Image: Various Brennemans
As your child reaches toddlerhood and becomes more independent, he will be increasing the variety of solid foods he eats and will no longer need to rely solely on breast milk for nutrition.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding children until they are a year old, but of course every family is different and your child may be older, or even slightly younger, when you're ready to begin weaning.
At one year old, your child is able to recognize hunger cues and express preferences about when, what, and how much he would like to eat and drink. It's easier for your child if you help him do so, for example by using Baby Sign Language to communicate. One-year-olds can reliably use a combination of Baby Sign Language and spoken words to ask for things they need and say things like “milk,” “eat,” “more,” and “all done.”
How to start weaning
The simplest way to begin weaning is by simply letting your child decide if he wants to nurse. At the start, nurse him when he asks, and if he doesn’t ask, you do not have to offer. Your toddler is learning all about the wider world and you can use this to your advantage.
While breastfeeding is one activity your baby certainly enjoys, it is definitely not the only one. If he asks to nurse and you're not comfortable letting him do so, it's okay to gently say “No. Not now,” and offer a distraction—a favorite toy, another food option, or an activity such as going for a walk. He may cry. But that’s okay, as long as you remain close and comforting while he expresses his frustration. Like all changes in young children’s routines, weaning requires patience and consistency.
Enlist support when weaning
Weaning your toddler will be easier if you get help from your team: your spouse, older children if you have any, childcare providers, or other moms.
People of every age, including toddlers, look to their friends and family for clues as to how they should behave. If you are out at the playground with other children, or your child is eating lunch in a classroom with his peers, he will be able to get more used to the idea of not always having breast milk on demand.
If possible, have someone else around during the times when your child often asks to nurse. If your spouse can sit down to share a snack, or an older sibling is ready to play, your child may be distracted from his desire for breast milk. If your toddler is demanding milk because he's hungry, have healthy food options on hand and offer those first.
Transitioning to other milks
Most toddlers successfully transition from breast milk to cow’s milk within a few weeks, especially if cow’s milk is what’s on offer at meal times.
It is recommended that children under three drink whole milk rather than skim milk or 2%. Whole milk offers the greatest amount of nutrients for the young child’s developing body. Some families prefer not to drink cow’s milk, and may substitute goat’s milk, soy milk, or some other milk substitute because of allergies or dietary preferences. Choose the type of milk that's best for your family’s needs.
Your child may still wish to breastfeed because they associate this activity with your comforting presence. Many toddlers may ask for breast milk when they're tired or feeling upset. It's one way of asking for an adult’s loving attention.
If you're trying to wean your child from breastfeeding, keep in mind that he will especially need your support to transition to other sources of comfort, as well as other sources of food.
Even if you don't want to breastfeed your toddler when he asks, you can still hold or snuggle with him while offering a bottle or a sippy cup full of cow’s milk or water. This is a great time to create a new comfort routine that could allow you and your child to remain close through the preschool years: for example, singing quiet songs together or reading a favorite book.
Celebrate his success like any other milestone
As always, watch for your child’s reactions, stay close, and do not force the weaning process if your child is truly not ready.
Wait until your child is at his best—not sick or teething—and try to be positive about the experience. Celebrate his successful weaning just as you celebrate other milestones. Clap, sing, laugh, and let your child be excited about how much they are growing.
You can let him enjoy some of his favorite “big kid” foods and maybe even reserve a special new sippy cup for him to use only after “graduating” from breast milk.
Do you have any tips or tricks to help wean a toddler? Share them in the comments!