Weaning A Toddler

Hi Janet,
I am really enjoying your site. Magda Gerber‘s philosophy fits so well with the way my husband and I are trying to parent, and I am learning so much. One issue that we are facing now, however, is weaning from the breast, and I couldn’t find much on your site that gave any strategies of the best way to approach this with a toddler.

My son is 19 months and still nursing frequently. For many months, the pattern was that he would nurse upon waking, at nap time, and then before bedtime. Occasionally he would ask to nurse at other times of the day, and I would usually offer food or water and see if he would take that instead. If not, I would nurse him. The main problem was that he was still nursing several times at night. It wasn’t a big disturbance, so I hadn’t made the effort to change this pattern yet, although it wasn’t ideal.

Then a couple of months ago, he had two weeks of very disrupted sleep. I am not sure what was going on with him, but he woke up often, wanted to nurse almost constantly, and had a hard time falling back to sleep. He would ask for massages, stories, music, but as soon as it was stopped, he would wake up again. This led to very sore nipples on my part, as well as sleep deprivation, so I decided really out of necessity that we would not nurse at night anymore. My husband and I also decided to make more of an effort to put him to sleep without any aids (music, etc), but just with him lying in his bed and one of us sitting beside him until he fell asleep. This actually worked really well at first! We explained to him what was going to happen, that he was going to lie down to go to sleep, and that we weren’t going to nurse anymore at night, but that we could nurse in the morning. So any time he woke up in the night (still co-sleeping part-time), I just told him the same thing: lie down, it’s time to sleep, we’ll nurse in the morning. Usually around 4 or 5am, he would get very insistent about nursing and I would give in, but it still seemed a victory to me to move down to only once a night.

But now this has created a new problem! Instead of nursing only a few times during the day, he wants to nurse quite often. My inclination is to just go with the flow, as I know it is a reaction to ending night nursing. However, my poor nipples are very cracked and sore and I just CAN’T nurse him as often as he would like. I usually try to offer food/water, distract him, tell him we will nurse later, and sometimes let him cry for a while. I have explained to him that he doesn’t need to nurse now because he has teeth and can eat food (contrasting with when he was a baby). But this transition is really hard on both of us right now, and I can’t think of anything else to do. If I could come up with some way to “schedule” his nursing, I think that would help him, because at night it helps him to know that he will nurse in the morning. I just can’t think of a good way to do this that would be clear to him. Any suggestions would be appreciated!


Hi Shereen,

Interesting! When you were decisive, direct, clear and honest about adjusting the night time feedings, it wasn’t hard for your son to accept a change and make the transition. (And sadly, 5 AM is morning time for many toddlers. Those of us with multiple children can be ruined forever…early morning risers no matter how late we stay up!)  I believe that if you can be as decisive and clear during the day, your son will accept that, too, with some complaints and maybe some “mourning” about the change. The most important thing is for you to feel certain and confident about the changes you make.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber taught parents that our needs matter, and that it is extremely positive for our children to know that. Parenting is about a lifelong relationship (hopefully based on mutual respect), not slavery!

I can relate to wanting to go with the flow. I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of person myself. But the flow isn’t working. You are in pain and discomfort and that is not good for you or your son, and it is especially not good for your relationship, because you are going along with his wishes and against yours, and possibly resenting it. Maybe not yet, but you will.

Children want and need their parents to be their leaders. They appreciate the nested, rooted and secure feeling we give them when we provide structure and guidance, though they are loath to admit it. So do the wonderful job you did with your son for the night feedings. Tell him when you will nurse…once, twice a day, whatever you decide. Don’t distract him. Stay honest and give him options…a choice of a couple of types of drinks in a choice of special cups, or a favorite snack.  Accept all his feelings, acknowledge and encourage them, but don’t waver on whatever you decide. Stick to the plan. Feel good about it.

Your son needs to know that you (and therefore others in his life) have personal boundaries and that he is expected to respect them. Once you have the conviction, the change will be easy. So, I recommend proceeding with confidence!

Please keep me posted…

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                                   Janet

A week or two later Shereen responds…

Hi Janet,

Thanks for your reply!

Things do seem to be improving a bit now that I have decided on clear times that we will nurse. I chose times that I thought would be easy for him to understand: waking up in the morning, nap time, and before bed. These are the times that he most commonly asks to nurse anyway, so I just explained to him that we will only nurse three times a day, at those times. Even then, I don’t ask him if he wants to nurse when that time comes around, but I agree if he asks. So sometimes he skips the before bed session, especially if Dad is putting him to bed. This seems to be working well. He still has some difficulty, but I think having concrete times that he can expect and look forward to has helped a lot.

We have had a little backsliding as far as nursing at night…but I am hoping that is just due to a temporary change in sleeping arrangements. Tonight things will be going back to normal, so we will see if it starts to improve!

Thanks for the support and encouragement.

I share more about respectful guidance in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by desireefawn on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Shereen,

    I can totally identify with how you are feeling, we have just gone through the same thing. My son is 13 months and has never been a very good sleeper, most nights he would wake 2-5 times and the only way I could get him back to sleep was to nurse him, and even then I might be up with him for a very long time, and he would often end up in our bed just so I could get some sleep! He was also nursing 4 times a day, and would often want to nurse more often than that.

    A few weeks ago I decided I couldn’t handle it anymore, as I am also coping with mild depression, and just needed my sleep! We had tried to wean him many times before but with little conviction and no success.

    Last monday we decided we would make the change, we firstly gave him a days notice that I would stop nursing him when he woke at night, and when he woke on the last night I explained that the next night things would change. My husband and I made sure we were both certain that we could do it and barring an emergency we would stick with the plan. It took 5 nights, several of which we were up with him for 2 hours before he got back to sleep, (we took shifts!) but I am happy to say the last 2 nights he sleep 12 hours straight! Which is AMAZING for him. It was REALLY REALLY hard for all three of us, and we certainly lost alot of sleep, but so far, very worth it. When he woke we would give him just a few minutes of crying to see if he would self settle or start winding up, if he got worse, one of us would go in to him and we did pick him up and give him a cuddle and spoke softly and gently to him about what was going on. We would always try to put him straight back down, which earlier in the evening would often work, but if not we would hold him until he was settled, and often he would fall asleep in our arms.

    We also set nursing times during the day, once when he wakes in the morning, which we decided not to do in his bedroom so he associates it with getting up, and not going back to bed. Then again at nap time, then again at bed time. I also try to make sure he doesn’t nurse until he is asleep at nap time and bed time so he can settle himself into bed.

    It has been a really hard transition, and so heartbreaking to see the emotions he went through over those nights, but with patience, confidence and conviction we all amde it in the end and the last few nights I have felt so much more rested than I have in over a year! – watch this space 🙂

    1. Helena,

      It is SO WONDERFUL to hear from you! I’ve been wondering how you and that beautiful boy were doing! I send my heartfelt wishes for an improvement to your overall mood.

      Thank you for sharing this successful process. You have no idea how helpful it is to others to hear the blow-by-blow…and know that they are not alone wanting healthier sleep for their families.

      Please, Helena, do keep in touch!

      1. Hi Janet,

        I have been meaning to be intouch about our progess. But life has been more hectic & stressful than I could ever have imagine these past 3 months! But I will email soon 🙂


    2. Hello, everyone. I really enjoy your blog, Janet, and appreciate this thread. My daughter is only 6 & 1/2 months old, but I already have experience with what became almost constant night wakings (4 to 5 & 1/2 months) until I finally had to set some boundaries and let her figure out how to self soothe. It was so difficult, but it worked. I also plan to continue with extended BF, and I agree it’s important to not let myself get burnt out on it, so that I can keep it up!

      I just wanted to say to Helena that during the time my daughter was waking a lot, I experienced many symptoms of mild to moderate depression (I am a therapist intern.) I did some light research and there’s a huge correlation between “infant sleep disturbance” (often defined as ANY night wakings) and maternal depression. This makes sense to me because we all need sleep to function (including our kids, by the way) and when we’re being woken repeatedly at night it certainly can lead to feeling depleted, helpless and resentful. Anger that has nowhere to go (like how can we be angry at our lovely little one, it’s not her/his fault!) gets turned right back on ourselves in the form of depression.

      ANYWAY, this information really helped me be firmer with myself and my daughter, because I knew I was setting limits for both of us. And, I found that once my daughter and I were both sleeping better and things felt less chaotic, I really did feel a lot better. I am, of course, not saying that sleep or boundaries are a cure for depression, but I do hope that for Helena or any other moms out there who are experiencing this know that there is some connection and hope that they get at least some relief once everyone is getting more sleep!


  2. Hooray for setting up some limits with your nursing toddler! I am a huge fan of extended breastfeeding and am still nursing my almost-3 year old twins — but I really believe in setting limits that make it work for you and keep you in charge of the how & when. I started this pretty early on with my girls (before a year with my twins, since it was just too challenging otherwise with two of them!) and just gradually increased/changed the limits as needed.

    It has worked for me to mostly schedule our nursings (usually at wakeup and bedtime, occasionally a few other times during the day) and also to make it clear to them that it is my choice, not theirs. I do try to offer other forms of food, drink, comfort or connection to meet whatever need they have, of course! They sometimes protest if they ask and I say no, but always accept it without too many tears or trouble when I say “this is not a nursing time — we will nurse at _________). I do allow some flexibility, like when they get hurt or sick sometimes, but don’t make it a given — I want them to know it is okay to have & express strong feelings and also to be soothed in other ways, too. So far, this is working so well for us — hope it does for you as well!

    1. Kristin, thank you for sharing your experience. I love your approach…it is so healthy and positive to give children those boundaries and accept all their feelings in response. I’m so impressed that I checked out your blog (lovely!) and joined your FB page!

  3. Janet, I love the reminder to be direct and honest with our children when we make changes or have to do something that they may not like. I love the changes in our family since we’ve started doing it, and I feel like my relationship with my kids has improved so much since I don’t feel like I’m “tricking” them into doing whatever it is I feel like they should do.

    Shereen, I’m so glad things are improving for you. My son just turned 1. Although I don’t plan on completely weaning him anytime soon, I sometimes wonder how it will ever end, because some days feel like we’re increasing the frequency instead of decreasing. Best of luck in making all the changes!

  4. I really value all of the advice here. As a mama of a recently weaned 20 month old, I can totally relate. I kept on with feeding through the night, on demand throughout the day and to the point where I was almost resenting each feed time. I dropped the daytime feeds slowly, then the nightime ones (it is so hard to be firm at 3am) and finally the bedtime one.

    Now I feel like I miss that little moment, my boy is so grown and what seemed like endless hours of feeding was over so quickly. Remind yourself what a great job you have done feeding your little one (esp in a world that so often doesn’t encourage and support BF), know that your concern is based in love for your child and do what feels best for youy family.

    Good luck!

    Blue Skies,

  5. I can relate to Shereen’s post – Shereen, check out a topic in Janet’s Community Forum related to what you’re going through. My posts are under “dtmama” – what I want to share with you is too much to write out here in a comment. 🙂

    Briefly, I do want to let you know that it is PERFECTLY FINE for you to decline your child’s request to nurse if you are not feeling up to it and/or you feel that your child’s request is using nursing as a “crutch”. Nursing is an activity that mother and child engage in together, so it is perfectly valid for you to decline. My son is almost 18 months, we are still nursing, much of his nutrition still comes from nursing, and I’m a huge fan of extended BF, although NOT at the expense of a mother’s sanity/health. Of course, we must try to strike a balance, and when I realized everything I just wrote above, it helped me to be direct, honest, and consistent with my son and to be more confident and complete with myself and my experience/feelings.

    GOOD LUCK!!!!!

  6. This may have already be said here…I remember Magda saying to offer the breast over the crib. The child usually is already standing up and insisting to nurse.

    The idea was that they would need to hold up their own sleepy body and soon fall asleep and tip over back to sleep. Separating the sleep need from holding/cuddle need. If they were hungry they could nurse, but soon would learn they were mostly tired and eating was too much work.

    1. Diane, I don’t know where you heard this, but it doesn’t sound at all like Magda Gerber to me. She believed that nursing should be a comfortable and intimate time together.

      1. Thanks for commenting, Janet. Sounds potentially dangerous to me if the child falls over and hits their head or bites onto the nipple in the process!

  7. Elizabeth Poppe says:

    I love the RIE philosophy. Honest and direct. Confidence and respect. Trust. My son is 21 months. I’ve already weaned him from night feedings (what a difficult transition for both of us, one I am happy to say we got through in only 3 days…I mean nights.)I have a tentative idea that I will wean him fully when he turns two but was at a loss as to how to go about it all. This post and these replies have given me a path. Thank you all!

  8. I find that with my 23month old son being honest and direct is important in the moment, but it is also important to be proactive in keeping him busy and feeling connected to avoid those “boredom” and anxiety nursing session that can pop up.
    Nursing isn’t all about food so offering other options to connect have been very important as well. I usually start out asking if he needs water or a snack (or pour himself some water or help me prepare a snack!), then move on to an activity “should we play blocks? go for a walk? draw a picture? etc” If I’m in the middle of doing something I ask him if he woud like to help.

  9. Georgia Kennett says:

    Hi Janet, Hi Everyone,
    This post and thread have been perfect for me and my second son, Gabe, who is 20 months.

    I really love the intimacy and relaxation we have at our morning, pre and post nap and night feeds, but the ones inbetween have been really testing for me.

    He can now help himself if I have stretchy clothes on, he can also ask for them and calls them “ahh-haas” which he came up with himself. I am very fond of this.

    These inbetween feeds can last 15 seconds sometimes, but with possibly 3 helpings in 5 minutes…not intimate, not relaxing. I really want to keep feeds at home now and just associated with sleep. Then I can imagine possibly going until he self weens, if that is before he is 3! But, at this stage, with my constant availability making me feel frustrated, I want to throw it all in pronto…I know this would devestate him.
    So now, after reading these lovely sharings and contributions I am ready to set boundaries, explain them clearly and well, ermm, be consistent…unless he is unwell, or more than a little upset…does “consistent” have exceptions?

  10. Hi Janet,

    I am relatively new to your site and do want to thank you and others especially for these thoughtful posts on weaning. My son and I are struggling through this— although I think recently things have become more stable. He is almost 22 months, and we have been on demand feeding for most of it. I loved our nursing relationship and feel that it served to help me know my child and helped me transition into being a parent and especially a mother, and helped me feel more confidence in our bonding.

    Perhaps I had a romanticized view of nursing, and made it an extreme place of comfort, as whenever there was a cry and he was to little to ask, I answered with my breast. I thought I was helping him regulate his system and calm from sucking. Now, though, it seems quite an intense pattern.

    He did not take to solids until recently. I began seeing someone for nutrition advice who studies Weston Price and they offered helpful guidance and a heavily meat diet (which was one of the only solids he wanted). Once I was offering this freely and creatively and regularly his eating increased (as did my time in the kitchen!)

    This gave us the in, for encouraging sleep at night and trusting he was not waking from hunger. (He had been nursing every 2 hours at night). We explained we would try for 1 nurse at around 2:30 in the morning. (I do worry that the time is a little confusing). He has woken several times at exactly that time interestingly. However he often still has a newborn waking pattern of every 2-3 hours. Usually now daddy can usually rock or sing to sleep without nursing (can be a long commitment).

    During the day we have switched to a “schedule” which has helped us. We are nursing 5-6 times normally. There is “baba” at morning waking, 11:30am and/or pre-nap, 4:30, before bed, and somewhere between 1-2:30 am and sometimes another. There are also three meals a day at set times and 3 snacks. This was difficult to come to, as I felt I wanted him to follow his own hunger pattern . Yet I realize first he needs to know solid food to get to know his own needs. In actuality we probably are following his pattern as we offer and encourage every 2 hours something…

    There are however a couple of difficult spots…

    I notice when he is with a group of younger children, and especially when there are no bats or balls around (which he loves), he asks to nurse with frequency. In a parent child class I find it especially difficult to say no. He expresses his need a lot, and I find it hard to refuse consistently with other parents there, and when the other little ones are nursing. Moreso, I have this feeling that he will be in school situations so much of his life, and I want to give him the comfort of the breast in this first situation if that is what he wants (though I do find it draining!). I do believe it is purely for comfort in this situation. I am curious what how the philosophy you teach would look at this..

    I also notice that he is “whining” a lot and “demanding” that we read to him, or sing to him, or do something with him… and we try to respond and do it to help with transition from the breast, but I am not sure this is helpful for his behavior.

    Lastly, I do get concerned about his fluid intake. He drinks at the most 4 oz. a day and really only has 3 wet diapers. We encourage drinking a lot— feels like we are really pushing it on him. I don’t feel I have a lot of milk. So it makes me hesitant to limit nursing further.

    Any suggestions or responses to my post are welcomed!

    Thanks, Ruth

    1. Hey Ruth, I am not a RIE expert by any means, but I just wanted to share with you what I do with my daughter.

      I absolutely agree that part of breastfeeding is comfort 🙂 I think there is a line between comfort and using it as a crutch. That sounds really harsh written, and I can’t find a gentler way to say it, I’m sorry but please know that I do not mean to be harsh or anti nursing. I am currently nursing my 13 month old.

      I think that when your son encounters a difficult situation, we should acknowledge it and allow him those unpleasant feelings rather than make it all go away with the breast.

      With regards to his fluid intake, you can also feed him snacks like watermelon, honey dew etc that have a high water content.

      Good luck!

  11. When I was weaning my 2 year old, we had to find something else to do instead of nurse. he wanted to nurse and nurse until he fell asleep, even though i was “empty.” I discovered that (for him) hearing a story was comforting. So, I recited the Lorax (yes, i had it memorized). That soothed him and took the place of nursing for him. Once he shifted to story listening, I was able to slowly reduce the time he nursed. (I did it instinctually, but I know others who actually used a clock, slowly reducing the number of minutes the toddler was allowed to suck). the audio stories (NOT BOOKS…. pictures and pages were too distracting!)really helped him relax and eased him into sleep. He is now 5, and still wants a story after lights out every night.

  12. Hi

    My little man is 2 and a half and we agreed to limit nursing to just before bed and in the morning for my own sanity almost a year ago. This has been going great and he’s even mostly happy to have someone else to put him to bed without it and sleep through the night as usual. We made a decision to go with baby led weaning when we started introducing solids etc and perhaps naievely I had thought that my baby would have weaned himself by now. So we’re still going, but I getting to the stage where I’m a little over it especially early in the morning, where he throws himself round the bed as I’m trying to wake up enough to see to him. Especially as wake up time is getting earlier and earlier over the last few weeks. When we talk about the possibility of stopping the ‘buba’ he makes it very clear he’s not happy with that and tells me he’s still a baby. Any suggestions??

    1. Hi Daisy, how did things progress with the mornings and earlier wake up times? Very similar situation here… Would love any advice. Thank you.

  13. Hi! I can totally relate to Shereen’s letter. I’m going through something very similar, but my son is 4 and has a vaccine injury. (I know, not going there)
    Anyway, he hasn’t been a good sleeper since he was 5 months old, actually he’s NEVER slept through the night, not one time. He would wake up in hysterics every night.. Like night terrors but every single night. No medical explanation from many pediatricians, etc., except Schubert med doc had lots of different suggestions and reflections.
    Anyway, my son is still nursing, and I now have a six month old daughter. We tried to wean when I found out I was pregnant, but he was having none of it, and it actually made him super panicky and anxious about milk in general. Bummer. As we got closer to due date and belly got bigger we decided we had to night wean. I explained to him that we needed to do it, and mostly used the “it’s not my rule, it’s theirs” excuse, that his dentist said and his doctor said it was time to stop during the night. We also used bribery!!!!!!! Oh my god. I can’t believe we resorted to that. But, since we’ve never done it before, it worked. He was night nursing free for a month and a half before baby was born, but he still was waking up multiple times a night, then as soon as she was born, he’d hear her nursing or wake up while I was nursing her and want milk. We cosleep too and so if I said no to milk at night while she was having it, he’d scream at the top of his lungs. He knew that would make me give him milk so he didn’t wake his sis. Smart. Well they both got sick and sleep was miserable so we backslid on the night nursing and then it wouldn’t go away again. Bribery only worked that one time.

    So, fast forward til a week ago.. Sleep is miserable still. Hubby sleeps but not me between the two of them nursing. I’m deprived and feeling very depleted after four years of this. I talked to a friend who is into essential oils and she suggested a few for sleep. I got them, tried what she suggested, and boy oh oh would you believe it??? He has been sleeping through the night, every night, for the past week.
    So, try the essential oils! I got Cedarwood, I out one drop on a finger and rub it into both his big toes. Then I put White Angekica on his shoulders and do the same, the rub down his spine and his brain stem. I put lavender on his pillow, and when he’s sick I put lemon oil on his spine and feet. Be sure to dilute with any other oil so the effect isn’t too strong.
    Good luck, and thank you for your wonderful blog, Janet!!!!

  14. Love this advise. I had a ery hard time when I weaned my twin toddlers when they were 28 months due to my pregnancy. My nipples were extremly sensitive and it was so painful to continue nursing. My girl twin still asking me and saying that she is a baby now she wants it and there is still milk in the boobs. Sometimes she asks for it for hours that breaks my heart.. Maybe I did wrong when I said she is not a baby anymore and moms milk for babies and there is also no milk left. She still wants to look at them and kiss them better and lay down on them. That seems to makes her feel better. I dont know if I should let her to do this. The other day I was changing myself and she said put some cloths on you. as if it is painful to see something booby. My boy seems to manage better. But he wants to do the same like her sister. I dont know what is gonna happen when they see the newborn is nursing?

  15. Hello from Ireland! My third child is 18 weeks and a frequent feeder at night. I’m exhausted to be honest and I’m back to work. I love feeding her and hope to keep going but I will need more sleep. Bree I’m interested in how you set boundaries at 6 months. The exhaustion has made me a cranky mum to my 5 and almost 3 year olds and that’s not fair.

  16. My son is 21 months and still nursing. I just want to say that getting sore nipples is due to the child’s latch, not their teeth. If my son is latching in a way that rubs or chafes, I insert a finger into the corner of his mouth to break the seal and say, “you have to latch properly. That doesn’t feel good when you do that.” Then, he latches on properly. Or, if he latches poorly, I immediately do it again and say, “not like that.”
    You’ve got to wean when you’re ready to. But, I hope that eases the process! Best of luck.

  17. I have been nursing both my 3 and 1 year olds for the past year. A couple months after my daughter was born I developed a strong nursing aversion to my son alone. He was night weaned almost completely before she arrived (his own doing) but we ended up cutting back dramatically after the aversion started. Though it has improved some over the last few months, I still cringe a little inside when he asks to nurse. When I tell him that it bothers me and hurts me he says “no it doesn’t!” And if we talk about stopping all together he gets very sad. I’m a little bit sad myself about ending our breastfeeding relationship, but also hate feeling resentment towards him for wanting something so natural. Perhaps the hardest part is worrying what, if anything, it will do to his feelings for his sister who still cosleeps and nurses on demand. I think the answer is likely that I need to be more confident in my own decision to wean, but am I being overly concerned that this will affect their sibling relationship? Any advice appreciated!

  18. I’m so glad to see that I am not the only one that is struggling in this area! My daughter is 21 months old, and I have been trying to wean her since she turned one year old (I was just really ready physically and emotionally), however she has been very resistant to give up nursing before naptime, bedtime, and middle of the night feedings, because she relies on nursing to go to sleep. We have talked about it many, many times over the last few months, but she is not willing to even TRY to fall asleep without nursing. I’ve developed a nursing aversion, and it is just driving me crazy.

    I’d like to add that in addition to only nursing to sleep, she will ONLY nap in my arms (absolutely can NOT transfer her to her crib without her waking up and having to start all over again), and she has been doing this SINCE BIRTH, and I am slowly going mad! I can definitely relate to the feelings of anger, frustration, depression, and resentment. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars working with sleep consultants trying to find a no-cry way to get her to sleep without nursing, but nothing has worked. 🙁 ANY and all advice and ideas would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much.

  19. Lisa Eskenazi says:

    How might you adjust this advice for complete weaning? My 2 year old nurses before bed nightly and sometimes for naps. I am ready to quit completely. I am also nursing my three month old. Thank you. I’ve read both your books and love your podcast.

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