The revised 2005 American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on breastfeeding indicate that "Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child." They also specify "no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer." (Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk - Recommendations on Breastfeeding for Healthy Term Infants, #10)
So, nursing mothers should do all they can to continue breastfeeding for the first year. But beyond that, how do we know when to stop? After that time, I take seriously the notion of mutual desire by mother and child. So that leads to the difference between child-led weaning and mother-led weaning.
A quick side note – I do not support mother-led weaning before 12 months unless there are extraordinary or unusual needs. I know this is a controversial opinion (as is whether or not to breastfeed at all, I suppose), but I believe that the avoidance of formula is a goal worth pursuing, even if it means inconvenience for the mother by means of restricted movement or extended pumping. So the most I'll say about mother-led weaning before 12 months is that a lactation consultant who ran a group that I attended said that the preferred way to do this is to replace one feeding per week with a formula-feeding.
My first daughter self-weaned between about 12 and 18 months. (for more on Child-Led Weaning, see my article on this subject in related links below). My second daughter has been a whole different story. She's more than two years old, and if it were up to her, I think she'd still nurse every half hour or so all day (and sometimes all night!).
I was willing to go with her on-cue feedings for a while, but around age 2, it became a little much for me. Since she was old enough to be able to be able to understand the concept of delay, I felt it was reasonable to ask her to wait to nurse rather than have to stop in the middle of a grocery store trip, or while preparing dinner, for starters. We'd relied on redirection before, but the more articulate and active she became, the more insistent she also became. It was my goal to impress upon her the concept that this was *my* body, and while the milk was hers, there might be some negotiation about the times and frequency of access to that milk.
Certainly she was not happy about this shift. Why would she be? But mother-led weaning is more than just a "process" -- it's about being attached to your baby and finding the gap between what they are *ready* for physically and emotionally and what is their *preference* for nursing. Beyond a year, this can certainly start to emerge, and so that's where the preference of the mother is certainly every bit as valid as the preference of the baby (before one year, the nutritional value of breastmilk for the baby trump, in my opinion). Nutritionally, it's also important to be consulting with your health care provider as needed to ensure that the nutrition of breastmilk is being adequately replaced in your baby's diet. If you would like to reduce breastfeeding, but your baby isn't making up the milk with solid foods and/or adequate liquid intake, you may need to wait on or slow your efforts.
Mother-led weaning will certainly be easier during times when there is someone else to distract and take care of the baby. It may be harder for a single-mom or one whose partner is rarely around, who will have to not only convince the baby to accept the reduced nursing itself, but also accept comfort from mommy in an alternate form.
Mother-led weaning, while maybe not as "ideal" as child-led weaning, is certainly a valid choice as long as your baby is nutritionally and emotionally ready for the change. For those wanting to go ahead with reducing breastfeeding or ultimately ending breastfeeding in a mother-led process, please see my article (coming soon) – How to Wean – Mother-Led Weaning Tips.
For more resources on weaning, I recommend:
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