Simple answer: whenever you want to.
The decision to wean your baby from the breast is a very personal one, and one that you should never allow yourself to be pressured into. Whenever you decide to wean, give yourself a pat on the back and a big congratulations for having breastfed for as long as you did!
There are lots of reasons why a woman might consider weaning her child. We will discuss some of these here.
“I want my body back.”
Sometimes, a mother will reach a point that she just doesn’t want to breastfeed any more. This is absolutely fine and normal. A nursing relationship is supposed to be a positive and enjoyable one, and if you are simply not enjoying it any more then that is a perfectly valid reason to terminate it.
“We’re having problems.”
It is understandable that a woman may wish to stop breastfeeding if she is encountering problems. It can be so hard to cope when you are struggling to feed your baby. The best thing to remember is that where there is a breastfeeding problem, there is a breastfeeding solution, and if you do wish to continue it is vital to seek help before making a rash decision that you might regret. Someone once told me a great piece of advice; treat your breastfeeding relationship like a job — it’s never a good idea to hand in your notice at the end of a terrible day. It is always best to wait until you’ve thought it through and sought help from others.
“I’ve done the recommended 12 months… So I have to stop now, right?”
Nope. Of course, if you want to stop, that is your decision and nobody has a right to pressure you either way. However if you and your baby both wish to continue, there is no need to stop just because you have hit the government recommended timeframe. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF both recommend nursing until a minimum age of 2 and governments across the world are gradually changing their advice to reflect this. It’s important to remember that these guidelines are just that — guidelines. If you wish to cease breastfeeding before or after these pre determined ages, it is your decision. Breastfeeding is best continued for as long as it is mutually desired.
“My baby has self weaned!”
This is what ended the breastfeeding relationship between my son and I. Gradually, over a period of several months, he cut the frequency of his feedings down and eventually had his last feed aged 26 months. Self weaning usually happens between the ages of 2 and 4, and sometimes as young as 18 months. A child younger than this is unlikely to be truly self weaning, and may be going through a ‘nursing strike’ (look out for a forthcoming article about this phenomenon soon). If a child stops nursing abruptly, it is unlikely also to be a case of natural self weaning.
Despite what you may have heard, it is perfectly acceptable to continue to nurse whilst pregnant. However, a lot of women find that their babies will wean themselves at this time. Pregnancy hormones can cause the milk’s taste to change, and it can also reduce supply (there are ways you can solve this; keep your eyes peeled for a post ill be making soon about increasing supply). Also, increased sensitivity in the nipple can make breastfeeding particularly uncomfortable for you, and you may feel very drained from your body’s efforts to nourish your child and your unborn baby simultaneously. If your child doesn’t wean themselves whilst you are pregnant, you may decide that you want to wean them anyway.
“I have to take medication that is unsuitable for nursing mothers.”
Always ask for a second opinion. Often, doctors won’t realise that breastfeeding is important to their patient, and therefore don’t go to the effort to find an alternative medication that can be used on nursing mothers. Tell your doctor that you do not want to stop feeding, and could they please try to find an alternative. If they refuse, seek a second opinion. There is usually an alternative route you can go down. It is worth contacting some non-profit breastfeeding support organisations at this point, as they will be able to point you in the direction of someone who can offer advice.
So, in summary
You will know when the time has come that you are ready to wean your baby from the breast. You may decide to let your child self-wean, like I did. Whatever you decide, be proud of yourself for coming as far as you have done, and for giving your baby such a fantastic start in life.