The decision to stop breastfeeding is a personal choice, and many mothers are surprised that their own goals and desires in this area differ markedly from those of other mothers and even from those of their children.
Chances are both of you have enjoyed the closeness that comes with breastfeeding. In fact, you may want to continue nursing your child through toddlerhood. But your child’s active temperament may cause him to be too impatient to continue to nurse. On the other hand, your child may want to continue nursing long past his first year, particularly before bedtime and when he’s in need of comfort.
But you may feel the need to move on to new activities. Whenever and for whatever reason you decide that the time has come (or, as is sometimes the case, suddenly realize that feedings have tapered off almost of their own accord), look at this change as another positive step in your life together and a window into the fascinating new ways your child is growing.
Is this the right time to wean?
Planning ahead when to stop breastfeeding—or trying to decide what the best age for weaning might be—can be a particularly difficult exercise for parents in this country. Few if any cultural conventions tell us precisely when it is time to completely wean from the breast, yet concerned relatives and friends often seem to have strong opinions about what’s best for the child and mother.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for your baby for about 6 months. When you add solid foods to your baby’s diet, continue breastfeeding until at least 12 months. You can continue to breastfeed after 12 months if you and your baby desire. However, mothers in the United States have tended to wean much earlier than in most other countries.
The simplest, most natural time to wean is when your child initiates the process. Weaning begins naturally at six months, when iron-fortified solid foods are introduced. Even after introduction of complementary foods, infants take similar volumes of human milk. Other fluids, however, will limit your baby’s desire to take as much human milk and may hasten the weaning process.
Some infants begin to turn gradually away from breastfeeding and toward other forms of nutrition and comfort at around one year of age, when they have begun to enjoy a wide variety of solid foods and have learned to drink from a cup. Others wean themselves during the toddler years as they become more physically active and less willing to sit still to nurse. Gradually tapering off the number of nursing sessions—by eliminating a feeding every two or three days—at this time can ensure that the weaning process will proceed quite smoothly, as your child becomes so busy with new experiences that she forgets it’s time to nurse.
You may, however, decide to initiate weaning at an earlier time for reasons of your own. These may include the need to be away from home for longer periods, a new pregnancy, job constraints, or even an increasing lack of desire to breastfeed. (It is important to remember, though, that you can continue to breastfeed even if you have become pregnant or return to work, perhaps reducing the frequency of breastfeeding and incorporating some use of infant formula.)
Starting the weaning process yourself will not be as easy as following your child’s lead, but with care and sensitivity it can certainly be accomplished. Meanwhile, it’s important to focus on your child’s needs and your own.
Be selective in following the inevitable advice and judgment of others outside the mother-child relationship, resist comparing your situation to that of any other family, and maybe even rethink any advance deadlines you set for yourself when you were pregnant or your child was a newborn. Keep in mind that you have provided the best start for your baby by breastfeeding, no matter how early or late you decide to stop. Some breastfeeding is better than none. No one but you can decide what is best for you and your infant.