Weaning, Partial Weaning and Mixed Feelings

I shared the story of my daughter Hannah’s weaning at 34 months a little over 6 months ago. The post touches on the incredibly mixed feelings I felt when I made this decision. I think that this is common for many mothers who are breastfeeding older toddlers and preschoolers. On the one hand, you may not particularly enjoy nursing anymore, at least not all the time. But on the other hand, you often rely on it in many ways – to soothe tears, as a chance to sit down, or a way to reconnect with your child after a day at work. And you may also feel that your child enjoys it and relies on it, too, and fear what weaning will mean to your little one. These mixed feelings were difficult for me to grapple with, and one of the biggest personal challenges that I faced when I considered weaning.

One of the things that I discovered is that weaning is not all-or-nothing, it is a process with many steps and stages. This is especially when you’re weaning a toddler with their own thoughts on the matter. And many (if not most) people start by partially weaning, placing parameters around nursing to limit it. Night weaning is a common first step, in which a mom nurses her child to sleep and then uses other methods to help the kiddo get back to sleep if he or she wakes. Others use ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’, in which the mother does not initiate nursing, but does not refuse the child’s request to nurse. Some people set a length of time for a nursing session or an upper limit on the number of nursing sessions each day, or decide to only nurse at home.

Hannah began sleeping through the night on her own when her last molars came in, at around 27 months. But even before that she didn’t wake much at night, and it was pretty manageable for me. So, I have never night weaned. However, I have tried most other methods.

I started off the weaning process with ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’, because it seemed both easy and gentle to me. And it was both of those things, at least for Hannah. As for me, I discovered just how much I relied on breastfeeding in my daily life. The kid is grumpy? Breastfeed. I need to make a phone call? Breastfeed. I want to watch a TV show? Breastfeed. We’re bored and it’s raining outside? Breastfeed. The truth is that weaning was as much about me as it was about my child.

As we progressed through weaning, I found that I felt excessively irritable while I was nursing my daughter. I’ve spoken with some other mothers who felt the same way, so it seems to be normal. This is totally my own theory, but having watched a mother cat wean, I suspect this irritability is at play amongst all mammals. Whatever caused it, when I was feeling this way I found that limiting the length of a nursing session helped. I would nurse only for length of time it took me to sing the ABCs, adjusting the speed based on my feelings, and my toddler was generally fine with that.

Eventually, I knew that I did not want to breastfeed as frequently anymore. I decided to limit the number of feeds each day. I chose what I felt were the three most important nursing sessions for Hannah, and I explained the new arrangement to her. And she pretty much understood. As for me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that limiting the number of nursing sessions made breastfeeding much more manageable for me. And I think that’s a good thing, because breastfeeding is a relationship. As a child gets older, it changes and shifts and it’s totally reasonable to make adjustments so that it works for everyone.

Partially weaning is both a way-point on the path to weaning, and a state in and of itself. Eventually all children wean somehow or another. It is an inevitability. Placing limits and experimenting with tactics can help make that process easier on everyone. However, they can also make breastfeeding itself easier on everyone. Many people find that placing a few limits on a young toddler’s nursing helps them to continue breastfeeding when they thought they were done. The counter-intuitive truth is that partial weaning can sometimes be a way to extend breastfeeding.

Weaning brings up a lot of mixed feelings. It can be confusing and conflicting and uncertain, for adults and children alike. I believe that there is no one else in the world who can tell you when, how, or for how long you should breastfeed. It is a decision that you alone can make, taking the needs of yourself and your nursling into account. You will not get a gold star if you breastfeed for 6 years, and you will not receive my condemnation if it doesn’t work out for you. The good news is that you set your own rules. Whenever and however you wean, or partially wean, or never wean, as long as you are doing your best for your children they will be OK. And that is the most important thing, really.

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  1. Interesting post, Amber. I have found many similarities in the partial weaning of Kiaera. I have also used the ABC's to limit the length of her nursing sessions. She now stops nursing just long enough to tell me "no ABC's mommy!". Thankfully she only asks to nurse 2-3 times a day anymore, as I think that is all I can manage with Ashlyn still exclusively dependent on breastfeeding. <Sigh>. No wonder I am chronically thirsty!

  2. This is a timely subject for me, having recently partially weaned Kai now.

    I had imagined I would nurse Kai a lot longer but now, 17 months in, I am really ready for this ‘letting go’. I was starting to really resent my feeding times and was feeling drained by the constant demands for feeds all day which made me realise that something needed to change. We’re now down to 2/3 feeds in 24 hours – funnily enough dropping the day feeds and replacing with distraction, cuddles and snacks worked best and Kai hasn’t minded at all. I really look forward to our bed time nurse now, and trust that the one or two night feeds will naturally diminish in time.

    We’re back to having a happy breastfeeding relationship, which is what it’s all about of course.

    .-= Josie @Sleep is for the Weak´s last post ..Just when I thought I was going to lose my mind… =-.

  3. This is a very timely topic for me – thanks for posting it! My daughter is 23 months old and looooves nursing. The truth is that I would have tried weaning her sooner if it were not for her food allergy to cow’s milk. The recommendations for kiddos with milk allergy is to continue breastfeeding until age 2 if possible, allowing them to get calcium and other important nutrients. That said, I have such mixed feelings about nursing at this age. I want her to be a big girl. I’m tired of breastfeeding so much. I try to set gentle limits, but then backslide. She is just so in love with that time with me. I’m a work-out-of-the-house Mom and this is the main way she reconnects with me after a long day. I get it. She’s almost two, and I’d like us to be done breastfeeding sooner than later. I can’t go another year, especially since I have to maintain a dairy-egg-peanut/nut-soy free diet for her allergies. It’s been a long year on such a limited diet! I’m worst about nighttime feedings – she doesn’t need it, but I still go to her 1 to 2x a night to help her back to sleep. In Fact, I’m so tired this morning that I think I am officially rambling in your comments. So I’m going to shush now. Thanks Amber. 🙂
    .-= Missy @ The Marketing Mama´s last post ..Thinking of Emilie =-.

  4. Lovely post, Amber and I’m glad you mentioned the irritability. I’ve always felt really guilty about being so prickly in the later stages of breastfeeding.
    I’m not sure how we weaned. The middle of the night feeds were the first to go as I craved a solid sleep thru at around a year into it. We managed that by handing over to daddy and upping the daytime feedings. From then solid food held increasing interest and my wee guy just quietly went his own way into the big wide world with his final feed from me at the top of the stairs in our new house at just over 2.5 years.
    Gee, I still feel sad he stopped!
    .-= pomomama aka ebbandflo´s last post ..wire flowers =-.

  5. Our adventures with nightweaning this weekend were almost a non-event. Josh has been complaining a little, but not crying or even really fully waking up. He even goes right to sleep when moving from his bed to ours, sometime in the early morning. Thanks for your encouragement and support!

  6. Both my kids self-weaned at a little after a year, before I was ready to stop. I had a lot of anxiety and depression post-partum issues, and breastfeeding was the one time when I felt totallly calm and competent. Both kids slept through the night early on, but I definitely hear you on using breastfeeding as a sort of panacea for multiple situations and being really sorry when that option is no longer available (my friend used to say it was like being a ‘mobile soothing unit’).
    .-= Allison´s last post ..***********Day 30+1 (What? I’m obsessive compulsive, as if I’m going to be able to just stop now.) =-.

  7. Angela at Breastfeeding 1-2-3 says:

    I loved this post Amber. My experience weaning my second daughter was almost exactly like yours with Hannah. I felt some irritability too, and while no doubt it had something to do with being pregnant with my third daughter at the time, I also believe it had to do with my dwindling milk supply. For me, as weaning progresses and my milk supply naturally decreases, it becomes more and more uncomfortable for me to nurse. Not painful at all, just, well, irritating 🙂

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts on the emotional and practical aspects of weaning!
    .-= Angela at Breastfeeding 1-2-3´s last post ..Best Breastfeeding Health News of 2009 =-.

  8. Great post Amber. I had expected to breastfeed until my son was around 2, and then anticipated a long painful weaning process. And then suddently at 17 months my guy said ‘no more’. Well not really those words, but he wanted no more and made his intentions clear. It broke my heart. I wasn’t ready to give it up yet. But he was.
    .-= Tracey´s last post ..Bright Nights Vancouver Tweet up =-.

  9. Breastfeeding was always something I wanted to do and I was determined to make it happen. When Poppy was born she was wisked off to the nursery because she was having breathing problems. When she came back to me the nurses told me that they needed to give her formula because her glucose was low. I was worried that I would be rejected after she had her hands on formula, but as it turned out I had to use formula as a back up as my body adjusted to making enough milk for her. After the first couple of weeks of struggling and perservering I was able to breastfeed and get rid of the formula. I loved my breastfeeding moments with her. We nursed to sleep, nursed to calm, nursed, nursed, nursed all the time and I have never felt more needed.

    When I was told that I need to have an MRI and that I needed to stop breastfeeding I was so upset. She was 15 months old, but I had planned on nursing for alot longer. I felt like I was letting her down. I was worried that she wouldn’t need me anymore. I was heartbroken, but we made it through. It didn’t seem to take very long once I found a bottle that she was satisfied with 🙂 We tried quite a few…

    The only thing I notice now is that Poppy is still quick to reach for my breasts when she is upset or scared, or just needs some comfort. Sometimes she does it at inconvienient times, but mostly it’s during quiet cuddle times before bed, and to be quite honest about it, it makes me feel a little better too.
    .-= Leanna´s last post ..New dolls up in the shop =-.

  10. I am here now. I am doing the “don’t offer; don’t refuse” method. Its working very, very well, and I feel as if I have gotten a bit of my body back. He’s a lot younger than I had wanted to wean (17 months) but I’ve let him lead, and this was his idea. If we nursed during the day, he would just wriggle and bite, or detach and reach for my water glass, so we stopped and he’s not looked back. Now we just nurse on wake-ups, or occasionally when he’s really crabby, or feeling sick.

    I had to give up exclusive breastfeeding at 7 months when my son went to day care. I was devastated, wishing I could just have done it a bit longer, missing the cuddling and quiet time, believing that I was letting my son down, and preventing him from having the nutrition he needed so much. My husband wasn’t much help, saying “its ok, he’s got formula after your pumped milk is used up” which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, and yes, there is the irritability factor that made me a bit crankier than normal.

    We settled into two nurses a day for a long time happily, so perhaps that is what is making our weaning so smooth.

    However, now that I am weaning, I expected to feel so sad, like before, depriving my son and I of that time together that was really kind of sacred. But I’m not. I’m rather excited at the prospect! Underwires and fancy bras can come back out of the drawer! No more dry-husk feelings after he nurses, and I can got back to the gym with only 1 sports bra, not three (bounce-ouch-bounce-ouch). 😛
    .-= caroline´s last post ..The Anticlimatic Needle Adventure =-.

  11. This is such a lovely post. Like one of the other commenters, my son self-weaned at 14 months. I wasn’t even close to being ready for it. I’m grateful it was such a smooth, easy, gentle process for him, but I definitely mourned the loss. I listen to other mothers’ stories about toddler-weaning and log it all away for baby #2. He/She might want to nurse forever! If so, I’m armed with tons of information and intelligent, thoughtful posts like this one to reference.
    .-= Jessica – This is Worthwhile´s last post ..Obviously, I’m in a funk =-.

  12. I never really consider my son partially-weaned, although maybe that’s what he is? He only nurses a few times a day, just for a minute or two at a time. He asks for it, and I give it. But I don’t offer. He always wants to nurse first thing in the morning, and then anytime he sees me sitting down (and then when he’s really upset about something.) It doesn’t feel like he’s actually getting anything out of it, but I can tell I’m still producing a little. I know I’ll be sad when he stops. I’ve almost just become so accustomed to it that it will feel strange when it’s over. Plus, that will mean he’s a big boy, and the idea of him not being a baby anymore is just too sad. 🙁 I need to get another little one around here pronto! 😉
    .-= TheFeministBreeder´s last post ..(Not So) Wordless Wednesday =-.

  13. Thank you for this! I love the idea of an in-between stage that is its own thing, and a gentle process for both mother and baby to transition. Every time I read a weaning story, I get teary-eyed and feel frantic, and this is the first time I’ve felt, OK; It’s going to be OK. Thanks for being the voice of reasonableness.
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last post ..Wordless Wednesday: 50,000 words down to one =-.

  14. This is really interesting. I have been thinking a lot about weaning lately. I had weaned my daughter by this age. I mostly breastfeed before sleep and naps. I can feel myself getting tired of it sometimes and wonder how much longer I will continure. I would like to be able to make it until all his teeth (except 2 year molars) come in but we’ll see.
    .-= Capital Mom´s last post ..Teaching moments =-.

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  1. […] weaning when we reached a point where the relationship wasn’t working for me. I started with partial weaning, using techniques like “don’t offer, don’t refuse”. We worked together to […]

  2. […] On the one hand, I’m not embarrassed that I’m breastfeeding my toddler. I nursed his big sister Hannah until she was almost 3 years old, and I’ve had a similar goal for Jacob. Just now, at 2 1/2, I’m starting to offer alternatives when he asks to nurse, but I don’t push it. I’m not in too much of a rush to be done, and I believe and trust that weaning will happen in its own time. […]

  3. […] see weaning as a journey, not necessarily a destination. With my firstborn, Hannah, it was a process of gradually letting […]

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