How to wean a toddler (Or, “How to wean a mother,” depending on how you look at it)

I never planned to nurse Thomas as long as I did.

Actually, I take that back. I never really planned any sort of timeline.

David self-weaned abruptly at 12 months. I was eight weeks pregnant and in the throes of first trimester exhaustion when I weaned Mary Virginia at 16 months. Neither of those things happened with Thomas, and since nursing him was working for our family, I didn’t see any reason to stop.

Ok, ok, ok, I take that back too. I did see a reason to stop. After Thomas’s first birthday I set a deadline: I would stop when he turned 18 months.

There was absolutely no reason for that deadline except, I realized, I was worried people would think it was weird to nurse so long. Eighteen months, though! That’s totally reasonable, and also a little bit badass depending on what circles you travel in — but not so extreme one way or the other.

But then eighteen months came and went and thankfully somewhere in there I realized that making a decision because of someone else’s opinion is the worst reason to make a decision.

So we kept at it. I was convinced of the health benefits and moreover, it was working for us. It was a good, positive routine — not disruptive and nowhere near the burden of nursing an infant.

As Thomas got closer to two, I actually started enjoying nursing more. He is quickly, quickly growing into a toddler that does not stop moving…unless I’m nursing. When we sit together, he wraps his arms around me, strokes my arm and lets me ruffle his hair. Moms (me included!) sometimes talk about how the only time their kids cuddle is if they have a fever. I want to shout, NOT IF YOU’RE STILL NURSING!

A few weeks ago, though, something changed. His attention changed and I developed a nursing aversion. I suddenly felt very, very ready to wean but had no idea how.

For a long, long time I’d only been nursing twice a day — before nap and bed. I wasn’t nursing him to sleep (in fact he was wide awake, often Tom would even put him to bed), but it was the cornerstone of our bedtime routine, and every parent knows YOU DO NOT MESS WITH THE BEDTIME ROUTINE.

I kept at it, every day figuring out a big strategy and routine shift that we never even attempted to implement.

Then one day I just decided I was done. Before his nap I rocked him in his chair and sang a song. He went along with it at first, but then started to get upset — crying and pulling at my shirt. I stayed the course, and then the most incredible thing happened. He calmed down. I sang his song once more, then put him in bed and walked out of the room.

Day two didn’t go quite as easily. He was more upset, and protested the only way toddlers know how — by screaming and slapping me. I held him close, determined to transition him from a routine of breastmilk to a routine of lullabies and back-rubbing.

After three days, he stopped asking to nurse, but continued protesting. That fussing and protesting has persisted. He doesn’t go down nearly as easily as he used to, but the important thing is that we’re done.

Now that I’m on the other side, the hardest part was the weeks of worry and anxious strategizing.

All kids are different, and I know that some toddlers don’t handle the transition as easily, but I truly feel that Thomas was ready. The one holding on, of course, was me.

Fear to disrupt our routine was definitely my number one (valid!) concern, but there was also fear of breaking the bond that’s been so strong for two years. After all, breastfeeding isn’t just about feeding your child, it’s heart work. It’s hard and exhausting, but there’s a certain intimacy that comes with breastfeeding — this is something only I can do, this is a ritual shared solely between me and the child — and ending that doesn’t come easily.

When Thomas was complaining and asking for milk, I pulled him closer to me and continued singing; working to convince both of us that we were not breaking the physical and emotional bond we had built through breastfeeding, but building upon it.

Eventually he relaxed in my embrace, and went to sleep.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Laura Kassner April 26, 2017

    I’m amazed how often our experiences have overlapped (having kids at exactly the same intervals will do that, I suppose), but my youngest – nearly 22 months, still intermittently nurses whereas my other two stopped on their own at 13 months. What gives? 🙂

    Reply
  2. Nessly Hamoy May 15, 2019

    I hope to copy your strategy of singing and back rubbing to wean my 2 year old toddler. He’d gotten so active and I think mostly nurse for comfort. Breastfeeding has many benefits and all but if we wait for them to self wean, it can get really long… Thanks for sharing. Exactly what I needed.

    Reply
  3. I nursed for 18 months as well. As a mama, it’s sometimes hard to let that bond go. My son, surprisingly, transitioned very well. I am not anywhere close to stopping with my daughter yet, but I have a feeling she will be a difficult one. Thank you for your story!

    Reply
  4. Geeky Daddy May 15, 2019

    My wife went back to work when our baby was 6 months old but we continued to nurse him until 12 months. My wife abruptly weened herself at 12 months, mostly because pumping at work was a chore. We are expecting our 2nd in 3 weeks and plan to nurse for 12 months again.

    Reply
  5. Michael May 15, 2019

    The last picture is melting. Your love for your child is going through outside the post. You really can do great things esp on the things you love [its like automatic[

    Reply
  6. Madison May 17, 2019

    I can’t imagine how many little and big decisions go into being a mom! Respect to you for realizing that you don’t have to make the choice based on others’ opinions (and sharing that thought process!). You and your son are adorable!

    Reply
  7. Trish May 17, 2019

    Girl, I love the beginning of this. My last, the baby of our home, nursed the longest. It’s sad to me when we have no problem nursing our child longer, that we let peer pressure slip on in. When does that stop? Ever?
    Our last year of nursing was honestly convenience. It was either two second on the boob or screaming for an hour at bedtime. Truthfully, this older momma, didn’t have the energy for bedtime rants. So I let him nurse for two seconds while I smelled him and snuggled. It’s a win. Interestingly enough, our last time ever was during Hurricane Irma. I figured we both needed it then. Lol

    Reply
  8. Brianna Watson May 18, 2019

    Thank you SOOOOOO much for posting this! My son is 18 months and we are still nursing too! I actually stopped nursing him in the mornings because I wanted to cut down to just the night time. After two weeks of being totally fine with not nursing in the mornings, he all of a sudden decided that he REALLY wants it when he wakes up now. He picks up the nursing pillow and cries and shoves it into my lap! I caved because I felt so bad depriving him of something he was asking for. He has never asked for it before this point because I always had him on a schedule. I keep telling myself that he will wean when he is ready but I find myself worrying that he is going to nurse forever and that it is going to have to be MY choice to cut it out completely. I truly enjoy the part where you talk about trying not to care what other people think about nursing – especially nursing past 12 months. When I look at it objectively, I feel a lot better. Reading your post, I feel like I could have written it. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply

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