Someone asked me last week about this issue, and it’s certainly something I’ve been asked plenty of times in the past, so I thought it would be a good idea to write about it today.
Firstly, let’s talk about the experience for your toddler – understanding that can make it easier to work out how to wean them gently. The problem with weaning two-year old is that they are much better at telling you exactly why they’re annoyed with you, and they’re also much more determined not to be distracted from the thing that brings them so much comfort.
Although some schools of thought suggest that it’s easier to wean a baby when they’re younger, that’s only really the case for the parent – it’s likely that it’s no less stressful for your baby, however old they are.
Now, I’m not here to tell you that you all ought to be feeding your babies until they’re going to school – we all need to do what’s comfortable for us, and what works for all of the members in their family – but the fact is that it is not physiologically normal for babies to wean from the breast until they’re really quite a lot older than you’d expect.
By weaning your baby earlier than is physiologically normal, you need to know that your baby may find things stressful simply because of the affect that breastfeeding has on your toddler.
As well as getting lots of breastmilk, which is obviously still very good for him, your toddler also gets all those lovely hormones rushing around his body. The hormones do all sorts of good things – make him feel loved, help to manage any pain he might have and, very importantly for toddlers, relaxes and calms them.
It’s almost like having a regular meditation or yoga session – lots of mums of breastfed toddlers think they have fewer tantrums than they would if they weren’t breastfeeding and there are physiological reasons why that might be true.
However, mums of breastfed toddlers also talk about how hugely frustrating it is to sit and feed sometimes; about how they grit their teeth through feeds and are desperate to stop.
Self-sacrificing as a parent is, in my opinion, not good for children. They are very sensitive to things like this, and will pick up on our resentment of them. We’ve all been there, but reminding ourselves that we need to take ourselves seriously, as well as our children, is really important.
So how do you reconcile your needs and those of your toddler? Here are a few tips:
- You may find you need to substitute the feeds with much more intense mothering time, and not necessarily at the same time you would be feeding, but just so that, overall, there is plenty of loving, close time you and your toddler can share
- Think of other relaxing things you can do with your toddler – bathing together (although sometimes the proximity of bare breasts can be just too tempting and a bit teasing, so do that one carefully); massage; reading stories together
- Don’t say ‘no’, just say ‘a bit later’ in an attempt to prolong intervals between feeds gradually, and don’t break your promise – if they begin to feel they can’t trust you, then they’ll just feel insecure and want to feed even more
- Shorten feeds by saying ‘until I count to 5′ or ‘until I’ve finished singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’
- Expect the process to take a long time
- Instead of resisting feeding, surrender willingly to it – as I said earlier, your toddler may well want to feed more if he feels insecure because of your reluctance to do it
- Get Dad to settle your toddler in the nights
- Don’t let your toddler get distressed – try gently to distract him from each feed, but if that doesn’t work, just let him feed. Saying ‘no’ and insisting on it is often counter-productive
- If your toddler’s happy to, try to restrict breastfeeds to ‘only when it’s light outside’ or ‘only when it’s dark outside’, depending on whether it’s night or day feeds that are your particular bugbear (these strategies work particularly well when you’re coming to a clock-change time of year)
- Be out a lot – toddlers often breastfeed from boredom, so spending a lot of time out of the house can distract them from the desire to breastfeed
- Don’t forget that your toddler will need more fluids to drink than he usually does if he’s breastfeeding less
- There’s no reason why, if you feel after a few days or weeks that this just isn’t the right time to wean, you can’t go backwards a few steps – maybe your feelings have changed, or you’re noticing that your baby is showing signs that they just can’t cope with weaning yet
- Question why you want to wean. Do you really need to? Are you doing it for you, or for society? Have you had negative comments from people motivating your desire to wean? Do you secretly still love it and wish you could continue? If that’s the case, why not just keep on going? Trust that your child is programmed to grow up and become and adult one day – just because he’s still breastfeeding now, or at three/four/five does not mean he’ll still be feeding when he’s thirty and he’s bringing his fiance home for you to meet!