The Whys and Hows of Child-led Weaning
By Jessica Woods
I didn’t plan to nurse my daughter until she was 3, my goal was to nurse for a year. I knew that breastfeeding was important to a newborn, and I figured if I had been lugging these breasts around for so many years, I might as well get some serious use out of them.
“I didn’t plan to nurse my daughter until she was 3; my goal was to nurse for a year.”
I began attending a “breastfeeding support group” at a local hospital shortly after my daughter’s birth. We attended weekly for many months, and in that group, I met other moms with children at different stages. It was wonderful to see how infants progressed to babies and babies to toddlers.
It was at one of these meetings that I first saw a toddler nurse, and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what that looks like.” It had never occurred to me to think of nursing in terms of years rather than months. However, my daughter turned 3 in January, and we are still nursing with no deadline for weaning. What we are doing is considered “child-led weaning.”
Over the past weeks, I mentioned to other moms that I was writing an article about child-led weaning. Their reactions ranged from “What is that?” to “It should be illegal to nurse if the child can talk and walk.”
Such reactions aren’t too surprising considering breastfeeding rates in the United States. Recent studies show that while 70 percent of moms initiate breastfeeding, by 6 months, only one-third of those moms are still nursing, and at one year the number drops to less than 18 percent. There just aren’t many moms who are still nursing their 2-, 3- or 4-year-olds.
Given these relatively low numbers, it is unlikely you know many women who chose child-led weaning. You may have some questions:
- What, exactly, is child-led weaning?
- Will a child nurse forever if you let him?
- If a child is still nursing when she is a toddler, will it interfere with her nutritional intake?
What Is Child-Led Weaning?
“I think of child-led or natural weaning as letting the child set the pace of weaning,” says Beverly Morgan, IBCLC, an international board certified lactation consultant in Austin, Texas. As the child grows … they gradually come to the time in their life where they feel they have outgrown nursing.”
Amy Davis*, a La Leche League co-leader in Northern California, nursed her son until he was 4. She believes natural weaning is about “acknowledging that breastfeeding meets more than nutritional needs; it meets developmental and emotional needs as well.”
It is common to wonder how long your nursing relationship will last and how it will end. Left to their own devices, some children will wean themselves at 9 or 12 months, and some will choose to nurse until they are 4—or older.
According to research by University of Texas Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, author of Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, “In societies where children are allowed to nurse ‘as long as they want,’ they usually self-wean … between 3 and 4 years of age.”
Dettwyler says that, from a biological perspective, the maximum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is two and a half years with a maximum of seven years.
Nancy Norris of Santa Cruz, California, nursed her daughter until she was 6. Norris recalls they were down to just one feeding—in the mornings —when her daughter simply said, “I don’t want to nurse this morning.” And that was that.
Why Choose Child-led Weaning?
One reason to consider child-led weaning is because breastfeeding benefits your child for as long as you do it. The advantages of breast milk are well documented—it is the best nutrition for a baby, hands down.
“What they’re finding is the antibodies in breast milk actually go up after a year, so it’s more protective as the child is going out, doing other things and being exposed to more,” says Janet Hoover, IBCLC. “Physiologically it makes so much sense.”
The fact that your child is still nursing does not interfere with his nutritional intake – in fact, it’s the opposite. If it seems like your preschooler is living on ketchup and bananas, the nursing mom can breathe easier. Hoover likens it to an “insurance policy.”
“It’s a lot easier than having to worry … that they’re getting adequate nutrition,” says Hoover.
Extending breastfeeding is also good for Mom. Benefits include a reduced risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, and osteoporosis.
Finally, the mothers I have spoken to who weaned older children recall an exceptionally smooth transition. There are no long teary nights with Baby crying for Mommy, no pacifiers or bottles to keep track of. There are no security blankets or special toys to buy extras of. There is no finger or thumb sucking to discourage.
What to Expect
Davis nursed until she was 3 1/2 years old. Even so, she was shocked the first time she saw a nursing toddler. “I was looking at this humongous child and was absolutely shocked—not horrified, just shocked,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”
But she did do just that: nursing her son until he was 4. “Once you start, you learn something that changes you … ,” she says. “Just as you can’t explain how much [a person] will love their baby after it’s born, you can’t explain to someone the meaning that breastfeeding can take on in their child’s life. So you just take it one month and one year at a time, and when you’ve been nursing that long, three years doesn’t seem that monumental.”
If you are still in the midst of the around-the-clock, sustained nursing of the early months, you probably can’t imagine nursing for two or three more years. But the reality is that as your child grows, her nursing needs will change. Nursing a toddler is very different from nursing a newborn.
While a newborn nurses around the clock, a toddler or preschooler may only nurse a few times a day—commonly when going to sleep and upon waking. “It gets to be so easy,” Hoover says.
As you consider what is best for you, it is essential to remember that each child is different and each nursing relationship is unique. As a mother, you need to evaluate what works best for you and your child.
“I think there are all sorts of reasons that people do it,” Hoover says. “Most of the time, it’s because it’s an easy, natural thing for both Mom and Child.”