Can children under 2 self-wean?
I think it would depend on the situation. If the child was 18 months+, I would believe it at least likely, if not necessarily absolutely the truth.
I think the difficulty in assessing this with a young toddler is knowing the situation. The mom may be offering to nurse frequently when she is with the child but she may work full-time, or also encourages the child to drink lots of other fluids.
When E was 18m-2y, she was in daycare three days a week. The other two weekdays I was gone at least part of the day. She nursed 5-7 times a day at the beginning of it and about 3 times a day at the end of it. I thought that was how often she preferred to nurse until I finished school, my jobs ended and we moved out of state. I'm now a short-term SAHM and when we first moved here, she nursed 15-20 times a day. Now she's back to 6-8 but it took a lot of work. If I worked FT, though, she might only nurse twice a day at this point. So I might think she was headed toward weaning when she wouldn't be if I was home.
If I hear a mom say her child weaned at less than 18 months, I usually think that there were some serious factors discouraging the child from nursing, even if they were unintentional. It's quite possible that a 18+-month-old could be getting enough from their diet not to need to drink milk. But a 13-month-old to do the same? Not very likely.
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If we define self-weaning as the end of the physical and emotional need to breastfeed then I think very few, if any, children would truly self-wean before two years of age. I think, however, that a lot of kids are inadvertently weaned onto substitute foods and behaviours.
A lot of the "standard recommendations" for babycare, from complementary foods to sleeping practices, seem designed with weaning at or before a year in mind so it's no wonder that many mums who do things "by the book" will find their babies weaning before two no matter what their intentions.
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You could be describing my situation! If I did 'don't offer don't refuse' dd would have weaned by now. She has never asked to feed even though at 16 months she can clearly indicate other desires ;) As it is she almost always rejects my offer of a feed except first thing in the morning, in a silent darkened room.
I'm sure that some of my parenting practices are influencing this (she eats plenty at mealtimes, drinks from a sippy cup, perhaps I don't go to the lengths some might to accommodate a distractable nurser etc) but other factors are in play too - she'd much rather copy her sister and have a banana rather than a feed. She is very independent and doesn't want to stop playing to BF. She STTN (with no 'encouragement')from 8 weeks so night nursing is very much a thing of the past. She never comfort nurses and will bite if I offer when she is distressed.
In some ways it makes me a little sad, especially when as this weekend she refuses to nurse at all for a few days. But I just can't fight her personality - she's just never been that attached to nursing. I could change my parenting but its a bit late now - she knows she wants a sippy cup and will not hesitate to bite me to get it.
My husband says don't fight it, all I do is upset us both and I tend to agree. We've had a few big nursing strikes and they really took their toll on us all. It took me ages to get my head around toddler nursing so I am a little relieved that it doesn't look like I will be nursing a 3 year old (at least not more than once a day). Also my priorities regarding continuing BF are immunity boosting rather than nutritional so I still feel I'm meeting my BFing goals. I will continue to give her the one feed a day she will accept so we can always build supply back up if she needs it as when she gets sick she won't eat but will nurse like its going out of fashion.
So my answer to the question is yes babies can self wean under two - I think that even if parenting practices are an indirect influence a toddler can exercise a choice. I wouldn't say this is the same for a younger baby. I also would use the term 'self wean' as distinct from 'child-led weaning' because to me that implies that the child had total control of the situation. If a mom told me that her child had self weaned between the ages of 1 and 2 I would think that there were probably other factors at work because it seems unusual but I wouldn't think that there was anything wrong with that - it is a relationship after all both sides are allowed to bring influences to it. I would never assume a mom was lying based on that information.
I think "lying" is too strong a term for most situations.
I think "don't offer, don't refuse" is part of a natural weaning strategy, so if you are at "don't offer, don't refuse" with a 1 year old you'll probably wean earlier than if you offer, offer, offer up to age 2 or 3, and then begin "don't offer, don't refuse" at age 3 or beyond.
We were designed to nurse for about 4 years on average, and I think that's because we are designed to live with a scarcity of foods. A hunter gatherer mom likely offered to nurse a young child because that kept other foods available for the rest of the group. If she eats well she can produce milk for her toddler. If she doesn't produce milk for her toddler, she needs to gather enough food for the both of them. A hunter gatherer mom definitely didn't have sippy cups, juice boxes, snacks in boxes in the cupboard, cereal, or fresh fruit and cut up veggies in the fridge. A mother today can offer all those other things to a 1 year old. A mother back then probably had nursing as one of her main offerings to a 1 year old, thus 1 year olds in a hunter gatherer society are not as likely to wean, because nursing is offered. Later it can turn into don't offer/don't refuse when mom is ambivalent about the child continuing and the child is also becoming ambivalent. As the child gets older, I think it becomes more natural to refuse.
The other factor is visual stimulation. A child in a hunter gatherer society likely witnessed plenty of his peers nursing frequently too. So if your mom was for some reason doing don't offer, don't refuse but you see most of your 1-3 year old cousins and friends doing it, you are probably going to mimic that behavior. Nowadays 1-3 year olds don't have that, so they may wean earlier because when it's not offered, they don't have anything else to reinforce it either.
Thus a child under age 2 where nursing is not offered or reinforced in any way, may wean on her own. A child under age 2 where it's offered, reinforced in other ways, or both, likely would not wean that early.
Lastly, there's a wide range of normal when it comes to weaning. If it's normal and natural for a child to still be nursing three years after the average child has stopped, then it's normal and natural for a child to wean three years before the average child will stop. It's just that you wouldn't expect many children to fall at those extremes in a society where natural weaning was commonly practiced.
Thanks for your responses everyone.
If felt OK about my kid weaning and the kid was OK without BF, in normal health and able to consume a sufficient and well balanced diet then I'd probably not push baby to continue nursing (though I'd keep offering for a while).
Generally I think a gradual weaning is OK (even if it's earlier than would happen completely naturally) but if the change in nursing happens abruptly or is accompanied by distress then it needs to be investigated no matter what the age of the child.