A Different Kind of Baby-Led Weaning

When people talk about baby-led weaning, they are usually referring to the method of introducing solid food that involves introducing finger foods and allowing the baby to decide what and how much to eat, rather than the parents spoon feeding baby food. Over time, feedings at the breast are gradually replaced with self-feeding of the same types of solid foods eaten by the rest of the family.

But breastfeeding is about more than just food. So in families that have chosen child-led weaning, meaning that the child (not the mother) decides when to stop nursing, the gradual process of weaning involves not only introducing other forms of food, but also other forms of comfort.

In our family, our babies were always nursed to sleep. That meant that I, as the nursing mom, lay down with them at bedtime and nursed them until the gulps turned to flutters and they drifted off to sleep. I could then sneak out and go about the rest of my evening. If I wasn’t there, Daddy would do, but their preference was always to nurse to sleep. We never pushed or forced independent sleep, knowing that like eating, walking, talking, reading and so many other things, they would one day be able to do it on their own. It might require some guidance and some reassurance, but certainly not force.

As it happens, both of our children were ready to give up nursing to sleep before they were ready to give up having a parent present at bedtime. Nursing is a powerful sleep tool and our kids needed something to replace it. Something that would help them go off smiling and secure into the Land of Nod. They didn’t stop nursing at bedtime all at once. It happened gradually. With both of them, they went from nursing to sleep to nursing at bedtime but not falling asleep while nursing.

So then what do you do with a still awake child that has finished nursing?

In our case, in child-led fashion, each of our kids decided for themselves what comfort they needed that would help them doze off. With Julian, it was an involved process. He wanted his back rubbed while being sang to. The Thomas the Tank Engine theme song, the Elmo Song, the Wheels on the Bus, over and over and over again. He wasn’t always quick to fall asleep and I would find myself drifting away mid-song as I tried to get him to sleep. With Emma, who is now just shy of three years old and only nurses at bedtime about every third night or so, the request is clear and simple: “Mommy, cuddle my bum.”

So I cuddle. Because she wants me to, because it comforts her, and because one day she won’t want me to anymore.

Photo credit: ibu menyusui on flickr

Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog. She wrote this post after cuddling her little girl to sleep.

8 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Baby-Led Weaning”

  1. That picture is so beautiful!!!
    That being said, my dd doesn’t nurse to sleep any more (except on rare occasions). She nurses, then goes to lie on the floor (we do put a plaid under her) end falls asleep on the floor. Sometimes she even sings to herself. After she dozes off, we carry her to our bed, where she sleeps until we join her.
    We never had to push or anything. We are just waiting for her to decide.

  2. I wanted to offer encouragement to anyone who has that moment of doubt that child led weaning is overly ‘permissive’ or ‘indulgent’ or whatever else your concern may be…my children are 13, 8, 7 years old, and 8 months. All of my babies have been exclusively breastfed and co slept in one fashion or another…and all of them have been able to develop the skills to have healthy sleep habits in their own time – the only time any of the older ones night wake is when something’s not right – illness or a nightmare. They were able to comfortably sleep in their own rooms by 4 without needing to come into our bed any more. I think it may have been a bit earlier if it weren’t for some extenuating circumstances(father travelled a great deal, later divorce), but having that safe space of comfort allowed for easy reassurance. They have healthy attitudes re: food. They are able to ask for what they need without hesitation(hugs, cuddles, one on one time to talk, etc.). It is truly a gift these days(I’d love to see it as the norm!) to honor the natural developmental process of our children’s evolvement as the individual. While I know child led weaning wasn’t the sole reason they have the sound foundation I believe they do, it gave me a starting point as a parent to build that with them. Follow their lead, honor you both, and you will likely be caring for them in a loving and helpful way!

  3. I think I have to start looking for that “comfort” Audrey needs to fall asleep other than the breast. I’m guilty of leaving my breast in her mouth because I know as soon as I take it out, she will cry.

  4. My three year old still nurses at bedtime, but rarely to sleep anymore (once a month, if that) and my 14 month old still nurses to sleep. But I go to bed with them, usually. I prefer that time to myself when I first wake up, so my crankiness doesn’t negatively impact them 😉 (and so they don’t make me more cranky)

  5. I love our time together going down to sleep at night. My daughter nurses to sleep usually, but those rare nights where she doesn’t fall quite asleep, I whisper to her – “it’s asleepy time, I love you.” and set her in her crib.
    I can’t imagine not doing this. Wow. So hard to believe the day will come. Sniff.

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