The Child under Three
Because of the good results, both for their children and for
themselves, parents are becoming more comfortable with allowing
nursing to take its course and waiting for weaning to occur on its
own. Some people choose such an approach because it makes the most
sense to them, as did the mother who writes, "She hasn't
shown any signs of weaning, and I'm not going to push it. Why put
a strain into a so-far carefree experience? I believe it should
end as it started - naturally." Others, like one mother of
six, have more practical reasons. "She'll have to wean
herself," she says. "I don't have the time to worry
about it, and it doesn't matter." For these reasons and
others, more children these days have the good fortune to be born
into families in which they do not have to give up nursing in
anyone's time but their own.
A few children, of course, come to a spontaneous finish to
their nursing before their second birthday. For the few who leave
behind this part of their babyhood very early it will be in some
other behavior that parents will likely see signs of their
immaturity for some time yet. They will continue to need babying,
but they will need it in other ways.
One mother, disappointed when her fourteen-month-old weaned,
realizes now that weaning came from her approach to breastfeeding,
not an active weaning campaign. She emphasized solids, offered
other food before nursing once her child was eating solids, and
did not nurse her child just for comfort. As this mother found
out, children who start taking other foods and liquids before four
to six months may come to depend upon these foods for most of
their nourishment in the second half of their first year, a time
when most nurslings still thrive for the most part on mother's
milk. Often, though not always, children who take in a great deal
of food and liquid other than mother's milk at six to twelve
months tend to lose interest in nursing sooner than they might
have otherwise. Often they will wean from the breast and cling to
other comfort objects.
Some children seem less interested in nursing and become easily
distracted sometime between nine and fourteen months of age. Many
advisors suggest that you take advantage of your child's decreased
interest, if in fact her interest does show a decrease, to
initiate weaning. If you don't want to nurse a toddler, this may
be the least traumatic weaning time there will be for at least two
or three years. But if you expect to find it easier to care for
your child if she continues nursing, do not hesitate to remind her
to nurse a few times daily until she outgrows this phase. If you
do not want to wean, the time around nine months, a little later
sometimes, may be a sort of danger time in which you may want to
make sure your nursing relationship is not interrupted or
Most children nurse without a pause through the months before
and after their first birthdays, and a very few will wean in spite
of efforts to the contrary, but you can nearly eliminate the
possibility that your child might wean prematurely just by
offering the breast a few times a day during those weeks or
Most youngsters around their first birthday still enjoy
receiving a nice tummy full of milk when they nurse, and if other
forms of feeding and sucking take the place of feedings at the
breast, there will be, as a direct result, less of the milk that
so many of these children look for. This is an effective way to
encourage weaning, whether that is what mother has in mind or not.
For many children such a pattern constitutes a satisfactory
parent-initiated weaning. Also, if bottles and pacifiers are handy
to offer children, mothers are likely to make use of them to put
off a feeding while finishing this or that project they are
working on. This also will lead to an earlier weaning, whether
intended or not.
The way to achieve a natural weaning, if that is your
objective, is to feed and care for your infant without contrived
interferences. Nurse on demand from birth. Forget about other
foods until your child shows he is ready for them. Then feed your
child sensibly. Eating foods other than your milk in the first
year is usually more for fun than for nourishment. Except in very
hot weather, a baby who nurses often but has begun to ask for
other foods does not need any more liquids besides your milk than
he mooches from your cup or glass. Quenching his thirst with water
or juice in a sippy cup can result in less interest in nursing. An
excellent way to avoid overfeeding or over-watering your baby is
to make tasty foods available and attractive, but let her feed
herself, in her own way, and in her own time.
Unless you are in a situation where you absolutely cannot nurse
your baby, a pacifier is no help to you or to your baby. It is
mostly a nuisance that, unlike your breast, is always getting
dirty or lost. There is no need for bottles, either. Both
pacifiers and bottles tend to become mother substitutes and are
not satisfactory replacements for the full embrace of nursing.
Without the distraction and confusion brought on by pacifiers,
bottles, and too much other food too soon, your child can nurse
and wean in his own time and have a chance to outgrow his baby
needs so completely that he can leave them behind, whether that be
in his second year, or fourth, or whenever.
Not all children give up nursing gradually. Some children seem
to reach a new plateau in maturity all at once and turn their
backs on this or that baby behavior seemingly overnight. One
mother writes of her two- year-old:
It is very common for little people to toilet-train themselves
all at once. A few children also wean this way, especially when
they are not nursing very often anyway. Surprisingly, the events
that can bring on weaning in a child who is ready may be the same
ones that may cause an increase in nursing at an earlier stage. A
new baby, a move to a new home, or lots of company, often
threatening to very little people, may at other times be so
exciting and pleasant to your older child that he will drop
nursing to have more time to devote to the happy new
circumstances. If your child is weaning quickly just because that
is her way of doing things, and if your breasts do not become
overfull, then let the matter rest and go on to other ways of
being with your child.
Most of my experience is with children who weaned between three
and four, but clinical observations' and research suggest that a
completely child-led weaning is unlikely to take place before the
child turns four.' Mothers in East Bhutan, where nursing well into
childhood is socially acceptable, say that self-weaning usually
occurs between three and five years.' In any case, weaning may
come dramatically enough that your child will brag about it as one
little girl did, telling her grandmother, "I'm going to be a
big sister when I'm almost four - and now I'm weaned!" Or
it may be so gradual that no one will know for sure when it
For most children in this age range weaning is a slow,
unpatterned change in behavior, so unpredictable that it is not
always even headed in the same direction. At times, maybe even for
long periods, your child will nurse frequently and intensely. When
conditions change, either around your child or as a result of his
own growth, he will begin to prefer other things over nursing -
playing, eating, sleeping, or even cuddling with you sometimes.
Then things may change again for him so that he needs to be at
your breast almost as often as before.
As the weeks go on, though, there will be movement, whether you
notice it or not, away from many periods of frequent nursing
toward more periods of less nursing. In some children this
movement is regular and swift. In others it is so erratic and
unpredictable that it is easy to understand how people come to
believe some children would never wean without urging. Some
children even wean from one breast long before the other.
Such is the unpredictable course of an uncoerced weaning. At
some age, very young or "shockingly old," your child
will not find nursing so absolutely essential to her well-being.
And you may even miss it, as did a mother in India, who found
herself unable to answer her e-mail messages as soon as she had
gotten used to:
You know how things get with a busy
four-year-old around the place! Sadly he's stopped automatically
latching on when he sees me sit down at the computer, and pulls
me off to play instead!
Your child may be distracted from nursing by anything and
everything. You can see that, though he may have some months to go
yet, he is on his way toward a time when he will no longer need
you in this exact way.
Is child-led weaning completely child-led? Yes and no,
depending on your definition. You will probably respond, and
appropriately so, to your child's increasing distractibility as he
matures. He may pull you to your favorite nursing spot, sit you
down, latch on, and then instantly abandon you to chase his sister
or watch a TV commercial. When this has happened several times,
you will very naturally and with hardly a thought respond less
quickly to his requests to nurse, at least when he seems to be
asking rather superficially, and when the world around the two of
you is busy and interesting. In this way, even without planning
it, you play your part in his weaning. You are following his cues
and your own common sense.
You will probably come to a time when you yourself are
impatient with nursing. If you have been enjoying loving your
child this way, you may be puzzled at the change in your feelings.
No doubt your impatience will flare at times and subside at
others, depending on what is going on in the rest of your life.
Some of what you may be feeling, though, is part of natural
weaning and an indication that you are gradually outgrowing the
relationship. You too are growing toward being ready when the time
for weaning comes.
In time - how much time no one can say - your child will
abandon all but a very few favorite nursing times, usually the
times when he is falling asleep or first waking up in the morning.
When you are down to these few times, your milk production will
dwindle. Then some children who have especially liked the milk
will quit nursing in favor of a breakfast or bedtime snack. Others
continue to enjoy one or more of these special nursing times for a
long time yet, dropping them slowly until a few days, then a few
weeks, go by with no request to nurse.
Every spontaneous weaning is unique, however, so it is
impossible to guarantee anything about it except that it will
Resuming Nursing after Weaning
For most children before age three or so, weaning, spontaneous
or mother-initiated, is all but final when two or three weeks have
passed without your child's tugging your blouse. After this amount
of time most of these little ones do not ask again, or if they do,
they find they have forgotten how to suckle. "Is it
broken?" one little guy asked when he could not remember
after a year just how to go about nursing.
Once in a while someone suggests that your milk may become
"poison" or "spoiled" if your child does not
nurse for some certain amount of time. This is an old wives' tale,
one that is heard in many parts of the world. In rural Zimbabwe,
for instance, mothers are told that if milk remains in the breast
for a whole day, it will hurt the child.' But you can be assured
that milk doesn't spoil in the breasts any more than blood does in
the veins. Your child can nurse safely after any interval.
Occasionally a child will ask to nurse again after you have
regarded her as totally weaned, but most forget how. A mother who
was sad because her body just would not cooperate with her son's
need to nurse during her pregnancy wrote:
I still have regrets because I see many LLL
moms nursing their two-and-a-half-year-old sons, and I know that
if I hadn't gotten pregnant I'd be nursing my son too. I think
it would help because he doesn't talk, and it would be a great
way to stay connected to him. He has tried to nurse since the
new baby was born two months ago, but he doesn't remember how. I
let him try whenever he wants (it's not very often).
The most likely circumstance for such requests is when you have
a new baby, but also once in a while when a child discovers that
mom is pregnant. Or your child may be upset about something, as in
this situation recalled by the mother of a now grown daughter:
It was a disastrous time ending up with a
breast abscess and an angry weaning at about two-and-a-half. She
missed nursing so much though that we gradually started up
again, nursed through a pregnancy and tandem nursed. She finally
weaned by contract a couple months after her sixth birthday.
There is no reason that you can't allow your child to try
nursing again, even though you have probably told all the
relatives he is weaned. Chances are that he is weaned. A request
to nurse from a child who has not nursed for a while is usually a
request for reassurance and acceptance. You may not be able to
discover any explanation for your child's desire to return to
nursing other than the mysterious workings of his growing little
mind. It feels good to a little child to know that if he ever did
need you again that way, you would be there for him with open
arms. One mother says of her weaned twins that they both had to
try nursing several times when the new baby came, but gave it up
after a few tries. It is much easier for a little person to wean
himself if he knows that his decision does not have to be final.
One mother had nothing but positive feelings when her child
wanted to nurse again a few times after over a year without asking
for the breast: "I never realized just how important and
memorable those nursing days were to her and that she would
actually remember at all. This was her 'thank you' for the loving
patience and time I took when it was needed." A brief return
to the mostly outgrown way of loving can be a chance for mother
and little one together to enjoy a bit of reminiscing.
Another mother writes of a child who resumed nursing - sort
When our daughter was about
eleven months, [her two-year-old brother] started to become very
interested in what nursing was. He shocked me one day by
pretending to nurse on one breast while his sister was at the
other. I didn't try to discourage him because by now I had read
a little about tandem nursing and I hoped if he was to start
nursing again after two years that it would help our
relationship. I had already noticed the difference between my
two children's behavior that I attribute to our nursing
relationship. My son is a very energetic boy who likes to tell
me "No!" as often as possible while my daughter is
helpful and calm most of the time.
Now that she is fifteen months and he is
two-and-a-half years old, he still continues to pretend but
doesn't actually latch on. He even tells Baby, as he calls his
sister, that it is time to nurse and he directs her to the
breast he chooses. I am kind of sad that I didn't nurse him as
long as I have nursed his sister but it is wonderful that he has
joined our breastfeeding relationship.
For a child who is apparently weaned to actually resume nursing
for a while, sometimes for no reason that you can perceive, might
make you feel panicky, especially if you are very happy for your
child to relate to you in a different way. Yet it will be helpful
to your child for you to go along with him if you can. Just as we
adults sometimes make a mistake in deciding to wean our children
too soon, occasionally very small growing people make mistakes in
deciding to wean themselves too soon. There is a reason, no doubt,
whether we can see it with our adult eyes or not, that your child
needs to nurse again for a while.
Although it may seem like it at first, you and your child are
not going back to the beginning of the weaning process. After a
few days of adjustment your child is not likely to nurse any more
than do other children his age. He is not returning to babyhood,
but picking up a behavior that is appropriate for his age. He will
nurse and wean also in > way appropriate to his age - maybe
in the next few days, or maybe some months hence.
Weaning need not be any more dramatic and final than toilet-
training. We are not surprised when a child who is supposedly
toilet- trained forgets and "backslides" for a while. It
should be no more disconcerting that a weaned child would remember
and backslide when he needs to. In a household with a new baby,
being welcome at mother's breast, if he feels the need, can be
quite a help in overcoming a child's feeling of displacement.
There is no harm done by stepping back to baby things for a while
- probably considerable good in the long run.
Spontaneous Weaning in Children over Four
We commonly hear that most younger children do not ask to nurse
again after they are weaned because they forget about nursing.
This may be true, though I am not sure. It is certain, however,
that children over four (or even over three sometimes) do not
forget. As I have said, many of them will remember nursing as long
as they live. So it should not be surprising that children over
four are notorious for going about weaning in an irregular way.
Many seem to give a lot of consideration to weaning. One little
girl, asked when she would wean, thought about it and then
replied, "Oh, probably I will try when I'm five, 'cause you
can't come to school - can you?!"
Children usually wean at a time that is easy for them, when
their lives are otherwise stable. From their behavior it is often
evident that they are making quite a rational choice for so young
a person. Some children tell their parents that they are weaning
because they themselves decided to do so, and it is easy to see
from watching other children that this is the case with them as
well. In some children the process that leads to weaning is not
readily apparent; but this is probably not because it is so much
different for them, but because they are children who keep their
own counsel about it.
In the months that follow a decision to wean (or at least what
appears to be such a decision) many children encounter rough spots
that cause them to reconsider. These times can worry you if you
have regarded the child as weaned. But you have not lost all the
progress you have made toward weaning. A child this age who goes
weeks or months without nursing is definitely working on growing
up. When she asks to nurse again after such a long time you can be
sure that she has just come to a time in her life which she can
handle better if she can still nurse a bit. Once she works her way
past it, she will get back to the business of weaning.
Many mothers are quite hesitant to say that their over-fours
are weaned, even after months without nursing. So often it seems
that the minute mother pronounces her child weaned, he needs to
Needless to say, spontaneous weaning with older nurslings can
be gradual indeed!