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 Natural Weaning
 by Gaye E. Johnson


Weaning is the process of replacing nursing at the breast with other means of nourishment. It begins the moment a baby is given anything other than breast milk (formula, cereal, vegetables . . .) and ends with the last nursing session. Weaning can either be very gradual or done instantaneously. In the case of natural weaning, it usually takes place over a number of years.

Anthropologist Dr. Katherine Dettwyler has done some very interesting research into the age at which to expect natural weaning from the breast. She concluded that an age somewhere between 2 1/2 and 7 years would be expected, according to various measures such as gestation period, and age at which first permanent teeth erupt. In societies where children are generally nursed on cue and for an extended period of time, they generally wean from the breast around the age of three or four. In Western societies, such as the U.S. and Australia, however, this kind of pattern is quite unusual and many people have never heard of, let alone experienced, an example of a natural weaning process: very few children get the chance to wean of their own accord because the generally "accepted" age at which weaning takes place is far earlier than it would if left to occur naturally. Some people are quite surprised that a child will essentially wean him- or herself from the breast if given the chance. In my own experience, it was suggested to me that if I didn't take steps to bring about the weaning of my child, he would NEVER wean at all! Of course, this is preposterous when you think about it, because no child will be still nursing on his wedding day!

Natural (or child-led) weaning, as said before, usually is a gradual process. Given that breastfed babies generally have their first taste of solid food somewhere in the middle of their first year, and if left to nurse for as long as they desire will do so until they are preschoolers, it is likely that the weaning will take several years. It should be noted that whilst it is generally a gradual process, it is not linear in nature: that is, at times, nursing frequency might decrease more rapidly than at others; at times it might even increase, such as during illness, upset, or during a major developmental stage. Occasionally a child will self-wean quite abruptly. One example of this could be if the mother is pregnant and the child either doesn't like the decrease in supply or the change in taste (or both). Some children will wean abruptly if they develop a preference for bottles, or if there is some separation from the mother for a few days (such as if she is ill or away on a trip). Usually, however, a sudden "weaning" is really a nursing strike and with persistence, mothers will find their nursling is back at the breast quite soon.

I thought it might be interesting to share the experience of my own child's natural weaning process. Bear in mind that all children are different, and in no way am I suggesting that every natural weaning should follow the same pattern, nor even that natural weaning is something that all families would be happy with. Sometimes a mother might feel ready before the child does, and if weaning takes place gently and with love, there is no reason to suggest it is traumatic or bad in any way.

I have found the whole process of Thomas's weaning to be rather fascinating. Firstly let me say that in the beginning, I never expected to nurse him past twelve months, let alone until he was almost five years old! I assumed that breastfeeding was purely for the nutritional value, and that once a child was able to drink cow's milk from a cup, there was no benefit in continuing. We experienced many challenges in our early breastfeeding relationship, including coping with reflux and colic in Thomas, and mastitis, thrush, oversupply and depression in myself. As we forged our way through that difficult phase I read, saw an excellent lactation consultant, a very breastfeeding-friendly paediatrician, and then I read some more. I discovered that not only were we now both enjoying the breastfeeding immensely, but it was in fact VERY beneficial to both of us to continue for as long as possible.

The Weaning of Thomas

In the early months, Thomas was nursing practically constantly. I am not exaggerating here: I actually worked out one day that he was usually latched on at least 20 hours out of every 24! The only way he would sleep was with a breast in his mouth, and practically the only way I could keep him at least partially happy during his awake times was to nurse him. He was a VERY unsettled little guy. I didn't even notice growth spurts in him (except that he looked bigger) because he was feeding so often that it wasn't really possible to feed any more!

Especially with Thomas's digestive problems, it was suggested to me that delaying the introduction of cow's milk would be in his best interests, as was being particularly careful with the introduction of solids. It was suggested though that we start him with some rice cereal at around four months, in the evening, in an attempt to help him keep his evening feeds down a bit better. This, I guess, is where his weaning began, because before then he was exclusively breastfed.

We went very slowly with introducing solids and with the amounts offered. Once Thomas was about 14 months old, we had worked our way up to offering him a wide variety of healthy foods, including vegetables, fruit, meat, grains, and some dairy (eg. yoghurt). He was still nursing MANY times day and night at this stage and only ate very small amounts of the foods offered. It would have been rare for him to go more than two hours (day or night) between nursings at this stage but was out of the habit of needing to nurse the whole time he was asleep (thankfully!).

Until the age of about two, Thomas didn't have large quantities of solids or drinks other than breast milk. He was almost exclusively breastfed in fact. From then on, he started showing more of an interest in foods and started to decrease his nursing, ever so slightly. I continued to nurse him "on demand", with the tiny exception that as he got older I didn't always "jump" quite as quickly as I did when he was a newborn. If I was almost finished my dinner and he asked to nurse, but didn't seem to urgently need it, I would finish my meal first, for example (whereas when he was a baby, I would drop everything and nurse him immediately.) I was still offering the breast, and continued to do so right until the end. I never felt the need to adopt the "don't offer, don't refuse" suggestion.

At around 2 1/2, Thomas started wanting just one nursing session during the night. He was still nursing probably 10-12 times during the day, but it varied. At 2 3/4, he started regularly lasting all night (about 10 hours) without wanting to nurse, and had also decreased his daytime nursing slightly. Around three, there was quite a major decrease in nursing. I am not quite sure why, but at that stage he was only nursing first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and maybe two or three more times during the day.

I became pregnant when Thomas was 3 1/2, and his nursing decreased further. Usually he would only nurse when he woke up and before sleep. He stopped actually nursing all the way to sleep though, and would pull off when drowsy, roll over and drop off to sleep himself. Sadly, I miscarried at 16 weeks. I suspect that if this pregnancy had ended happily, Thomas would have continued throughout it and beyond and I would have experienced the joy of tandem nursing.

I fell pregnant again when Thomas was 4 1/4 years old. At this stage I was unsure whether he was weaned or not! We would have two weeks or so when he would not wish to nurse at all, even when it was offered, so I would think "this is it" and then he would surprise me by wanting to nurse three or four nights in a row (but only briefly). This pattern continued until I was about 7 months pregnant, when a fortnight without nursing became three weeks, then four . . . I am not sure when his last nursing session was - it was so gradual. He told me he didn't like the taste of my milk anymore (It was "yucky"!), but that he was looking forward to "having the bees" again as soon as Baby Katelyn was born. He would have been welcome to do so, but has expressed no interest in this at all in the three months since her birth. In fact, I have offered a few times and recently was told, "Mummy, there is no way I am sucking on your bees!" I am now sure he has completed the weaning process!

After having shared such a special nursing relationship for almost five years, it was bittersweet to have it end. It was amazing to witness how Thomas gradually weaned himself as he felt ready, to see the benefits to his health and happiness that our nursing brought him - and yet, I miss that closeness we shared. It is perfectly natural and healthy for a child to grow out of the need to nurse, but it is also to be expected that mothers will feel some sense of loss when it is over. A nursing relationship is gradually replaced by a different one though, that is special and wonderful in its own right.

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