Weaning refers to the process of transitioning an infant or a toddler from breast or bottle to solid food. While mothers do not have to begin this process by a certain time, the weaning process is inevitable, as babies will eventually want to eat food! Many pediatricians recommend the gradual introduction of a non-milk diet alongside breast or formula by age 6 months. Some others suggest that breast milk is a complete diet until the end of the first year of life. Mothers generally wean their babies whenever they want to – typically somewhere between 6 months and 2 years of age, with some weaning earlier and some weaning later.
Whenever it occurs, the weaning period can be a stressful time for both mother and child, and requires much patience and sensitivity. Sometimes mothers are resistant to stop nursing even if the child is showing signs of readiness to wean. At other times, it is the child who has difficulty adjusting to the change, enjoying both the sucking of the nipple on bottle or breast, and also the comfort of being held closely. Because of this, weaning is best done gradually, instead of implementing an abrupt stop.
The following are some tips for easier weaning:
Start Before Age One
As mentioned, there’s no standard age for weaning babies. Breast milk can provide excellent nourishment for quite a long time. However, many experts have found that mothers who start weaning from bottle or breast after their child’s first birthday encounter more resistance compared to babies weaned earlier. This resistance lessens when the child is a toddler. At that point, parents can actually TALK to the child about weaning and even enlist the child’s conscious cooperation. Therefore, weaning is easiest if carried out either between 6 months to one year of age, or when the child is a toddler.
Facilitate by Gradually Transitioning to Bottles and Cups
One way weaning can be facilitated is by gradually introducing milk presented in feeding bottles or sippy cups. If you nurse three or four times a day, for example, you can change one breastfeeding schedule to a bottle-feeding one. And when your pediatrician has allowed it, you can use a bottle and later, a cup, to give your baby other substantial liquids. Usually babies enjoy having something novel so much, they don’t notice you gradually lessening nursing time.
Slowly Introduce Your Solids
At 6 months, your baby is ready for a taste of solid foods. For example, vegetables like potatoes and carrots may be given to your baby; just make sure that they are boiled soft, mashed and/or run through a food processor. If you can exchange a traditional nursing time for the feeding of these soupy solids, then your baby can gradually ease to the change. Some infants do resist — they can cry or become irritable until nursed. If this is the case then parents can experiment on the right amount of change their young ones can tolerate; for example, they can start with feeding solids only after every two days instead of every day.
It may sound a bit manipulative, but distracting a baby from noticing a loss is one way to help him adjust to the change in his diet. Plan something interesting to do during what your child has associated to be nursing time. Don’t stay in the same room where you usually nurse. The less aware your baby is that something is different in the routine, the more willing he will be to accept the new schedule. Distract your child through daytime nursing periods first. Then, wean him off of nursing for his daytime nap. Then begin to wean him from his nighttime nursings or bottle feedings gradually, over the course of days and weeks. Don’t start the weaning process unless you are determined to carry it through to the end as mixed messages will seriously delay progress. For instance, don’t stop the weaning process because your baby has a cold or because you will be travelling. Instead, try to choose a period in which you feel stable enough to complete the weaning process. If your child needs extra comfort during this period for some reason (illness, upset, change), find a non-nursing way to provide it. After all, you will have to be able to do this from now on in any event as using the breast or bottle as the grand soother will no longer be possible for your weaned child.
If your child is old enough to understand and participate in the weaning process, include him! Let him know that nursing will soon no longer be an option but that when he gives up nursing altogether, there will be a weaning party and/or a special weaning present. As usual, give up the waking daytime nursing periods first, followed by the daytime nap nursing, followed by night nursing. If you have been nursing a toddler to sleep, start by nursing every other night for awhile, then every third night for awhile and finally stretch the non-nursing period to three nights off, one night on. When this is established, you can stop nursing altogether and hold the weaning celebration ceremony! A similar process can be used to wean toddlers off a bottle. Let the child know that you are working toward this, the bottles will be all gone, and there will be a celebration when there are no more bottles. If your child has been using a bottle to soothe himself to sleep at night, you will want to help provide different sleeping rituals during (and preferably long before) the weaning process. In order to wean successfully, do not let the baby go back to the bottle once you decide to completely withdraw it. Mixed messages prolong the weaning process and confuse the child. Consistency is the key to success.
Lastly, Be Aware of Your emotions!
If you experience some sadness or sense of loss from the process of weaning your nursing baby, don’t worry. These emotions are normal. Nursing can be such a huge bonding moment for parents and babies that letting it go feels hard. Allow yourself to feel these emotions. Weaning a baby from the bottle can also mark the end of an adorable baby stage and bring about some sadness on the part of the parent. However, weaning from a bottle – similar to toilet training – also brings about a new level of parental stress. The parent might find it harder to calm an upset little one. Now the parent will have to try words, distractions, toys, foods or other things to help a child calm down, whereas the bottle used to do the trick. Of course, this is all part of normal development and brings with it – just like every other developmental milestone in your child’s life – a whole lot more to look forward to!