Three Year Old Weans Himself

by Sonya Feher on January 15, 2010

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Nursing at 11 months

No, child-led weaning is not propaganda spread by La Leche League. It truly exists. I’d begun to wonder, honestly, even though I’d heard stories of friends, and friends of friends, whose children had weaned themselves. But now I’ve experienced natural weaning firsthand and I’m here to tell you it actually happens because my son just weaned himself!

In fact, he stopped nursing on New Year’s Day, but I’ve been waiting to make sure it was real, that I didn’t jinx it by declaring that it was so. Call me superstitious, but I didn’t want the milk gods to revive Cavanaugh’s interest or engorge my breasts.

This weaning has been gradual and I wondered if it would ever happen. What I kept reading and hearing is that children wean themselves when they’ve fulfilled the need to nurse. They won’t need a pacifier or to suck their thumb. They will be able to get food and comfort and whatever else that sucking reflex provided them from something else. Sure, I kept thinking, but when?

One of my friends asked if Cavanaugh would still be nursing when he was twelve. “Yes,” I answered, “he’ll be nursing until he leaves for college.” What other response was there?

Extended breastfeeding freaks people out. The idea of a walking talking kid, old enough to go to preschool, still lying on his mama’s lap and getting some milk is not something most people even think about.

I hadn’t. When Cavanaugh was born, I planned to nurse for at least twelve months, which is the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Editor’s Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing exclusively for the first six months and then continue breastfeeding “for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child”.) Then I thought I’d go at least two years, as the World Health Organization recommended. But the more I read about how most cultures in the world breastfeed, the less I had any idea how long I’d nurse Cavanaugh. The truth was I planned on doing it until he was done. I just didn’t know when that would be.

We nightweaned when he was two. I knew he could sleep blocks of at least four – five hours because he’d been doing it. When he suddenly started waking up every 45 minutes or even every hour and a half, I thought I would die of sleep deprivation. He needed to learn some other sleep associations besides nursing. Nightweaning was hard but within weeks, Cavanaugh was sleeping through the night.

Quickly, the daytime nursings diminished as well. First, I stopped nursing in public, as most people practicing extended breastfeeding in this country do. That’s why no one realizes it’s happening. They just don’t see it.

Then I limited nursing to just before and after nap and bedtime. So before he went to sleep and when he woke up, he nursed. We’d rapidly gone from 15+ down to four times a day.

Soon he stopped asking to nurse when he woke up from nap. Then he stopped taking naps, so the nursing before that disappeared. By age 2 1/2, Cavanaugh stopped asking for milk in the mornings. He was ready to get up and play.

So for months, he’s only been nursing right before bed. I kept feeling like if I could ever stop nursing, I would lose some of the mama goddess weight I was carrying. You know the pendulous breasts and round belly statues of old?

A friend suggested I put cabbage leaves in my bra to dry up the milk, but I really wanted the timeline to be Cavanaugh’s. Though I’d stopped on-demand nursing and limited the locations or times when he could breastfeed, I hoped that Cavanaugh and I could end our nursing relationship when he didn’t need milk or the comfort of the breast any longer.

The night nursings had gone from ten minutes to five to three or less. But for over a month, he’s only nursed for one to two minutes. How long can this go on? I wondered. Then, on Christmas, Cavanaugh lay with his back to me, as if we were going to spoon. He said, “I want some milk.”

“But you can’t get milk that way.”

“How can I get milk?”

Was it honestly possible that he had forgotten how to nurse? He’d just done it the night before. I said, “You have to face me to reach the milk.”

“Can you help me?”

I turned him over and pulled out my breast. He barely latched on, didn’t suck, popped off, then turned his head to drink from the other breast. Maybe I just didn’t have any milk left in that one. But he did the same with the other breast. Could this be my Christmas present from Cavanaugh?

The next night he asked to nurse, needed help to lie in a nursing position again but actually latched on and nursed for at least a minute. I figured the timing of this ending was too good to be true.

But the night after that, he didn’t even ask for milk. And the night after that, he said, “Milk and sleep” when I asked what was going to happen when we were done with stories, but he was just reciting what our routine has been for months. When I offered water instead, he happily gulped some and went to sleep.

For the past couple of weeks, I’d been reminding him how he could put himself to sleep: “You lie on your pillow, hug your animals, close your eyes, and breathe slowly.” I’d also explained that he wasn’t asking for milk so much because he didn’t need it anymore. He could drink water when he was thirsty.

He hasn’t nursed since New Year’s and he doesn’t want to. Tonight before bed, he and I had our Nursing is Over talk (which I’ll write tomorrow, as this post is getting rather long) so I’m sure he’s done.

How does this relate to self-care? I just accomplished something that was hard, that took a long time, and a lot of patience. I helped my son accomplish something too. Though I started out with a goal of six months, our nursing relationship lasted just over three years.  I feel proud and relieved and like I took care of both of us.

How long do you hope to nurse? Have your ideas about your goals changed since having your child?

Sonya Fehér blogs at mamaTRUE: parenting as practice. She is writing a post every day this year about self care for mothers.

Source: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human MIlk – Recommendations on Breastfeeding for Healthy Term Infants – American Academy of Pediatrics

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Sonya Feher (27 Posts)

Sonya Fehér is mama to Cavanaugh True who is almost five. She blogs about single parenting, self-care, and mindfulness at mamaTRUE: parenting as practice. She is the leader of the S. Austin chapter of API and is a professional organizer helping families to create kid and parent-friendly homes.


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Brooke January 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

This is pretty much exactly how I imagine weaning will happen for my baby and me. We’ve been battling chronic ear infections, but once we’ve got tubes, I’m somewhat tempted to start thinking about night weaning. I won’t do this until she’s over a year old and on a pretty stable diet of solids, because she won’t drink much breastmilk during the day at daycare, so she makes up for it at night. But it sure would be nice to sleep longer than two hours at a time! I’m not sure what sort of support/feedback I’ll get from my family if she nurses past two years, which is somewhat the norm for my family, but I’m happy to do whatever she needs for me to do.

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:38 am

Nightweaning was a huge question for me. I didn’t want to traumatize my son, rush him to independence, or disrupt our nursing relationship. I just realized that feeding with love and respect didn’t include having my hand in a fist because I was so tired and touched out. I actually wrote a post about weaning in the context of AP principles (http://sonyasf.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/weaning-in-context-of-ap-principles/) when I was trying to figure out whether or not I would nightwean.

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Amber January 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

I nursed my first child until a couple of months shy of her 3rd birthday, which was a timeline that worked well for us. My 2nd child is only 17 months, so it’s far too early for me to speculate how his weaning will go, I think.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to say that Cavanaugh is a very lucky little person to be able to set the pace of his own weaning. It would be truly wonderful if more children were afforded that opportunity, I think.

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:28 am

Amber, I really had no idea what our timeline might be either. If I were having more than one child, I believe when each weaned would vary depending on their personalities and individual needs. It’s great that your children are being given the room to figure out what they need too. Congatulations on your extended nursing relationships with both.

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Laura January 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

I am still nursing my 2.5 year old daughter and due in 2 weeks with surprise baby number 2. I am so excited to be a tandem nursing mother. I know that as a whole tandem nursing is even more unheard of than extended nursing. I can understand why, however I am excited and thrilled to give my kids the very BEST start in life. A friend asked me the other day when I was going to stop nursing Olivia, my 2 year old. I told her, “I don’t know, ask Olivia”

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:29 am

Have you read Adventures in Tandem Nursing? I love it! Good luck with your new little one and your toddler too!

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Lesley January 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Thank you for this post. My son is now 31 months and not showing any sign of wanting to wean. While I very much want him to self-wean, I am having a hard time dealing with the criticism that he is too old to be nursing, etc., by many that are close to me, including my husband. I have finally made up my mind to night wean, but I know that my son is not ready to be completely weaned, and frankly, I am not ready either.

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:49 am

Lesley, I feel very lucky that my husband didn’t question the length of our nursing relationship, but I definitely got plenty of questions from others: my mom, my best friend, random strangers. i started crying anytime I imagined Cavanaugh weaning fully. I knew neither of us were ready and it was one area in my life that I wasn’t going to submit to any kind of social pressure. It was way too important a decision to end up regretting for the rest of my life, which I was sure would be the case for me. Good luck nightweaning and continuing your nursing relationship as long as is right for you and your son.

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Carol January 15, 2010 at 6:58 pm

My girl is almost 2 years old and I feel proud to have made it this far, just like the article, like I have done something good for both of us. Some days I can’t imagine her not nursing anymore, but other days I can’t wait for that time to come! I guess it is a good thing it is gradual, so they prepare us and ease us into the transition as well!

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 1:03 am

Carol, I totally agree with you. My outlook on different days varied wildly. And I am so grateful it was gradual. I have a friend whose daughter spontaneously weaned at 18 months. My friend was not at all ready. Even though I occasionally want to speed up any of our processes (weaning, potty-training, saying “No”) I’m so grateful that if I let go of a timeline, it can just happen naturally. My son gives me great faith that things will unfold as they should, in their time, not mine.

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Brandy January 15, 2010 at 7:29 pm

What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. Our oldest child I only breastfed for a week and pumped for 2 or 3 more after that. I sure wish I had more support for breastfeeding back then. With our youngest, I was determined to make it work, no matter what … especially since I was so disappointed about the lack of breastfeeding with our oldest. I’ve been VERY blessed to have NO problems breastfeeding our youngest. We nursed exclusively for 7 months and now, at almost 16 months, she’s still nursing quite often. And I don’t mind one bit. Well …. except for those nights where she wakes me up a TON and I’m just plain exhausted. We’re not sure how this child-led weaning is going to work out for us …. but we accept whatever will come. Regardless of the criticism we get from family members. I’m happy with nursing our youngest for however long she goes … my husband is happy and supportive of it … and, obviously, she’s not done yet LOL

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:54 am

What an incredible spectrum of breastfeeding experiences you’ve had. I wasn’t sure about how child-led weaning would work either. But I find that with almost every area of parenting (and life) what I expect and what actually happens are very different. Here’s to you, your husband, and your youngest continuing to enjoy what’s right for you no matter what anyone else has to say about it!

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Joanna Pelc January 15, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I am still breastfeeding my three year old. He really loves it, and even though I have limited him to four feeds a day he often wants more! I can’t see him self-weaning any time soon. It would be nice though, as I am tandem feeding with my 11 month old baby – so I am in much demand

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:58 am

You are definitely in demand. Have you read Adventures in Tandem Nursing? It has great advice about all aspects of nursing two.

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Joanna Pelc July 23, 2010 at 4:15 am

Yes, my friend, who also tandem fed her kids lent it to me when I was pregnant with my second baby. After reading it I decided to give tandem feeding a go (not that I had much choice!). I do often come across information that suggests tandem feeding is not natural. Even that book starts out saying that it didn’t really occur in the past.

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Dionna January 15, 2010 at 11:00 pm

You are awesome, mama. Thank you for nursing your child until he was ready to wean, and for being proud and confident enough to share it with the world.
I would only suggest that all of the API bloggers start using “full-term breastfeeding” rather than “extended breastfeeding.” Extended makes it sound like it’s lasting longer than it should, ya know?

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:55 am

I love “full-term breastfeeding.” You’re totally right about the connotation of “extended.” I’m happy to take your suggestion.

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Stephanie January 16, 2010 at 12:55 am

I liked reading this very much. I have a 16 month old who is nursing like crazy at night and I would really like her to sleep more than 45 min. at a time. I’ll have to try some other sleep associations, it seems. I plan on doing CLW, but I will be honest that I had my doubts. I looove hearing a success story!

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 12:59 am

Reading Breastfeeding Cafe really encouraged me. It’s so AP and gave me lots of ideas, and hope. Good luck with the new sleep associations. It’s never too late to introduce them. Really.

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Tat January 16, 2010 at 5:36 am

What a good post! It is amazing how your breastfeeding plans change. My plans change too as my baby grows, before birth of my daughter I planned to breastfeed for 2 weeks as I didn’t like the idea (silly, I know). However once I started I never looked back, I must admit it came very easy to me and my daughter was almost exclusively nursed for 8 months (we did “baby lead weaning” approach for solids introduction and she wasn’t eating much solids before 9 months). The biggest challenges I’m experiencing now, actually, when my 12 months old is pulling my shirt down in public and uses me as a “dummy” before falling asleep. So don’t know low long will my patience last… Even a months ago I was so sure I’ll nurse till she self-weans, however now I’m not so sure …
My family is quite supportive of “extended” nursing as I come originally from Russia, where many moms nurse till 2,3, 3 1/2 , it is quite normal there as well as co-sleeping. My dad was nursing till he was over 3 (!) and still remembers how his mom nursed him after coming from work in the evenings.

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Sonya January 17, 2010 at 1:08 am

Tat, I can’t remember which book I read it in (maybe How Weaning Happens), but I really appreciated learning about the concept of nursing manners. It’s okay to teach your child not to tweak your other nipple, put her finger in your belly-button (one of my son’s favorites), or pull up your shirt whenever she feels like it. In much the same way that we teach our children to hold hands crossing the street or not to hit other kids, we can guide them to nursing behaviors that don’t drive us crazy. In the long run, it makes having a longer and more pleasant nursing relationship possible for both mama and child. Good luck!

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Sarah January 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm

My daughter weaned herself right around 11 months. I had always planned to nurse as long as she wanted to, which I guess I did, but I had always imagined it would be when she was two to three years old. I feel a little regret that it didn’t go longer, wonder if there was something I could have done to keep nursing. When I started working part time and needed to pump I noticed a definite decrease in my supply. Either the pump just wasn’t as effective as her nursing, or I couldn’t get into that mental space for the pump to do its job. It was a slow decrease in nursing from 9 months onwards, but it seemed like she stopped wanting to take out the time from playing to nurse.

Oh well, such is life. I plan to nurse any future kids to time that they determine, whether that be 11 months again, or 2 to 3 years.

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Sharon January 19, 2010 at 4:51 pm

This is very much how I wish nursing had gone for me. Between working full time and trying to pump as well as get some sleep my milk just didn’t last. My daughter quickly got used to the bottle and although he knew the ‘good fresh stuff’ came from mommy she had no issue with taking a bottle, mixed with formula or otherwise, from her day care provider or her dad. Slowly she started taking one from me (for my sanity I ended night nursing around 7 months and would offer warmed bottles of milk). Before I knew it she only wanted the bottle and I dried up. It was so bittersweet that I can’t describe it. But had everything gone better I would have nursed until she stopped and at least a year.

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Stacy (Mama-Om) January 20, 2010 at 10:19 pm

I’m breastfeeding my three-year-old… he nurses mainly when going down for a nap and at bedtime (but not during the night anymore). I didn’t do anything to nightwean him; he just started sleeping through on his own.

He doesn’t ask to nurse during the day very often… but sometimes I agree and sometimes I tell him we’ll do that bedtime. He’s my second child, and I honestly can’t remember doing any type of plan with him. The only limit I made was telling him, “We’ll nurse at naptime or bedtime,” but I don’t think I started doing that until recently.

My kids are 3 yrs and 3 mos apart, and I nursed my older son (who is now 6 1/2) until he was just over five years old. I think he stopped waking up to nurse in the middle of night when I was pregnant (he was almost three). He tandem-nursed with the baby, but after a few months, I told him we would nurse at bedtime. It worked for him, though he still nursed now and then during the day, etc. I would say that for the last year of nursing (between four and five) he didn’t really nurse that often, but it was available when he wanted it. I don’t remember when we stopped or when the last time was. It naturally faded away, and he could always “hold” a boobie if he really wanted to. :)

When my first was born, I thought I would nurse for at least two years… and then as time went on, I thought, “Okay, well, age seven would be my limit.” LOL! As it was, it felt pretty good for us at five. I’ll see how it goes with my second.

Thanks for sharing your story, and asking us to share ours!

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rachel January 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm

It sounds like you weaned your son very gently..by first night weaning, and then not nursing in public. It sounds like you are a very caring mom. I just have to say, though, that the title is a bit misleading. I expected to read about a child who completely weaned himself without mother intervention. I think its great you nursed your son until 3. I am still nursing my son at 4 and have been at the point for a few months where I am ready for our nursing relationship to end this year. I just think its important for us not to suggest that night weaning and refusing to nurse in public are part of “child led weaning”. :)

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emily January 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I loved reading this post. My older daughter weaned herself at 15 months. I was a little sad, but she was done and that was that. My little daughter, however, is still nursing at over 3 years old. When she was two, I started limiting “mimi” to a few times a day. The more I tried to limit it though, the more she demanded. 2 months after her 2nd birthday she was diagnosed with a rare kind of Leukemia and was hospitalized for 6 weeks. I realized she must have been demanding to nurse so often because she was getting sick and we didn’t know it. I stayed with her in the hospital, co-sleeping and nursing many times a day. During the worst of the chemo she couldn’t keep any solid food down, but she could keep in breastmilk. I was so grateful that we were still nursing. It was a huge comfort to both of us. Even her doctors who at first seemed uncomfortable with her extended breastfeeding later acknowledged that the breast milk has probably helped her immune system resist infections and has kept her strong. She is now 3 and 2 months and is in remission and doing well and I will keep nursing her until she no longer needs it. I trust her little body will know when she is done.

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Sarah January 29, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Thank you for sharing Emily… How beautiful.

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Annie @ PhD in Parenting January 29, 2010 at 8:04 am

My son self- weaned when he was 2.5 years old and I was 7.5 months pregnant. In a way, I was relieved, but there were also days when I wished I had nursing as a tool to deal with his toddler meltdowns that were exacerbated by the arrival of his sister.

My daughter will soon be 3 years. She is still nursing, generally only at bedtime, sometimes during the night, and in the morning after waking up. I’m not sure when she will wean and we’re just taking it day by day.

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Penny in TX April 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Your experience seems to have been a gradual weaning that respected your child’s needs while meeting your own needs. My only concern is that you label this weaning experience as child-led, when it seems clearly mother-led. For example, you describe night-weaning him when he was two, and later, you limited him further to before and after nap time and bedtime. That he followed your lead indicates that he was ready to accommodate the changes that you introduced, and it is clear that you both finished your nursing relationship on a positive and fulfilled note. Nonetheless, if it is possible to edit your post, you might wish to consider altering the title to better reflect the experience you describe.

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