The revised 2005 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 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? I take seriously the notion of mutual desire by mother and child. So that leads to a discussion of child-led weaning and mother-led weaning.
There's a lot of discussion about child-led weaning as the ideal. That's a wonderful concept, and what I did with my first daughter. We followed what I like to call "don't offer, don't refuse." We didn't start cow's milk until 15 months, opting to give previously frozen breastmilk when she used a cup at meals, so that wasn't a factor for us, but well prior to that time, she began to naturally reduce her day feedings. She was way too busy and active to bother with coming over to me to nurse.
Once she started to finally sleep through the night from about 7 pm until 5 am did we add cow's milk (this may not be the right protocol for your baby in terms of supplementing with other foods – discuss your specific needs with your pediatrician) to her diet, making breastmilk secondary given her reduced feedings. The only times we actually ever "interfered" with the child-led weaning process was for the feedings prior to nap and bedtime. I had my husband put her down several times in a row at around 13 months (because I had him home from work for holiday break) and after that, she never asked for the breast at naptime. We did the same thing at bedtime at 18 months, because I could tell the feeding was simply habit and not providing much milk, and I was fine with being done.
These are all good reasons to wean some, and finally all, feedings – reduction of child interest, willingness to accept offered alternatives or lack of nutritive feedings. The weaning was totally natural and mutual. I never had any need to deal with fullness of the breasts, or suffered plugged ducts (despite my tendency in that direction). This seemed to indicate to me that the time had been right.
It would be great if all weaning stories could be like this. I was grateful to have the ability to stay home with my daughter, and offer access to the breast on-cue. It was fortunate that her natural timing to wean matched up with my readiness to be through with nursing.
But not all kids make it that simple. If a child's interest in or frequency of nursing becomes overwhelming or otherwise undesirable to the mother, mother-led weaning may be appropriate. See my article on my mother-led weaning experience with my second daughter – When to Wean – About Mother-Led Weaning.
For more resources on weaning, I recommend:
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