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Mother-led Gentle Weaning

As the name suggests, mother-led weaning is an approach to weaning the baby by introducing gentle interventions from the mother’s side to initiate and ease up the process of weaning. It should ideally be done only after once the baby has completed 2 years.
In some exceptional cases, the mother might need to wean the baby at an earlier age due to medical or other unavoidable reasons. Gentle weaning techniques can be extremely useful in such situations as well.

When to consider gently weaning the child off?
Many mothers wish to be able to nurse their babies for as long as the baby wants. However, it’s not possible and feasible in many cases due to various reasons. Once the baby has crossed the minimum recommended age of 2 years of breastfeeding, a mother may or may not consider weaning her child depending on a lot of factors including access to right information, her support system, her own and baby’s readiness, nursing inclinations and aversions, pressure from family/friends, time constraints etc. Everyone makes their decisions based on what works for them, their child(ren) and their family.

Breastfeeding is a relationship wherein both – the mother and the baby are equal participants. And thus, the mother has every right to take her own needs and circumstances into account while making decisions about breastfeeding. Decision to wean, therefore, can be a result of a situation wherein the mother might be overwhelmed or touched out or unable to cope with the demands of her breastfeeding toddler for whatever reasons. It is a good option to introduce interventions to gradually wean the baby off gently in such cases.

Gentle Weaning Techniques:

1. Never offer, never refuse
Many mothers transition to this technique naturally as their baby grows up, wherein they stop offering to nurse, while not refusing to nurse when the toddler asks for it. This can be the starting point of the weaning process. It is, in itself, a very subtle yet strong intervention to start with.

2. Offer comfort in other ways
Babies are used to being comforted by nursing whenever they are upset, unwell etc. Slowly establishing other ways to soothe and comfort the baby breaks this correlation. Baby understands and accepts to be comforted by other means like cuddling, hugging, being picked up, listening to a story etc. This effectively cuts down on those small, frequent nursing sessions that are there purely to calm the child.

3. Shorten the duration of the feeds
Time limits can be introduced for each feed. A lot of times, pre-agreements work. Eg. the baby is told in advance that the feed will get over when Mumma says, or when the song ends, or when Mumma finishes counting to a particular number etc. Sometimes, a smooth introduction to new activities works too. For eg., the mother can come up with a new idea for some activity after once the baby has nursed for a little while by saying – “let’s go to the park now” or “let’s read a book” etc.

4. Cut down on the feed(s) that the baby is least interested in
This is very subjective and baby-specific. Some babies might easily drop the first feed after waking up. Some may drop the evening feed before dinner. The mother can observe the baby and decide to eliminate the one session which is easiest for the baby to miss and start from there.

5. Spending some time away from the baby
When the mother is not available to nurse for a few hours daily (or even intermittently), the baby adjusts and stops demanding to be nursed at those times.

6. Drop only one feed at a time 
This is probably the most important tip while weaning a baby off as it makes the transition easy for both the mother and the baby. Mother’s body needs to get gradual and consistent signals to produce less milk. Abrupt or fast-paced weaning can interfere with it and the body may still produce much more than what the baby is consuming, leading the mother to feel uncomfortable and even engorged. Thus dropping one feed per week gives ample time for the body to adjust to the altered demand.

7. Keeping the baby busy
Offer to indulge with the baby in creative and interesting activities that would keep the baby busy. Outdoor time is a great option too.

8. Postponing
Slowly, there can be a transition from ‘never offer, never refuse’ to ‘never offer, ask to nurse later’. So, when the baby asks to nurse, the mother can simply say things like “later”, “not now”, “in a while”, “let me finish this”, “can we do it after we do that?” etc. This helps the child to learn to wait. A lot of times, the child soon forgets to nurse as she gets busy with something else.

9. Talk to the baby
This works better with older kids. However, never underestimate the understanding of power and capacity of babies. They pick up on emotions and understand what their mother wants to communicate. Talk to the toddler about how you would like to nurse a little less as compared to before. Repeat the talk gently several times everyday and just let the toddler hear it.

Some strategies to wean older kids:

  • Reasoning with the child about when she would want to nurse non-negotiably and when would she let go of nursing sessions works well when the child is older.
  • Incentives on occasions may work for older children.
  • Trading nursing sessions for a favourite snack or toy can work.
  • Letting the child choose the weaning day towards the end of the breastfeeding journey gives the child control.
  • A special weaning present can pull that last string.
  • Organising a ‘weaning party’ is a great idea to celebrate the journey and to motivate the child to wean completely.

How to know if the child is not ready to wean?

Many times the mother might be eager to wean the baby off whereas the baby might not be ready to wean as yet. Certain behavioural changes in the baby when the mother initiates weaning can tell when the baby is not really ready to wean. Some examples are as follows..

  • Increased tantrums
  • Newfound separation anxiety
  • Clinginess
  • Increase in night waking

When the baby displays the above behaviour, it might be possible that the baby is not ready for weaning or perhaps the weaning process is going too fast for the baby. It is recommended to pause the weaning process or to slow down in such cases. Sometimes, teething or illnesses may also interfere with weaning. It may be wise to let the difficult phase pass for the child before resuming the process of weaning.

What not to do?

  • Do not push or force the child.
  • Some techniques may work for a baby, and some won’t. It takes trial and error to understand what works for a particular baby as each baby is different. Also, the same technique may or may not work for the same baby on different days. Do not lose patience.
  • Do not get disappointed if the baby is not ready to wean or if some other factors are postponing the weaning process. Allowing time lets the process take place smoothly and without resistance.
  • Do not scare the baby with un-gentle and traumatic techniques like applying bitter things on the nipples to repel the baby.
  • Do not interfere with the natural process of reduction in milk production by taking pills to dry up the milk supply.