When Should I Wean My Nursing Baby?
Your baby is getting older and you’ve enjoyed a successful breastfeeding relationship thus far. Congratulations! Now, however, you’re beginning to think about how long you want to breastfeed. You may be wondering, what are the benefits of nursing an older baby or even a toddler? Is there any advantage to early weaning? What about starting solid foods? And what can I do to make weaning earlier if I decide to do so? Here are the answers to your questions.
Nursing the Older Baby
There are distinct advantages to nursing an older baby. Firstly, if your baby is crawling (or walking), s/he is exposed to more germs than they were as an in-arms baby. It’s only a matter of time before you have to dig a piece of old food out of your baby’s mouth that the vacuum cleaner missed. Not to mention the dog’s chew toy, or any other random object babies can spot and excitedly shove into their mouths before you reach it.
Thankfully, breastmilk is still your baby’s best defense against illness. This benefit doesn’t go away as baby gets older. In fact, studies show that in the second year of life, breastmilk contains even higher levels of some immune factors. Once again nature’s wisdom gets a big high five!
As your toddler shares slobbery kisses with their playdate pals, breastfeeding can help protect them from viruses. Since breastmilk is so easily and completely digested, it can be – literally – a lifesaver to baby if s/he gets diarrhea or is vomiting. It is so easy for little ones to become dangerously dehydrated, and it can be difficult to coax a sick baby to eat. However, breastmilk may be the only thing baby is interested in taking in during illness. Some older babies or toddlers who are eating solids already may temporarily return to full time breastfeeding for their nourishment, and this can result in much peace of mind for mom. Since breastmilk is considered a clear fluid (and NOT a dairy product), there is no need to wean during baby’s illness.
Another reason to consider delaying weaning an older baby or toddler is because the hormones (such as oxytocin) released while breastfeeding bring about calm and loving feelings in the mother, and can help mitigate the stress the mom of a busy toddler feels. Many mothers have reported that once their little ones weaned, feelings of stress or irritation at parenting increased.
For some mothers, extended nursing can also reduce their fertility. This may be a welcome occurrence if mom doesn’t want to conceive again right away.
Some mothers also enjoy the peaceful break that breastfeeding gives them and their child. Some toddlers will only sit still for a few minutes during a breastfeed! Other toddlers won’t nap or fall asleep at night except after a nursing, making it “mommy’s little helper”. Furthermore, an out of control, overwhelmed or tantruming tot will often calm down beautifully after nursing. Breastfeeding can often be better than any Band-Aid for an “owie” as well.
What Do Experts Say?
The World Health Organization recommends 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and at least 2 years of total breastfeeding. UNICEF has the same recommendation. Organizations such as La Leche League, considered the world’s foremost authority on breastfeeding, also recommend a longer period of nursing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and the “continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.”
Breastmilk does not “expire”. In other words, a baby or toddler continues to receive benefits from breastmilk as long as s/he receives it.
One of these benefits is higher intelligence. A 2002 study confirmed that babies who are nursed at least 7 to 9 months had higher IQs than their formula fed peers. Long term breastfeeding also means less: celiac disease, diabetes, obesity, some childhood cancers, Crohn’s disease, urinary tract infections, allergies and asthma for the child.
What about mom? What benefits can she enjoy from nursing an older baby or toddler? Women who breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer (and longer duration reduces the risk more), less ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.
When Should I Begin Solid Foods?
Of course, at some point, weaning is inevitable. Technically, the term “weaning” means not an abrupt cessation of nursing, but the introduction of solid foods to complement breastfeeding. At around 6 months of age, baby requires more iron than breastmilk provides. This is typically when mothers begin giving baby solid foods.
When starting solids, it’s a good idea to breastfeed first so as to protect milk supply. For a baby reluctant to eat, trying mixing the food offered with expressed breastmilk. Offer small amounts (1-2 teaspoons) of well pureed foods at first, and go slowly to give baby’s digestive system time to adjust. Giving too much solid food too soon can cause constipation in a baby.
How To Wean Your Nursing Baby
What if you have decided that you’re ready for baby to wean? Here are a few tips for making the process easier for you as mom and for your baby.
Keep in mind that, as mentioned above, breastfeeding floods your body with “relaxing” hormones. This is why some women feel sleepy when they nurse their babies. If you wean quickly, you will experience a sharp reduction in estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin. You may experience feelings of depression, sadness, and even anger if you don’t give your body time to adjust to lower levels of these hormones.
Another side effect of sudden weaning is painful breasts. Too-quick weaning can result in plugged ducts and/or mastitis, a painful breast infection that feels like the flu.
It’s far better to wean slowly to give your body and your baby time to transition. Some breastfeeding experts recommend that you drop one feeding every week. So for instance if your baby is nursing 4 times a day, then drop one feeding the first week, nursing 3 times a day. The following week nurse 2 times a day, etc. Generally, older babies and toddlers cherish the first morning feeding the most, so consider dropping that one last.
Be sure to give your baby plenty of extra love, cuddles, “Daddy time” and attention during weaning. Weaning can be difficult for some babies emotionally since they derive so much comfort from nursing. A baby or toddler will also need extra liquids and calories during weaning to replace the breastmilk they were getting.