The Oxford dictionary definition of weaning is “to manage without something to which one has become dependent or excessively fond.” In the first three years of your child’s life, the two usual areas of weaning are shifting from the breast and/or bottle to a cup, and giving up or reducing dependence on the pacifier. These forms of weaning mean helping your child give up sucking as a form of soothing to find another, more developmentally advanced, form of self-comfort.
Asking your child to give up such a powerful form of gratification and soothing can bring up strong feelings for a parent. For mothers who have found breast feeding a rewarding and bonding experience, there are often questions as to when and how to wean their baby, or if weaning will be emotionally damaging. Mothers have their own feelings about losing this way of connecting closely with their baby and about becoming more separate from their child as he or she grows. Similarly, babies become attached to their bottles and both mothers and fathers can wonder if they will feel as secure without them. Your young toddler may ask for her pacifier when she is upset or tired and rely on it to fall asleep at night. Parents often wonder whether they should wean “cold turkey” or more gradually. Mostly they want to know how to facilitate this transition so as to enhance their child’s emotional development.
All kinds of factors can make parents feel it is time to wean their baby or toddler. They can be told by their pediatrician or dentist that the bottle or pacifier will negatively affect their child’s teeth. A ten month old baby might not be as interested in breast feeding because she has become so curious about the world around her. Your baby or toddler may only be able to go to sleep on the breast making falling and staying asleep difficult for her and leaving you sleepless. Or, perhaps you think your child relies too much on her pacifier for comfort. Often mothers feel a conflict between the demands and their own inner wishes and fears. For example, parents can closely identify with the comfort their child gets from falling asleep from nursing or going to sleep with the pacifier and don’t want to deprive them of that experience.
At UWS Parenting Support, we help mothers and fathers think through a step-by-step process in which they can gradually help their child tolerate increments of frustration and develop other forms of comfort. In particular instances, it might be more helpful to a child to wean him all at once–particularly with an older child and the pacifier–although of course with adequate preparation. In helping a child give up one form of comfort and shift to another, parents need to give more of themselves in the transition period. It can help parents to know that this process, which can be stressful, is temporary. In our Family Consultations we help parents think about how they can talk to their child, matching their language to the child’s developmental level. Our child development expert contributes her thoughts about your child’s unique temperament and style, as part of developing a plan that is uniquely suited to each parent child dyad.
Mothers participating in one of our side-by-side Mother-Child Groups have the opportunity to talk about their feelings about and experience with weaning and to hear about those of other mothers. With guidance from a noncritical, experienced group leader, mothers are given a space to figure out what will work best for them and their child.