The natural age of weaning is a debated topic. Historically, children were not weaned before 12-18 months old and not until at least 3 years old in some cultures. (5) Anthropologists have looked at weaning through a lens of the child having gained four times their birth weight, tooth eruption, and the child’s age being at least six times the length of gestation. Breastfeeding plays a significant role in the baby’s immune system development. Around 3.5-4 years old, the immune system is thought to be fully developed. Natural weaning time can be broad, happening anytime between 2.5 and 7 years old. (6)
Weaning looks different for each parent-child dyad. Some people allow their older baby to nurse as often as they choose. Other parents decide to have some rules or boundaries around nursing. Breastfeeding is a relationship, and you and your baby’s needs are both important. Communication is valuable between you and your toddler or older child.
As your child gets older, they may begin to skip nursing sessions during the day or even go a day or more without nursing. Nighttime is the last nursing to fade, especially if you co-sleep. Many families say they aren’t even sure when exactly it happened if they follow the child’s lead completely. Weaning is gradual and doesn’t follow a clock or calendar.
Weaning happens. Children grow, become independent, and move on to new stages of life. Each stage of nursing can pose challenges and amazing rewards and benefits for the parent, the baby, and the family as a whole. Talking with other parents who are like-minded or who are also nursing an older child can really help you to feel supported and share the stories of adventures in nursing an older baby. (7)
Embarking on the weaning journey is a significant milestone for you and your baby. Parent-led weaning allows you to take the lead in introducing and feeding your baby solid foods while still ensuring they receive the necessary nutrition from breast milk. As you gradually transition from breastfeeding, it's important to go at a pace that feels comfortable and listen to your body and your baby's cues and needs. With practical tips and a patient approach, weaning can be an exciting adventure, honoring the precious nursing journey you shared while moving forward to new stages of growth and development.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for the first six months of a baby’s life, recognizing the benefits for both the parent and the baby. They recommend the initiation of breastfeeding to begin within the first hour after birth. Nutritious solid foods should be introduced at six months, complementary to breastfeeding, with continued breastfeeding up to two years old or longer if mutually desired. (1)
Weaning begins when your baby takes anything that is not their mother’s milk. When a baby is taking donor milk or formula instead of breast milk, weaning is considered to begin with the introduction of complementary foods.
Only you can answer this question, and it will look different for everyone. There are different styles or methods of weaning, but ultimately, deciding how and when to wean is up to you.
During the first six months of life, babies take an average of 700 - 900 ml of breast milk every 24 hours. When your baby shows signs of readiness, and you begin to consider introducing solids, your choice of weaning method will influence how you approach feeding your baby. It is important to remember that no matter your style of weaning, whether it is led more by you or more by your baby, during the first year of life, breast milk remains your baby’s primary source of nutrition. All other foods or beverages are not the nutritional powerhouse that breast milk is and should be fed after breast milk, complimentary to it, not in place of it.
Parent-led weaning involves the parent taking the lead in introducing and feeding solid foods to their baby. During the second half of your baby's first year of life, parent-led weaning begins with the parent choosing when to feed their baby solid foods, feed the baby’s food by spoon, or have them use their fingers. Parents also have greater control over how much the baby eats at one time and how many times per day.
Parent-led weaning often begins with introducing pureed foods to your baby and feeding them with a spoon. We know that a baby's jaw and oral cavity continue to grow and develop best when provided foods they gnaw and chew, working their jaw muscles to encourage teeth to erupt properly aligned. A diet of only soft foods and purees is associated with more narrow dental arches as well as more cavities and gum disease later in life. (2)
With parent-led weaning, you can keep track of the foods your baby eats and make sure to include a wide variety of colorful, nutrient-rich foods. Introduce them to lots of textures to expand their taste buds and grow their jaws.
What about baby-led weaning
The family dinner table is a great place to practice baby-led weaning. Some parents choose to take the foods the family is eating, gently blend them all together, and feed them to the baby with a spoon, letting them feed some to themselves.
You can skip the purees altogether and serve foods that can be mashed with a fork, or your baby can pick up and use their teeth and gums to chew, gnaw, and shred the food. These food choices are more likely to be whole foods and not processed, which is important for growing strong teeth free of decay. (3) Soft foods do not require the jaw muscles to work very hard and contribute to the development of a more narrow jawline.
When your baby is involved in family mealtimes, they will enjoy playing and exploring the feel of the food, the smell, and the taste. It may get messy, and that is alright. Your baby is learning and growing.
Child-led weaning after one year
Continuing to nurse provides your older child with nutritional and emotional benefits. As your baby explores their world even more, learning to walk and run, they also develop a sense of individualism. Your toddler may crawl in your lap and want to nurse, reassure themselves that all is well, and then hop down to explore. Allowing your child to be dependent on you in this way has been shown to support your child's independence when they get older. (4) Continued breastfeeding is one way to bond with your growing baby and form strong attachments that will later contribute to other healthy attachments and resiliency. Nursing your toddler is the quickest way to soothe them when they fall down and get bumps and bruises while playing.
Suppose you have decided to no longer give your breast milk before they turn one year old. In that case, you will need to give them donor milk or formula to meet their nutrient and energy needs, as well as continue to introduce more solid foods and increase the number of meals they have during the day.
After your baby turns one year old and you are ready to end your nursing journey, you want to make sure that your baby is taking a variety of foods that will meet their nutritional and energy needs. Between 11-16 months of age, babies are likely still taking 400 - 550 ml of breastmilk in 24 hours, which s between 30%-50% of their total energy intake. (3) As you wean your baby from nursing, these caloric and nutritional requirements must be met with foods and beverages, including water. Babies often love smoothies, and you can pack a lot of nutrition into their smoothies. Don’t forget to make extra for yourself! Because cow’s milk is a common allergen, you can opt for nut or seed milk as an alternative if it is needed. Avoid sugary drinks. Even 100% fruit juice has a lot of sugar in it.
- Take it slow; don’t go too fast - your body will thank you for taking time to wean slowly. Going too fast can result in plugged ducts or mastitis.
- Communicate with your baby - you can reduce the time spent at each nursing session by talking with them, saying, “Almost done” after they have nursed for a little while, and then unlatching them. Of course, they may want to latch again immediately, but over time, they will stop re-latching and can be soothed by rubbing their back or cuddling. This is helpful, especially for nighttime or nap time.
- Distraction is a helpful tool, particularly during the day. You may find you can not sit in the same place you typically nurse, or your baby will crawl or walk over and ask to nurse. Change up your routine and have plenty of toys or interesting objects available to distract your little one, or begin singing a song to engage your baby in a new way. If they cannot be distracted and insist on nursing, listen to their needs and try distraction again next time.
- Eliminate one nursing session at a time - the first nursing sessions to go are often the ones during the day, and the last to drop off are before naps and bedtime. The nursing times when your baby is sleepy are the hardest to eliminate since they are times when your baby often needs extra comfort to relax and fall asleep peacefully.
- Be flexible - just like us, your baby has days that they will be fine with you distracting them or not nursing for a session and other days that they just need that extra cuddle. Each day will look a little different, but you can see your weaning progress when you look at several days at a time or week by week rather than focus on each time you nurse.
- Offer snacks and beverages - small meals and snacks can help make sure your baby is getting the energy and nutrition they need to keep them healthy and satisfied.
- Get fresh air - go for a walk or play outside with your baby - this can help change the environment and distract them from your typical routine and places you typically nurse. It can be a nice change of pace or activity before a nap to get some fresh air.
- Baby massage - learn how to do baby massage before bedtime. This is relaxing and sleep-inducing for your baby. It’s a nice way to connect and bond with your baby in place of nursing to sleep.
- Involve other family members - partners can give support by helping change routines, provide distraction, or take over putting your baby to bed.
Weaning can be a great adventure as you honor the time you spent nursing your baby and move onward to the next stages. Take it slow, so you and your baby both have time to adjust and be comfortable during the weaning process. Being patient and flexible with the process yields more positive outcomes for you both as you navigate weaning together.