5 Tips for Weaning a Toddler Without a Struggle (or Guilt)

toddler and mother
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While the sight of a toddler nursing might still get a few raised eyebrows here and there, there's no question that the practice of extended breastfeeding is commonplace; according to the CDC, over 30 percent of infants born in 2013 were still nursing at 12 months (and many moms choose to go even longer). With benefits like increased immune system and brain development support, it's no wonder extended breastfeeding is popular. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end ... and weaning a toddler can be especially challenging.

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"I can tell you that moms should be ready to deal with some big emotions, both in their child and in themselves," counselor and psychotherapist Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC, tells CafeMom. "Many moms feel really conflicted when weaning."

"On the one hand, Mom may feel relieved," she continues. "She has a bit of freedom back and her body feels a little more like it's her own again. Weaning a toddler may also mean that Mom is getting more sleep, as nighttime wakings may decrease. However, Mom may also feel some guilt. It may feel selfish to wean if her child isn't happy about it. She may be upset that she's not able to comfort her child in the way that her child is used to. These are totally normal feelings and do not make you a bad mom for weaning."

As a mom who breastfed my three children well into toddlerhood, I'm all too familiar with this struggle (in fact, I'm going through it right now with my youngest). By the time a kid is walking and talking, nursing is about more than nutrition; it's about comfort and cuddles and bedtime routines. It becomes a huge part of the mother/child relationship, not to mention a hard-to-break habit. And while I've heard stories about toddlers who eventually lost interest in nursing on their own, none of my children were at all enthusiastic about giving up something that they loved doing and had done literally every day of their lives. (Who could blame them?)

More from CafeMom: 10 Beautiful Photos of Moms Breastfeeding Their Toddlers

Still, somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3, I hit a wall with every one of my kids where I knew I needed to stop for my own health and sanity. Navigating this conflict of interest, for me, involved lots of tears, frustration, and sleepless nights. But even though there's probably no way to make this milestone process completely painless, it doesn't necessarily have to be quite so hard. Here are some tips from moms and experts on how to help ease your toddler out of the breastfeeding phase (and you, too!).

Reboot your bedtime routine

"The last nursing before bed is often the last to go because for many toddlers this is the most important," lactation consultant Leigh Anne O'Connor, IBCLC, tells CafeMom.

"Nursing by nature makes time to cuddle and to talk and be connected," she says. "If you wean it is important to have this time together at the end of the day. If they have a comfort toy, that can help. I do recommend spending a bit of quality non-nursing time before bed."

As daunting a task as it might seem to get your little one off to dreamland without nursing, this is the perfect opportunity to introduce new ways of bonding. Mother-of-two Suzanne Wexler, for example, is using lullabies in place of breastfeeding to signal sleepy time.

More from CafeMom: Mom Gets Real About Breastfeeding Toddlers

"Physically, I've whittled her down to three to five minutes of 'baboo' before bedtime," she says. "It's probably minimal milk that she's getting, and I'm sure to give her cow's milk and other snacks beforehand to be sure her tummy's full enough. Emotionally speaking, I now sing lullabies to her in my arms after bedtime nursing in order to transition her to a new routine. Lullabies -- or 'songs,' as she calls them -- are fun for her, and she has started asking for specific tunes. They are also a cuddly alternative for sentimental moms such as myself." 

Beware the "big kid" trap

It might be tempting to try to motivate your reluctant-to-wean toddler with statements like, "Big boys (or girls) don't drink mommy milk," but this strategy can easily backfire, warns O'Connor. (Expect responses like: "I'm not a big boy, I'm a baby!") In other words, if being a "big kid" means no more breastfeeding, many toddlers would rather stay on the little kid side of the fence. Sell the idea of growing up by asking your child what activities he likes to do (climbing on the jungle gym, eating his favorite foods, etc.) and then equate those things with being a big kid -- making sure to point out that babies can breastfeed, but they can't play at the park or eat pizza, etc.

Avoid power struggles

As you've no doubt learned since your child hit toddlerhood, little kids don't respond all that well to being told "no," especially in situations like this when the thing they want is something they've had more or less unlimited access to for their whole lives. A better way to stop them from nursing is to divert their attention, says O'Connor.

"Distraction is a good strategy to not say 'no,'" she says. "Also, phrases such as, 'Yes, we can nurse but first let's build this tower, or make this snack, or go to the playground.'"

Part of your distraction plan can involve not triggering your toddler's impulse to nurse in the first place. Elizabeth Bement, mom of 2-year-old Hadley, found that taking away her daughter's usual breastfeeding spot helped make the bedtime transition go more smoothly.

More from CafeMom: 7 Tips on Getting Your Toddler to Sleep Better

"One night I asked her if instead of 'milkies' she wanted to cuddle and sing songs, and she agreed. We sat together on her bedroom floor -- I removed our rocking chair from her room in hopes it wouldn't serve as a reminder where she had her milkies -- and cuddled and sang her favorite songs: 'You Are My Sunshine,' 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat,' 'Baa Baa Black Sheep,' and 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' After we were done she happily climbed in her toddler bed and I sang her one more song."

Acknowledge your child's feelings

It's perfectly normal for toddlers to be sad and angry when you're going through the weaning process, and it's important for them to know that you understand and sympathize with their frustrations.

"Being honest with your child is the way to go," says O'Connor. "It builds trust. Acknowledge their feelings about weaning."

Another part of building trust, she adds, is being consistent.

"It is important that parents stick to their word. If they make a decision about limiting time at the breast, they should stick to it. It can be scary for a child to not have the structure of a consistent message."

Give yourself credit

It's incredibly difficult to make a change that results in your child's being unhappy, however temporarily. So difficult, in fact, that many moms (myself included) continue to put off weaning for longer than we'd planned because we feel guilty -- a decision that might not be right for us.

"I encourage moms to focus on the amazing things they've accomplished: providing nourishment, immune support, and comfort to their child for a really long time," says Wagner. 

"That's an amazing gift you've given to them, and now it's time to teach them new ways to be soothed, which is an important skill for them to develop. It's important to find a way to memorialize the amazing job you've done (breast milk jewelry is a great way to do this, or even just taking a nursing selfie of your last time together) and then move on to the next exciting chapter in your mother-child relationship."

It's true: Someday, believe it or not, nursing will be just another distant memory of those early childhood years. And you won't regret a minute of it.

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