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 (29 Posts)

Sonya Fehér is mama to Cavanaugh True. She is the leader of the S. Austin chapter of API and is a professional organizer with spaceWise Organizing where she helps individuals and families create space for how they want to live.


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