Teresa Pitman reflects on how children outgrow their need to breastfeed and shares her tips on how to wean gently.

As my daughter Lisa’s fourth birthday approached, I thought it might be a good time to talk to her about weaning. I was still breastfeeding both Lisa and her little brother (who was 18 months old) and I knew other people had persuaded their children to wean on birthdays or for “weaning parties.” I knew it could be a touchy subject, as my little girl was very fond of nursing. She even made up songs about it. She told me my milk tasted like melted ice cream, only better.

I figured that if weaning was going to happen, I’d better start talking up the idea. I reminded her that she was going to be four—she’d be a big girl! And look—she was eating and drinking lots of other foods—she really didn’t need to breastfeed (or have “ninnies” as she called it). We’d have extra treats on her birthday to celebrate that she had weaned. As the days went by, she seemed to accept the idea. The night before her birthday we snuggled in bed, “This is the last time I’ll have ninnies,” she said, as she got ready to nurse to sleep. I felt a bit sad that this stage was coming to an end.

The birthday morning came. I heard the pitter-patter of her feet as she came down the hall to our bedroom.

“Happy birthday!” her dad and I called out.

“Ninnies now!” she said, smiling.

“But you are four now,” I said. “Remember, last night you said that would be the last time for ninnies?”

“Oh,” she said. “I was only joking.”

She climbed up into the bed and nursed. She kept on breastfeeding for the next year.

how to wean gently
Jade Beall Photography

This wasn’t quite how I’d been led to believe weaning happened. When I had my first baby, it seemed like he was barely a few weeks old before people started asking me when I was going to wean him. Clearly weaning was something mothers DID to babies. It seemed obvious to everyone that I would choose an appropriate time for weaning and then breastfeeding would stop. And most people seemed to think that should happen well before my baby turned one.

But then I heard from breastfeeding mothers I’d met about a different approach: that ideally, the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need. There were two things that surprised me about that: first, that breastfeeding might be a “need” for a baby and, secondly, that the baby might outgrow it. I think I’d previously had the idea that unless the mother did something to actively wean the baby, he’d still be breastfeeding when he went to university.

What did “outgrowing a need” mean exactly? I thought about other things I’d seen my children outgrow:

  • Clothes. Frankly, they were always outgrowing clothes! But clearly, I didn’t have much to do with it (other than feeding them!). I didn’t decide, “Now is the time for Matthew to outgrow his clothes.” It just happened. He might outgrow them next month, or he might outgrow them four or five months from now. Sometimes he grew faster, sometimes not so fast. And each child was different. My petite little Lisa didn’t start wearing size two clothes until she was past three years old but sturdy Matthew was wearing them soon after his first birthday.
  • Naps. Babies nap quite often, but by the time mine were toddlers, naps were on the way out. Lisa gave up naps the earliest. This was not something I encouraged! However, I found that even when I set the stage for a nap as carefully as I could (quiet, darkened room, me lying down with her to nurse) she would NOT go to sleep. She had outgrown the need for naps, with no encouragement or help from me.

Could weaning be the same? Could my children outgrow the need to breastfeed all on their own—just one more developmental stage?

It was hard for me to think that way, since almost everyone I knew saw it quite differently. They believed children needed to be pushed towards independence and that allowing a child to breastfeed until he or she decided to stop would be a bad approach to parenting. Even Juliet’s wet-nurse (in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) weaned her young nursling at three years old by putting a bad-tasting cream on her nipples.

What would it be like, I wondered, if I lived in a time or place where nursing older children was accepted? Would I feel so self-conscious about my daughter’s continued love of breastfeeding? Would it be easier to let her determine when to stop? The article “Breastfeeding in the Land of Ghenghis Khan” talks about the encouragement and support of breastfeeding mothers in Mongolia. People there say the best wrestlers (and wrestling is Mongolia’s national sport) breastfeed for six years. Nobody is pressured to wean. I love this story!

Certainly, I had support from some of my friends to balance the criticism of others. On the days when I doubted myself, I would try to imagine I lived in the sort of culture where people applauded my nursing four-year-old rather than criticizing me for having allowed it to go on for so long.

how to wean gently
Jade Beall Photography

Over the next year of continued breastfeeding, I saw Lisa grow in many ways. She had been a shy baby and toddler and very slow to warm up to new people. When we went to birthday parties for other children her age, she’d sit on my lap and watch the other kids playing. If her grandparents came to visit (which happened every couple of months) she’d hide behind the furniture (or me) until they left. But between her fourth birthday and her fifth, she began to change. She warmed up a lot faster. She became much more willing to step into new situations, started talking to other people, and was now joining in the games at parties.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I realized that my almost five-year-old hadn’t breastfed in a couple of days. It had really dropped to once a day, at bedtime, in the previous few weeks. Then she fell asleep coming home in the car one night and didn’t wake when I carried her up to bed. No nursing that night. The next night, she fell asleep while I was reading her a story—two nights without breastfeeding.

In the morning, I said, “You haven’t had ninnies for two days, do you want to nurse now?” She re-arranged the dolls she was playing with on the table, “Hmm … not now. Maybe later.” Later never came. Lisa had weaned.

Does weaning help mothers with depression?

I like that our breastfeeding relationship ended gradually and happily, with a sense of fulfilment. That little girl who seemed velcroed to my body in her early years is grown now and a mother herself. She traveled the world, spending half a year visiting India, Thailand, Bali, and other countries all by herself. And yet we are still close and connected.

This approach won’t work for all families; some parents decide to initiate or impose weaning for a variety of reasons. But if you are considering letting your child take the lead, I can say now, with confidence, that even if you intentionally do nothing at all to encourage it, your children will wean. They will outgrow the need, just like they will outgrow their naps and baby clothes. I can’t promise you when this will happen—my four were all different—but it will.

Teresa Pitman

Teresa Pitman mother of four and grandmother of nine lives in Canada and has been supporting mothers for more than 35 years with birth and breastfeeding. She is a prolific writer and popular speaker, much loved by all whose lives she touches. Why not buy her latest book for a mom-to-be Preparing to breastfeed: A pregnant woman’s guide?