- Weaning a toddler is best done gradually - for them and for you
- Offer additional comfort to your toddler while weaning
- Wean one feed at a time: stop offering the feed, but never refuse to breastfeed your toddler
- Offer alternatives, distractions and make access to breastfeeding difficult
- Use an alternative settling technique to help your toddler sleep without relying on breastfeeds
Breastfeeding is the preferred method of feeding , affording nutrition, as well as benefits to the immune system and emotional security of infants and toddlers.
If you have continued to breastfeed your child past infancy and into toddlerhood, you've given them a great start in the all-important early developmental period.
The 2006-2007 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children revealed that 28% of children were still breastfed at 12 months , with 9% and 5% of toddlers still breastfed and 18 months and 24 months, respectively.
No matter how long you have breastfed your toddler for, there comes a time when you choose to wean your child from breastfeeding (if they have not weaned themself naturally).
Why take a gradual approach to weaning?
Weaning can be a stressful time for your toddler, because breastfeeding is not just a method of feeding, but also a method of comforting your toddler.
That’s why a gradual approach is best.
Think about it as a process of weaning off each feed, rather than weaning off breastfeeding entirely.
Although weaning entirely might be your long-term goal, it is too overwhelming to your toddler to stop breastfeeding all at once. Not to mention the fact that it will put you at risk of mastitis if your breasts are too full.
How to know the right time to stop breastfeeding a toddler
WHO and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding to 2 years of age or beyond, but every family’s situation is different. So, if you feel it’s time to wean, because you don’t want to breastfeed while pregnant with your next child, or you’re returning to work, or any other reason that applies, then it’s the right time for you.
But, is it the right time for your toddler?
Weaning can be more difficult if done at times of other big change, including
- Moving house
- Toilet training
- Moving to a big bed
- Starting day care
So, it’s a good idea to initiate weaning when your family doesn’t have any other big changes going on.
Let your toddler know you plan to wean them
It’s important to talk to your child about it before you start. Toddlers understand so much of what is going on around them. Explain what will happen in the weeks leading up to you starting to wean them so it doesn’t come as a surprise to them. This directly involves them after all, so help them feel like they are part of what is happening.
If you feel like you need additional support in explaining it to your toddler, you can find storybooks that you can read to them as well.
Overall strategy for weaning
Raisingchildren.net.au recommends the following rule of thumb for weaning toddlers :
“never offer a breastfeed, but never refuse.” Please keep this in mind so that you can wean your toddler as gently as possible.
Drop daytime feeds first
Bedtime or nighttime feeds tend to provide more comfort to children than those that occur during the day. That’s why daytime feeds may be easier to drop than those at night.
Drop one or two feeds per week
You can start by dropping just one feed and giving your toddler a few days to adjust. Then you can drop another.
How to stop breastfeeding a toddler during the day
If your toddler is still asking for the feeds you are trying to drop, you may need to employ some additional tools.
Try to provide distraction from your usual routine by planning fun outings or activities at times you would normally breastfeed. Hopefully they won’t even realise what they’re missing!
If you feel like your toddler is successfully distracted by the planned activity but still asks for the feed as soon as you get home, then try to plan a few jam-packed days where you spend minimal time at home. Make it so interesting they completely forget to ask about breastfeeding. While time-consuming, this is a very kind tool for weaning your toddler, because you are ensuring they are stimulated and happy.
An alternative is to ask a trusted friend or family member to look after your toddler at the time of the feed you are trying to drop.
Make access difficult
If your toddler tends to ask for feeds when you are undressed, then try showering and dressing for the day before they wake. If you are clothed already, you may be able to move them straight into breakfast upon waking.
Similarly, if you bed-share and usually breastfeed your child on waking, you could try getting up and showering before them.
If you want to prevent easy access to your breasts, stop wearing nursing clothing, and instead, wear clothing that makes access to breastfeeding more difficult.
Be consistent with feeding times
It will be easier to drop one feed at a time when you are feeding at consistent times. You will be clear on what feeds you are still offering and your toddler will know what to expect too.
Routines are important for giving your toddler a sense of security and stability. They are never more important than during a time of change, like weaning from breastfeeding.
Offer an alternative
Instead, you may offer a small cup of cow’s milk as an alternative to breastmilk . This will also aid hydration and digestion.
Or you can offer a new healthy snack. The novelty will be a distraction and may prevent them asking for a breastfeed. Homemade fruit icy poles are a good example, or even fruit smoothies you can whip up yourself.
Shorten length of breastfeeding sessions
If your toddler is still asking to breastfeed a lot, you can consider feeding for a much shorter time . Try allowing them to feed for a minute or two, so they receive the comfort they were seeking and then encourage them to move onto another activity. Have a few ideas up your sleeve for these situations - things that you know will be winners and distract them enough.
If you want your toddler to know exactly how much time you are giving them to breastfeed in these shortened sessions, you could sing a short song. It will also help them feel as though you aren’t rushing them.
How to stop breastfeeding a toddler at night
Dropping the bedtime feed
If you currently feed your toddler to sleep (or feed them right before sleep) then a change of routine will be the best approach. Instead of dropping the feed immediately, move it a little earlier in the night, and have storytime or cuddles after the feed .
They might find this quite difficult so give them as much time as you can to offer alternative comfort so that they feel supported through the change. You may also need to employ a new settling technique.
Dropping night feeds
If your toddler is used to having long feeds at night (over five minutes) then you can start by reducing the length of the feeds . Try cutting down by a couple of minutes every second night. Then settle them to sleep using another method. That will help them get used to an alternative method in readiness for you stopping the feeds completely.
If your toddler is already having short feeds (under five minutes) you can try straight away to use another settling technique yourself, however you might find your toddler quite resistant if they are used to you settling them by breastfeeding. If you have a partner who is able to attend to your child in the night, it can help to have them settle your toddler back to sleep, rather than relying on breastfeeding.
Final thoughts on how to stop breastfeeding a toddler
While your focus will be on how to make the process easier for your toddler, it’s also important to look after yourself at this time. If you notice your breasts feeling uncomfortable during the process of weaning, it can help to express just enough breastmilk to relieve that feeling.
And remember, if you start weaning and then feel like the timing isn’t right, you can always stop weaning and try again another time.