishing
5. When Breastfeeding Ends Suddenly;La Leche League GB
6. Weaning;La Leche League
7. Ten tips for gently stopping breastfeeding your toddler;NCT
8.Natalie D. Muth, Recommended Drinks for Young Children Ages 0-5;American Academy of Pediatrics
9. Weaning off breastfeeding;Raising Children Network
10. When Not To Wean; American Academy of Pediatrics
11. Ultimate Guide: How to Wean a Toddler at 18 – 24 Months; Medela
12. Weaning from the breast; Paediatric Child Health
13. Breastfeeding – deciding when to stop; Department of Health, State Government of Victoria