Breastfeeding can be a sacred journey for a mother and a child, and ending that journey, while inevitable, can still be very difficult. Physical side effects aside, weaning can sometimes be emotionally charged, and that can be even more true when your child is a slightly older toddler. Whether you’re heading back to work, your child is heading to daycare, you’ve got a baby on the way or you simply want a bit more space to yourself, you might be feeling ready to learn how to stop breastfeeding a 2-year-old. And while it may feel like you’re the first person to ever wean a toddler, you’re far from it.
In fact, there are a few different ways to stop breastfeeding a 2-year-old. Most people either stop breastfeeding by weaning slowly or stopping cold turkey. Read up a bit to see which approach feels right for you and your family.
Ending your breastfeeding journey might come as a relief to you, or it might feel really upsetting. Know that any of your feelings about it are valid, and there’s no reason to feel ashamed for stopping.
How to wean a toddler
Weaning is the gradual process of introducing a baby to a more adult diet while slowly ending the supply of breast milk. It begins the moment you introduce something other than breast milk to your baby, meaning that by the time your child is a 2-year-old, you’ve likely already begun the weaning process. Weaning in the context of ending the breastfeeding relationship is a slow process and isn’t for moms who want — or need — to immediately stop breastfeeding.
Melanie Silverman, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and Chief Clinical Officer at Pacify Health, tells Romper, “The best advice is to wean slowly, take care of yourself, have patience, and get help, if you need it, treating any physical or emotional challenges.”
There also isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to wean. “While we wish there was a tried and true method to wean every toddler — there really isn’t,” Silverman says. “A slow wean is best, if possible. Weaning slowly helps your body adjust, and can prevent side effects such as engorged breasts and discomfort that comes from quitting cold turkey,” she explains. There are two primary ways to stop breastfeeding a 2-year-old by slowly weaning:
- Drop one feeding at a time. Give your child a few days to adjust before you drop another one. “Try dropping their least favorite feeding first,” Silverman suggests. “Usually, the nighttime feeding is the hardest to drop, so you may want to leave that one for last. Try dropping the morning feeding, for example, then waiting a few days to let your body adjust before dropping the next one.”
- Shorten your 2-year-old’s breastfeeding sessions. For example, if a toddler usually breastfeeds for 10 minutes, try only nursing them for eight minutes. Then, after a few days, ease them down to six minutes, and so on until, eventually, your 2-year-old has stopped breastfeeding entirely.
As for how long weaning takes, it really depends on the toddler. “A 2-year-old should be eating three meals a day and several snacks separated by several hours,” Silverman explains. “If the child is eating this way, weaning probably won’t negatively affect growth and development, but it’s important to keep in close contact with your pediatrician while weaning. If your child is losing weight and also breastfeeding many times per day, this is cause for concern and weaning should begin in favor of more consistent table food with ample amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fat.”
If you decide that weaning is the method you want to use to stop breastfeeding your 2-year-old, Silverman recommends you come up with a clear weaning plan and schedule, and stick to it, noting that consistency is key. “Understand that weaning is an emotional process and complex feelings are normal!” she warns. “Be patient with yourself and your toddler — you will figure it out together.”
How to stop breastfeeding cold turkey
If you’ve decided that it’s time to stop breastfeeding your 2-year-old, but that weaning doesn’t work for you, stopping cold turkey is an option. Particularly if breastfeeding is painful or difficult for you, stopping cold turkey is a safe way to stop breastfeeding. Keep in mind, though, it might be painful because you may become engorged. There are a few precautions to take to make it easier.
“You can make yourself more comfortable by wearing a supportive bra,” Silverman says. She also recommends putting cold cabbage leaves on your breasts to ease discomfort. You can use them throughout the day, changing and discarding them every few hours. “This may seem like a strange remedy, but it works!” she says. “Compounds in the cabbage leaves can help reduce inflammation in breast tissue for some breastfeeding parents.” Applying ice packs to your breasts can also help reduce inflammation and offer some comfort, according to Jada Shapiro, certified lactation support counselor and founder of Boober.
If your breasts become engorged when stopping cold turkey, you don’t have to go back to breastfeeding for relief. “Even though you are going cold turkey from breastfeeding, that doesn’t mean you should be going cold turkey from milk removal,” Shapiro says. She recommends hand-expressing very small amounts of milk — just enough to give yourself relief — whenever you feel you need. Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter pain relief, if needed.
Some moms might stop cold turkey and feel relief or excitement, while some moms might stop cold turkey and find it emotionally difficult. There’s no right or wrong way to feel and, often, hormones are to blame. “It’s important to recognize the psychological impact of quitting breastfeeding on the parent, and talk to a behavioral health specialist if you need to.” Silverman says. Not only can stopping cold turkey affect you emotionally, it can also affect your toddler. They might feel startled by the sudden end of breastfeeding, and it can be a lot for them to handle. Be sure you have an honest conversation with them, be there for extra snuggles, and expect some difficulty around normal feeding times.
How to talk to your 2-year-old about stopping breastfeeding
Ending your breastfeeding journey when your baby is 2 years old is very different than ending it when they’re a few months old. By age 2, your little one is officially a toddler who has a better understanding of what’s going on and much more emotional range. They’ve probably also come to rely on the routine of breastfeeding, and ending that routine may be a challenging transition for some. As with any transition, you can set your child up for success by letting them know what to expect.
Having an honest, age-appropriate conversation with your toddler about how you’re going to stop breastfeeding is essential. “Explain that your toddler is becoming a bigger kid and is no longer going to be having your milk, or whatever term you use,” Shapiro says. “It’s almost like providing a graduation ceremony.” After talking to them about what they might feel or experience as you stop breastfeeding, you can set up a mini celebration to help them make the transition.
How to make the transition easier for your toddler
When you know that you’d like to stop breastfeeding your 2-year-old, there are many things you can do to begin to usher your child through the process. Silverman recommends that you start setting limits on how many times they can breastfeed to get them used to cutting it out completely. “It can also help to offer alternative activities, like reading stories together, singing songs, playing games, or visiting the park,” she says. Look for ways to show your toddler that just because you aren’t going to breastfeed them doesn’t mean you won’t be available to them.
It’s also OK to lean on other things — outings, treats or special drinks — to distract them from breastfeeding during this transitional time. “Offer alternatives like food or a sip of another beverage,” Shapiro says. “Offer to play or show them something new at that moment. Often they will get distracted and forget that they wanted to nurse in the first place.”
In addition to all of this, you can also try make it harder for them to nurse. “You can try making your breasts or chest much less accessible to your child, with more complicated clothing that cannot just be pushed aside,” Shapiro says.
Since your child might feel out of control in this situation, and that can be frightening, try to find a way to help them feel more in control. “Allow the toddler to choose a snack on their own instead of breastfeeding,” Silverman says.
Most of all, simply be there for them. “Provide lots of snuggles and reassurance,” Shapiro says. “Offer love and patience and recognize that the child may have some challenges through this transition. Emphasize how they are growing and becoming a bigger kid, which could involve taking them out for a special treat or a gift.” When you’re going to stop breastfeeding your 2-year-old, don’t make it sound like a bad thing. Instead, show them all of the good things that come along with being a bigger kid.
However and whenever you decide to wean your child, know that there is no right or wrong way to feel about ending breastfeeding. Be gentle on yourself and remember that this is just the next natural step in your parenting journey.
Melanie Silverman, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, MS, RD.