Every once in a while, I hear someone say, "My child weaned himself at x months," where x is something less than, say, 30. Sometimes it's 18, sometimes 24, sometimes even as low as 9.
"No, really," the mother will say. "He didn't want to have anything to do with me. That was it. He weaned himself."
Some breastfeeding-education sites claim that self-weaning can happen at almost any time. See, e.g., this article at Breastfeeding.com: "Left to their own devices, some children will wean themselves at 9 or 12 months, and some will choose to nurse until they are 4 – or older. "
I grant that there may be exceptions. But generally, I don't buy it.
The part that I don't buy is "left to their own devices." Nursing, and weaning, is a two-person tango; one that can theoretically be "led" by one partner or the other, but generally involves some leading and some responding from both. To say that a weaning child is "left to their own devices" implies that the parents' attitude, behavior, and language toward nursing remained rock-solid constant while the child stopped abruptly or gradually slowed down. But that's usually not what happens, and in the earlier cases --- those before, say, age 18 months --- I don't believe it at all.
What I do know is that the frequency of nursing isn't constant, nor does it decrease monotonically --- even though a lot of breastfeeding educators seems to say that weaning happens, simply, by a gradual slowing down. Instead, nursing frequency rises and falls irregularly, with the changing needs of a child who's growing fast and exploring his world, for whom it's sometimes food, sometimes comfort, sometimes connection, often a mix of all three.
In late toddlerhood, nursing is mostly about the relationship, and it has slow times and fast times like any relationship. You might compare it, in a nursing toddler, to the frequency with which a young adult calls home to talk to Mom. She might call less and less as time passes and she feels more independent; more likely, she'll go through times when she is feeling homesick, or concerned about her family, and she'll call a lot, while other she'll be so busy with her daily life that she'll forget to call home at all; but she will, eventually call again more frequently when she feels the need.
The analogy breaks down at the end of nursing, of course, because children are designed to stop nursing eventually, whereas adults are not designed to stop talking to Mom, although we can. The point is that the "gradual slowing" of nursing can include dips and spikes, times of lots of nursing and times of almost --- or even nursing strikes, which are the sudden (usually temporary) refusal to nurse at all --- followed by more nursing again.
Weaning is not itself one of the dips and pauses in nursing. It happens as these dips and pauses get deeper, longer, and more numerous, and eventually merge into a long, indefinite period of not-nursing that culminates in the child's forgetting how to do it entirely and forming a self-identity as a child who "used to get milk from mommy."
My hypothesis is that the "early self-weaners" were not actually left to their own devices. My hypothesis is that for many or most of them, this "self-weaning" began with a nursing strike or a slowing of nursing that would otherwise have proved temporary. What cemented it into permanent weaning was probably the parents' response to the slowing, and that in turn probably depends on how the parents valued nursing at that age. Did the parents continue to offer nursing, assuming that the slowing was temporary? Or did they assume that the slowing was the beginning of weaning and act, perhaps subtly, to reinforce it by offering less often to nurse, by substituting other foods, by changing the sleeping arrangements or schedules, or by verbal encouragement of weaning?
I'm not at all saying that parents who have decided to wean shouldn't try to do it by simply acting to reinforce slowing in a time when the child has slowed nursing. It's probably a fairly gentle way to go about it, as weaning goes. (Indeed, in another post today I'll write about how I've exploited a natural pause, twice, to achieve situational weaning.) What I am saying is that we shouldn't call it self-weaning, or child-led weaning. It is parent-led weaning, done (for better or worse) when the parent perceives an opportunity to wean gently, or when the parent perceives (probably incorrectly) that weaning now is inevitable.
Let me give an example of subtle weaning cues that even a very breastfeeding-positive parent can convey: "Child-Led Weaning: The Way Nature Intended." It's the story of one mother whose nursing relationship with her child ended at 26 months. The mother is positive about nursing, is saddened by the approaching end of nursing. But she is also resigned that it will end around the end of her child's second year. Her language gives it away: "I had to adjust to the limits she was setting." When the daughter turned two, the mother writes,
she started to forget to nurse at night and would go to bed without giving it a thought. I was torn about offering. I wanted to remind her, to keep it going somehow. But, I knew it would be a detriment to the natural process. I had to trust her now. It was life come full circle.
Wanting to ask, "Do you need some milk before bed?" and stopping yourself, is (although subtle, and not disrespectful, and gentle, and a part of most weaning) a weaning behavior. It's called "don't offer, don't refuse," as in "I'm hoping she'll cut out her bedtime nursing, so I've switched to don't-offer-don't-refuse." There's nothing wrong with it. But it is a change of behavior on the part of the parent in response to the child's slowing. (Asking the daughter wouldn't have shown a lack of trust; rather, it would have demonstrated a trust in the daughter's ability to wean on her own schedule. By not asking, she shows that she fears her asking will disturb the child's weaning, called here "the natural process.")
When the daughter is 25 months old,
she stopped asking and started forgetting much more. We created a playroom next to her bedroom, and that – suddenly – seemed to be the end of our morning nursing session. At the close of that month, I knew the end had come. My baby was now growing up and had clearly decided for herself that she had nursed enough.
Was the playroom created specifically to distract the little girl from nursing, or was that merely a happy side effect? It's hard to say. The author is very vague about how she "knew the end had come." But I would say that, if it was clear to the mother that the baby had decided for herself that she had nursed enough, it was probably also made clear to the daughter that the mother believed so as well.
As I said, encouragements to wean can be very subtle and gentle. But it's not child-led. Again, this is not to say that weaning must be child-led --- only that we should call it what it is.
How long does truly child-led weaning take? I'm not sure I've ever really seen it --- or that it even really exists. I think weaning is a dance between mother and child, no matter how gentle or even passive is the mother. But I have seen three families in which nursing was valued highly even as a child grew past the fourth year, families in which nursing was seen as a way to maintain a close connection to a child through the birth and nursing of that child's younger sibling. Not that those families never used weaning behaviors --- all three did, at times. But none saw weaning as sure to happen before, say, age three, or even that weaning was desirable at age three or so.
How long did those kids nurse? One, until she was about five. Another, a few months before turning five. A third, a few months past his fourth birthday. The remaining small children are still nursing, at 44 months, 43 months, and 28 months respectively. It's anecdotal, but my hypothesis is that child-led weaning would see most kids wean between ages 4 and 5. (Which, incidentally, is right in the middle of Katherine Dettwyler's biologically-based theoretical range for the length of nursing in humans.)
Obligatory Kellymom link. :-)
Part 2, in which I describe two experiences with situational weaning, is here.