Deciding When to Wean(This article used to be called "The Benefits of Breastfeeding Continue as Your Baby Grows Older"
If you breastfed your newborn baby, you can be proud that you gave him the best start in life. Maybe you plan to wean your baby when you return to work, when he reaches a certain age, or maybe you'd like to let him choose when to wean. When deciding, realize that this normal, beautiful way of feeding and nurturing a child brings wonderful benefits for as long as you continue and beyond.
For instance, many mothers who work outside the home enjoy nursing their child (see Breastfeeding and Returning to Work). It can help you reconnect with each other after being away. The closeness and the "mothering" hormones released when you nurse encourage feelings of nurturing and love. As an added benefit, these same hormones help moms to relax.
Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no "right age" for weaning a child. Each child is unique. Many children have a need to suck well beyond a year, and most are not emotionally or physically ready to give up breastfeeding at this time. Some experts believe that children were designed to breastfeed for a minimum of two and a half years (see A Natural Age of Weaning by Katherine Dettwyler, PhD). Your child will not continue to nurse forever if you donít wean him by a certain age. When his nursing needs have been met, he will no longer need to nurse.
Just because a baby seems to lose interest in nursing, or refuses to nurse, does not necessarily mean he wants to wean. Older babies often become so fascinated with the world around them that they distract easily. [bednurse.jpg] Though admittedly not always convenient, you might find that your baby nurses better in a quiet, darkened room, or he might enjoy nursing while lying down with you during the day (and even at night). If your baby refuses to nurse, especially if it is sudden and occurs before your child is a year old, suspect a nursing strike (see Is Baby Weaning or is it a Nursing Strike? by Nancy Mohrbacher). Encourage lots of skin to skin contact, perhaps bathe with him, and carry him or wear him in a sling or other cloth carrier often. Offer to nurse while he is sleepy, and stop using all artificial nipples (you can use a cup for supplemental feedings). He will probably start again in a few days.
Your breastmilk constantly changes to adapt to the needs of your nursling. For instance, during the first part of a feeding your baby receives watery foremilk which satisfies his thirst. If he continues to nurse he will be rewarded with rich, fatty hindmilk (the "dessert") which will satisfy his hunger. Also, since your breasts make milk on a supply and demand basis, as your baby needs more milk, he can effectively increase your milk supply by temporarily nursing more frequently.
Breastfeeding helps protect your baby from getting sick and speeds his recovery if he does get sick. After exposure to a cold, your body creates antibodies to help fight that sickness. Your baby receives the antibodies through your breastmilk - even before you show any sign of being sick - so you actually help protect him from getting your cold by continuing to breastfeed. Also, when your baby is exposed to a sickness, after he nurses your breasts begin to create antibodies for that sickness. A child's immune system doesn't completely mature until about six years of age, so it can be reassuring to know that breastmilk provides active immunities against disease for as long as he breastfeeds.
Breastfeeding provides the most important source of nutrition for your child throughout his first year of life. Long after solid foods and even cow's milk have been introduced to his diet, the nutritional and immunological benefits of breastmilk continue to optimize his development. Breastmilk is a complete and well-balanced food, and it's benefits cannot be replaced by cow's milk or any other food. It has just the right amount of protein and fat for human children and helps their immature immune systems develop properly.
Often, a breastfeeding toddler nurses mainly for emotional nourishment. He may nurse as a way to touch base with his mother throughout the day and be reassured mom is still there, willing and able to meet his needs. Some toddlers nurse just at nap times and bedtime. A toddler who is sick or going through a stressful time in his life may want to nurse more often than usual. Nursing in public becomes less necessary because moms can offer them a snack or a drink. . . but it can be nice to have nursing available, as it has helped to calm many wearied and frazzled toddlers.
When mothers choose breastfeeding as a way to meet their childrenís need for security and love, some people fear this will create a dependent child. On the contrary, as you meet your childís needs, he will learn to trust you and will then grow into independence as he becomes ready. Independence cannot, and should not, be forced.
When weaning a child from the breast, consider your feelings and needs, and, also, those of your child. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that "breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired" (see Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk). Abrupt weaning can be hard on the mother and her baby - both psychologically and physically. Gradual weaning will be more comfortable and satisfying. Many mothers find that deciding to let their child nurse until he no longer needs it is a rewarding choice. Since breastfeeding brings wonderful benefits no matter what the age of the child, if it gives both of you happiness and satisfaction, donít give it up.
This article was first published in The Mommy Times on-line newsletter in 1997; it was most recently revised in August 1999 for publication on my page at Suite101.com. Copyright 1997-2000 by Jeri Carr
Copyright 1996-2000 by mykidzmom