Breastfeeding is one of the most extraordinary experiences that mothers and babies can share. It not only allows new moms to provide the ultimate nourishment to their babies, but it also forms an incredibly special bond built from physical and emotional closeness. So when breastfeeding eventually comes to an end, emotions will certainly run high.
Weaning happens for a variety of reasons but is typically categorized in two ways: Child-led weaning is when the baby or toddler is ready to end the breastfeeding relationship and stops showing interest and desire to nurse. This naturally occurs between 18 and 24 months for most children, when they are also eating many solid foods, drinking cow’s milk and are aware of their environment. Mother-led weaning is when the mother is ready or forced to stop breastfeeding, regardless of whether her baby is ready. Many mothers stop breastfeeding at one year because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least this amount of time, she finds this timing to be the social norm or she’s looking for more freedom in her life. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that extended breastfeeding is highly beneficial to mothers and babies. Sometimes weaning is a joint decision between mother and baby. That is, the mother notices signs of disinterest and then makes a formal decision to stop breastfeeding gradually.
First, it’s important to recognize when a child is not necessarily ready to wean. Many mothers are confused by mixed signals they may be getting from their babies. For instance, as a baby becomes more mature, he’ll have a natural curiosity for the world around him, which may cause him to be distracted during breastfeeding. This does not mean he’s apathetic to breastfeeding or doesn’t need the nutrition, it just means mom should help him refocus by eliminating distractions as much as possible. Some babies go on a breastfeeding strike and suddenly do not want to nurse. Child-led weaning is rarely marked by an abrupt end to breastfeeding. A strike is probably about something else, like an illness, a lull in growth when he needs less milk or the eruption of new teeth. Many mothers also feel pressure to wean when they go back to work, get pregnant with another baby or are influenced by others’ opinions. However, none of these factors should determine when a breastfeeding relationship ends.
Babies are usually pretty adaptable and, especially with child-led weaning, have an easier time when breastfeeding ends. As moms are more emotionally mature, they often struggle during weaning and may even feel depressed. There are many elements at play that can lead to feelings of sadness and guilt. If the mother is ready to stop breastfeeding before the baby naturally weans, she may feel guilty about putting her own desires above her baby’s. Sometimes if a baby weans easily, even if not by choice, mothers feel unwanted or unneeded.
However it happens, many mothers feel nostalgic about weaning and often mourn the loss of this stage in the mother/child relationship. Hormones also contribute to feelings of sadness and depression during weaning. Prolactin, the hormone that is required for milk production, and oxytocin, which is responsible for the release of milk through let downs, both help calm and relax mothers and contribute to feelings of love. When these hormones drop off, especially if weaning occurs suddenly, moms can spiral into depression. At this point, it’s important to seek professional advice to ensure the safety and well-being of both mom and baby. Also, finding other ways to emotionally bond with your baby can curb some of these negative feelings. Cuddling, hugging, reading, singing and otherwise maintaining skin-to-skin contact will benefit both mom and baby.
Mothers who are unsure about weaning should talk to a breastfeeding counselor or health care provider before making a decision. Once breastfeeding stops, it is very difficult to return to it and often confusing for the child. Mothers should be absolutely sure about their decision. When it’s time, weaning should be done gradually starting with dropping one feeding each week. The process may stall at certain points and continue with just a couple feedings – often morning and before bedtime – for weeks or even months before breastfeeding completely ends. This slow wean will help level off breast milk to avoid clogged ducts or mastitis and help rebalance hormones. Plus, it will give baby time to get used to an increase in non-breast milk and other forms of nutrients.
Just like the entire breastfeeding journey, weaning is a time that moms and babies have to navigate together. It should be done carefully and with much love and respect for each other’s health, feelings and well-being. Remember, the bond of breastfeeding shared by mothers and children is one that transitions beautifully into a strong and loving relationship for a lifetime.