Weaning has different meanings in different cultures. Normally, it either refers to the introduction of solid foods or to the end of breastfeeding, but if we look at weaning from a more holistic approach, both meanings are part of the weaning process. Weaning can therefore be defined as the process a child goes through to completely replace breast milk with other sources of nourishment. UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for at least two years, along a healthy and suitable diet from six months. The introduction of solid foods starts the weaning process, but it can take months or even years to completely wean a baby, so the key is to be patient. Why then, is a mother expected to stop breastfeeding when her baby reaches a certain age? Why is there so much criticism around women who choose to wean their children at a natural pace? Why is it socially acceptable to offer a toddler a bottle or a dummy and not her mother’s breast? When did we become so dismissive about our children’s biological and emotional needs?
Breastfeeding is a basic complement to the mother’s nurturing role, so weaning your baby should come naturally; that means breastfeeding until your child outgrows the need to nurse. Cultural and social beliefs have a strong impact on breastfeeding mothers. Many women feel conditioned by what’s socially acceptable and are afraid to follow their instincts, hence ending their breastfeeding relationship too soon. In many cultures babies are expected to wean around the first birthday or even sooner, but biologically, children are meant to breastfeed for a lot longer. If we understand breastfeeding not only as a source of nourishment but also of comfort and warmth, we can acknowledge a toddler’s need to suckle at his mother’s breast when he is tired, ill or upset to soothe himself and not necessarily out of hunger.
Essentially, breastfeeding is a relationship between mother and baby, so as long as you and your child are happy to breastfeed, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t wean your infant at her own pace. Breastfeeding past the first year still has many benefits for your child. It not only offers emotional support, but also acts as a pain reliever and provides a boost of nutrition and antibodies in the early years. Research also shows that children who are breastfed until they are ready to wean tend to be more confident and have a stronger immune system. Therefore, allowing a smooth transition that supports your child’s physical, emotional and mental development will be beneficial for your infant in the long run.
There’s a lack of support for mothers postnatally so it’s easy to understand why so many women decide to stop breastfeeding within the first year or even sooner. Nowadays, the end of breastfeeding has a connotation of independence attached to it, so often women come to believe that everything will be easier once they stop breastfeeding their baby. However, just because a mother stops breastfeeding doesn’t mean her child will need her less. For many mothers breastfeeding can be liberating, as it allows them to feed their child at any time and place, and is an easy way to calm their infant. Keep in mind that a gradual spacing between feeds is part of the natural process of weaning, so as your baby grows and her food intake increases, breastfeeding becomes less demanding. Going back to work is often another reason for early weaning, but resuming your professional career doesn’t need to be the end of breastfeeding if that’s not what you want. There are no fixed rules on how or when to wean a baby, so doing what feels right for you and your child is what really matters.
The weaning process can have a significant impact on your baby’s development, so if you decide to wean your baby before he’s ready, try to do it gradually to avoid generating stress or feelings of abandonment in your child. For some mothers, weaning can bring a sense of loss, as it marks the end of a very special connection with their child, and sometimes can lead to depression due to hormonal changes, but remember that your presence is precious throughout your child’s journey as an individual. If you feel sad, you can do a weaning ceremony to celebrate the end of your breastfeeding relationship. Trust your inner wisdom, allow yourself to be creative and let your child guide you through the natural weaning process.