Friday, October 30, 2009

weaning, in my humble opinion

Every nursing relationship is different, just like every mother and every baby/toddler/child has different needs. And eventually, along comes the time where the weaning process inevitably begins. Primarily, there are two types of weaning: child-led weaning and mother-led weaning--and both have their unique benefits and downfalls.

Child-led weaning (also referred to as natural weaning and self-weaning) occurs when a child no longer has the nutritional or emotional need to nurse. Children who are truly permitted to self-wean will do so over time, usually over a span of a couple years or more, and most will wean between two and four years old. Some of the important characteristics of a child who weans naturally is that he drinks liquids well from a cup, gets most of his nutrition from solid foods, and gradually reduces the frequency of nursing--and is usually well over 12 months old (sometimes nursing strikes that commonly take place in the first 18 months can be misconstrued as self-weaning).

Mother-led weaning happens when a mother guides her child to wean before the child may be physiologically ready to wean. Mother-led weaning does not have to be abrupt, but can be a gentle, gradual process that follows the child's needs and clues. Weaning also does not have to be all or nothing; when a child is weaned partially, he can keep one or more feedings a day. Partial weaning often happens for nighttime feedings.

There is substantial advice available from various professionals and organizations on weaning age, and quite a bit of it is conflicting. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for 12 months, the World Health Organization and UNICEF both recommend nursing for a minimum of two years. There are countless benefits for extended breastfeeding, however many health care professionals in the United States are not understanding of breastfeeding beyond one year, and many people in our culture may question the motives of a mother who nurses beyond our *cultural* norm of one year (and in many cases, it is a cultural norm of six months, or even six weeks). This attitude may be threatening to many women who choose to nurse beyond a year or who choose to wean naturally. Subsequently, many women will hide their extended nursing relationships from disapproving family and health care professionals--I am guilty of this myself, believe it or not, 'forgetting' to mention on more than one occasion that my oldest was extended nursing.

The practice of mother-led weaning is far more common in the United States, but it is important to acknowledge that, anthropologically and physiologically speaking, the normal, natural weaning age of human children is loosely somewhere between 3 and 6 years of age, give or take various amounts of time based on unique circumstances. The essay, A Natural Age of Weaning, by Katherine Dettwyler, PHD of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A & M University, is a fantastic resource for and comparison of information on natural weaning in human children.

In my humble opinion, there is an awful lot to be said for child-led weaning, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, no one should be judged on how and when they decide to wean as what works for one nursing pair may not work for someone else. After reading book after book, articles and essays, I decided on intending to allow my children to self-wean. I nursed my oldest daughter until she was 3.5 years old, when, after a gradual process, she weaned herself. My youngest, now two years eight months old, is still nursing strong, and I have every intention of allowing her to wean naturally as well. People are often surprised to hear this. However, I now understand how important it is for me to tell people how long my children have nursed. I do it to make extended nursing seem more... well... normal. And more than once, someone has come back with, "So did my son!" or "My daughter is self-weaning her kids, too!"

Numerous resources are available on nursing beyond infancy, extended nursing, biological nursing, and natural weaning, as well as compassionate mother-led weaning. La Leche League International (LLLI) has localized groups who provide breastfeeding support in communities around the world; visit their website for more information or visit their page on Weaning. Another wonderful resource for information on weaning (and breastfeeding in general) is KellyMom; their weaning page covers numerous issues and links to various outside articles.

*Artwork: Nursing Moment by Gina Casamenti-Brooks, from ProMom.

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