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Nursing Your Older Baby and Weaning

Deciding When to Wean
My best advice about deciding when to wean is not to decide in advance. Instead, keep your options open. After all, how can you know before giving birth what the breastfeeding relationship will mean to you or your baby or just how intertwined feeding, comforting, and mothering can become? Just take one day at a time. And don't insist, "I could never nurse past a year." I don't know many new mothers who specifically plan to still be nursing two years later. These things just happen as successful breastfeeding takes its natural course. So stop worrying about when to wean and savor your breastfeeding experience. It's such a short and precious time out of your life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least twelve months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.

Ambivalence About Weaning
I find that most women acknowledge some ambivalence about discontinuing breastfeeding. Ambivalence is a good word to describe weaning because it evokes simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion. Along with the increased freedom that can accompany weaning comes the termination of one of the most unique, intimate, reciprocal relationships found in nature. One minute a nursing mother may complain of being tied down and wonder when her body will be her own again. A short while later, she may be tempted to awaken her child and offer her breast, finding nothing so dear as the comfort of a nursling. This natural ambivalence contributes to the indecisiveness that often surrounds weaning. Not only is some ambivalence perfectly normal, but it might be a clue to a woman's innermost feelings. Strong ambivalence suggests that you should examine more carefully whether this really is the right time to wean.

On the other hand, I must caution that a few women have such difficulty relinquishing the intimate breastfeeding relationship that they unwittingly allow their own need to continue the nursing relationship supersede their babies' need to wean. While it is highly appropriate to awaken a newborn baby to nurse if too much time has elapsed between feedings, toddlers should signal their need to nurse rather than having the breast offered to them. A helpful guideline suggested by La Leche League is "don't offer; don't refuse." If you find yourself regularly offering your breast to keep your older child nursing, chances are that your own ambivalence is getting in the way of letting your baby move on developmentally. In that case, you would be wise to acknowledge your pain and ambivalence, and then honor your baby's developmental timetable.

Recently, I dreamed that I gave birth to another baby, and was basking in the magnificent glow of new motherhood, with a warm, naked infant nestled contentedly at my breast. I awoke to the realization that all my children are grown, and I will never again relish the experience of breastfeeding. If I still miss breastfeeding twenty years after weaning my last child, is it any wonder that women express mixed emotions as they face this transition?

Suggestions for Structured Weaning
Despite the merits of baby-led weaning, many parents seek some structure in facilitating the weaning process. They may request help for introducing bottle-feedings to a baby whose mother is returning to work. Or, they may wish to implement guided weaning for their three-year-old.

Children vary widely in how they tolerate the weaning process. Some seem to adjust smoothly to decreasing breastfeeding, while others protest vehemently. What works for one baby may not for another. Babies over seven months of age may be able to wean directly to cup feedings, while younger infants usually will substitute a bottle for missed breastfeedings.

The most important principles of weaning are to have great empathy for your baby, to keep her needs foremost, and to proceed gradually, positively, and with love. Focus on substituting other forms of intimacy for the close nursing relationship that your baby is being asked to relinquish.

Consider the timing of weaning. Try to structure weaning when your baby is losing interest in breastfeeding anyway. Some babies are easily distracted from nursing by nine months of age. If you haven't weaned by twelve to fifteen months, be aware that toddlers can become very attached to the breast as a security object, making weaning harder than it would have been earlier. Avoid weaning during times of family stress or turmoil in a baby's life, such as a divorce, move, hospitalization, or starting day care.

From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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