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Weaning a 3-year-old

The Parents Network > Advice > Advice about Breastfeeding > Weaning > Weaning a 3-year-old


Does anyone have suggestions for weaning a 3 year old? I have managed to go on this long even though I work full time because my son wakes up frequently at night (we co-sleep). I never imagined I would nurse him this long--but it has been such a source of comfort for him and basically it's just been faster to get him back to sleep than to suffer the crying. I have checked the La Leche web page, and there is little helpful information on this issue. I know I can talk to him-- so what do I tell him? I have tried before to tell him he'a "a big boy now" and other kids his age don't nurse. But then he gets hung up on the fact that he doesn't want to get big. He says ,"mommy I want to be this big" (and shows me the size of a small baby with his hands). I don't want him to revert to "babyhood" and be afraid to grow up. He's already said a few times that he didn't want to grow up. Any ideas on games or ways to encourage him to stop (btw, he's not impressed with stickers or stars).
I weaned my daughter shortly before she was 3-1/2. (Like many people who nurse a long time, I basically didn't talk about it with most people -- you might not be the only one nursing a three year old.) I also did the family bed. At about 2-1/2 I stopped nursing in the middle of the night, substituting holding her (she liked to sleep on my arm) for those nursings. Then around 3 I got down to nursing before bed and right after I picked her up from daycare. I had cut out the morning feeding around 2-1/2 also because it was making getting to work stressful. When I talked about weaning with my daughter she kept saying she would stop nursing when she was 4. I realized that once nursing stopped being an effective way of putting her to sleep, I was ready to stop. (I had a little regret after I stopped, both because of the closeness, and because she started getting sick more often.) I had told her that we were going to stop nursing at 3-1/2 and she would get a present. Finally, at a little before 3-1/2, when we were down to one bedtime feeding, there were a couple of nights where circumstances led me not to nurse her. So that seemed like a logical time to stop. For a few weeks, I would let her have "5 sucks" then three, etc. Even now, a year later, she occasionally asks for a suck, which I'll allow and remind her there's no milk left. I think if you take your time, and treat it as a process, it works out. There were definitely times where she was unhappy, and I held her as an alternative. Good luck, and take your time.
I weaned my son when he turned nearly 3 years old. The nursing lasted probably a year longer than I planned. He slept with me for all of that time and like you, I found it just easier to nurse him back to sleep. He is a very stubborn boy, so just be encouraged with this. I was dreading crossing through that "tunnel of fire" when it came to finally weaning him from nursing. When I announced to him that he was nearly 3 and it was time to stop, he wailed, "I'm not 3, I'm (name)!", which broke my heart. But I decided that I was ready to stop and I gave him as much snuggles and cuddles as I could WITHOUT nursing. He slept with his head on my arm right next to me. It was hard those first few nights. Eventually, he would stop crying and settle down in my arms. Interesting was that he seemed more irritable in the next several months. Whatever you do, though, be consistent and DO NOT TURN BACK on the transition. One slip back to nursing will send mixed messages on your intent. So just make that comittment to you and your son that this is really the end of nursing. Good luck!!! I've been there!
Please consider calling a La Leche League Leader to discuss your concerns. We can give you lots of ideas on how you might go about this. You can call me if you like: 234-1300. THere are two books you might find helpful: The latest edition (98?) of Mothering your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Baumgarner, and How Weaning Happens (don't have the authors handy). You can get both throught the La Leche League International Website, your local La Leche League Group, and probably from most bookstores too. Lyla
I nursed my son until well after 3 and like you, worked and had a co-sleeping arrangement. As my son got older, nursing gradually got shorter and less frequent, but bedtime nursing was the last to go. It was a pretty uneventful, easy process but it did taper off so gradually that it took months. I started feeling less physically comfortable nursing because the milk supply was gone by the end. So I became more interested in cutting nursing short and I think that encouraged weaning. Also, around that time my husband and I began to read to our son every night together before sleep and I think the fun of having both of us reading was an attraction that made him lose interest in nursing. It made bedtime something other than an exclusive kid/mom thing, but in a positive way.

My sense is that some kids need a little more "incubation" time than others and that allowing dependency to fall away when it's ready is ideal, if you can manage it. Your son seems to be saying that he needs more time, and comparing him to other kids who act differently at his age could make him feel ashamed of himself. My tendency would be to avoid talking about it, but rather to just build in positive alternatives (like reading with you and Dad) that aren't all that conducive to nursing. Attending to anything visually interesting is impossible if you're nursing, so good picture books at bedtime are a natural. I feel it's best to avoid turning weaning into an achievement or into a project, but just to build in positive alternatives without making it a much of an issue. There's a classic book on this issue called something like "weaning your nursing toddler" available from the Le Leche League that has valuable chapters on weaning at ages 3, 4, and 5. It offers advice somewhat along these lines.

I must say that I will be forever thankful to have nursed my son so long. He is nearing 6 and he's a loving, tender, yet independent kid with very few hang ups. We're now reading the Harry Potter books every night together, so bedtime reading continues to be a staple for our family. I think nursing and co-sleeping were great for him. Also, since my son weaned, I've realized how many kids still nurse at 3 and older. It's just that the nursing is infrequent and occurs at bedtime mostly. So I don't think your situation is particularly unusual or that you should fear that it's inappropriate to take plenty of time to taper off slowly. Anonymous


It's not surprising that you didn't get much information from La Leche regarding weaning because their mission to promote breast feeding. Perhaps what you could do is think about why you want to wean you son and figure out a way to explain your reasons to him in a way that is appropriate to his age. I breast-fed my daughter until she was 3-1/2, when I began to feel uncomfortable about this large child climbing into my bed and grabbing at my breasts. I decided that I owned my body, after all, and this did not feel appropriate. I told her that I didn't feel comfortable about nursing any more, and that I wanted to stop. She did nurse a few times after that, but she understood me, and we pretty much ended it.

Your son seems to need to feel like a baby a little longer. Can you raise the question of weaning as something that you and he will be doing in the future and allow him to continue while he gets used to the idea? Maybe you could avoid phrasing it as something he's getting too big to do, since that seems to make him feel more anxious to hold onto his babyhood.


You might consider telling him how you feel and why, and what you would like, as in something like: "I feel tired and am wanting to sleep better, so I'd like to start talking about how I can get better sleep and have us still be so close to each other." If you combine that with giving him the sense that you understand and care about meeting his needs, he may be very responsive and want to help meet your needs as well. I agree with your son that "growing up" is not a great incentive when it comes to giving up something so precious and comforting as nursing. But helping mom feel stronger might be, especially if you can show him other ways you can stay deeply connected and provide him the comforting he's wanting. So you could present it as a problem the two of you may solve together: how does "boy" get closeness and comfort and "mommy" get rest? and see what kinds of solutions come up. I can imagine a few possibilities off the bat: new special time during evening, morning, or day time; reducing the nursings instead of stopping them altogether; taking turns with him about having the choice of whether or not to nurse (alternate nights?) as a way to give him some feeling of choice and some ability to manage dealing with you also having choice. You might also be surprised by what he comes up with! Inbal
My 2 1/2 year old son is just weaned, and I am amazed. He was SO attached to the breast. It was, and still is, his "lovey". Like you, I found very little help in weaning a co-sleeping toddler- it is still not that common. And my son is younger than yours, and he was not quite so verbal, but here is what we did for what it is worth: First, I got pregnant :-). This did not lessen my desire to nurse in general, but it did significantly lessen my desire to continue to nurse at night because I was SO tired. We were still nursing 2-3 times during the night. I talked to my son a little bit about not nursing at night, but like you, I really did not know what to say. So I would just talk to him in the night when he wanted to nurse, and say that the "milk" (his word for the breast) is asleep, but he can have a bottle. Then I would offer a bottle of warm cows milk. I was worried that he was actually hungry. OK- this did take quite a bit more time than rolling over an nursing, and no, this was not well received for even a few weeks, but I tried to be consistent (though I often found myself nursing him in my half-sleep and not realizing it). Also, I wore a tight T shirt under my jammies so that the breasts were not so available (I still do because he still wants to fondle the breasts at night). So, it was tough, and made me more tired at first. But eventually, he would take the bottle and I would sing him some songs and he was able to get back to sleep. We would nurse first thing in the morning then. Next to go was the nursing before bedtime. My son was still nursing himself to sleep. This nursing was actually was starting to bother me. My son was so into kneading the breast, pinching the breast, etc, while nursing that I was actually getting tired of it. And I recalled my girl friend saying that weaning happens whenever the Mom is ready. So we again substituted the bottle and singing for the night, slowly and not always consistently, but this miraculously worked. My son never really responded to singing too much when he nursed, but now it really helps him calm down. Then the morning nursing stopped by itself with no effort from me. I must say that around my second trimester, I stopped making milk. I am sure that this contributed to weaning, although I know that he was nursing at least a month after I was not making much milk, if any. But I think he was also sort of ready to wean. We did not talk much about it before hand, although I know people recommend this - I did not know what to say either.

So, the whole process took about 4 months, but was not as hard on either of us as I imagined. Once we successfully stopped the night time nursings, the others were easier. I don't feel like my son was deprived, and I feel we did this together. Also, my son is still very interested in my breasts. He wants to hug then (through my cloths!) when I pick him up from daycare, and first thing in the morning, and when he is distressed for any reason, or if he sees them while I am dressing or showering. This is fine with me. Since he has never developed an attachment for a blanket or toy, I really think that my breasts are his comfort item. I am sure this too will pass.

OK, so now you think- he is off the breast, but now we have the bottle issue, which most parents have dealt with long before two and a half or three years. First, I will say that my son had no problems with a sippy cup, and he now uses a real cup. So the bottle is a breast substitute for him- something squishy. Also, my son never really used or liked the bottle much during the years he was nursing. We had a hard time getting him to drink at all at daycare (which is has been in full time since 3 months) those first months before solid food. He would essentially wait for me to nurse him after daycare, and I suspect this is why the night time nursings became so important for him- he waited to drink till the night. He has been weaned for about one and a half months, and this is what has happened: he now wakes up less often in the night. At first, he consistently woke up around 5-6 am and wanted a bottle of milk, which he sucked down and then went right back to sleep. This was longer than he had ever slept before, so that was great. Then, we got him his own bed, which he immediately took to going to sleep in (another big surprise!) . However, we were right back to the waking 3-4 times a night, but he only wanted a bottle at that 5-6 am time. Now, he comes into my bed somewhere around 2-4 am and falls sleep unassisted. And now as of the past two weeks, he is skipping the 5-6 am bottle! So we now have to work on giving up the right before bed bottle. I am only worried about this because of his teeth. I can now sometimes brush his teeth after the bottle, but then it takes longer for him to go to sleep. The saga continues. Anyway, sorry this is so long-winded, but I was very frustrated and lonely when I was trying to get help weaning my toddler. I basically know only one mom who had weaned her toddler, and I really wanted to talk to other moms who had been through this. I also called La Leche, but I did not go to their meetings. I suspect there is a wealth of information there. Good luck - Lisa


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