Weaning: Mom or baby-led weaning?

I've heard a lot of conflicting information on when I should wean my baby. Should I initiate the weaning process or let him wean himself?


Debbi Donovan

Debbi Donovan is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, as well as a retired La Leche League Leader. For more than a decade, Debbi... Read more

Since each breastfeeding relationship is unique, the decision of when to wean will vary from family to family. Some moms will nurse their baby for days, some for months, and still others for years. There is no one time that is right for everyone to wean.

Breastmilk is the perfect food for your baby's first year of life. During the first five to six months, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended. During the second half of the first year, solids are slowly introduced, but breastmilk should still account for approximately 75 percent of your baby's diet. Many breastfeeding moms think of weaning as the end of nursing, but weaning actually begins when anything other than breastmilk is taken in by the baby. It is usually a gradual process, and as such, is easiest on mom and baby.

Katherine Dettwyler, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nutrition at Texas A&M University, and author of "Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives," states, "In societies where children are allowed to nurse 'as long as they want,' they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between three and four years of age..." In the United States, most babies are only nursed during their first year of life. Those nursing longer are often pressured by family, friends and even physicians to wean. In Clinical Pediatrics, Dec. 1995, it is reported that among a sample of American women who practice extended breastfeeding, the average age for weaning was between two and one half to three years of age. Researchers concluded that extended nursing has documented benefits, and physicians can be confident in supporting mothers who choose to nurse their children beyond the first year of age.

Sometimes weaning is advised when it is not truly indicated. A drug or a diagnostic test may be prescribed, and weaning may be recommended. (Most drugs and tests are compatible with breastfeeding.) A mother may become pregnant and worry that breastfeeding will be harmful to the baby growing inside of her. (In a healthy pregnancy there is no reason to wean.) Mom or baby may become ill or hospitalized. (If baby is sick, the anti-infective properties in his mother's milk are especially important. If the mom is ill, she could suffer further health complications, such as mastitis, if she abruptly weans.)

Abrupt weaning is not recommended. It is associated with sudden hormonal changes for the mother, especially during the first few months after birth, and may bring on depression. Her breasts may be very uncomfortable asher body continues to produce milk. This can lead to mastitis. Abrupt weaning can also be traumatic for the baby who has grown accustomed to the closeness nursing provides.

If you have decided it is time to wean your little one, it is best started during an otherwise non-stressful time. Eliminate one feeding, no more often than every three days, to keep your breasts comfortable, and also to help your baby adjust to the change. In an older baby, over nine months of age, appropriate food or drink can be substituted for the nursing, along with lots of loving. Best of luck when you decide it's time to wean!


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