By: Shelley Nortje (Clinical Psychologist)
What is weaning?
Weaning is the process of introducing a baby to solid food or formula and gradually withdrawing the mother’s milk or breastfeeding. The weaning process begins the first time a baby takes food from a source other than its mother’s breast – whether formula from a bottle or mashed vegetables from a spoon. Weaning is the gradual replacement of breastfeeding with other ways of taking in food and being soothed. Weaning can take place in a natural way where the baby gradually stops breastfeeding by itself, called Infant-led weaning. Alternatively, weaning is initiated by the mother, for example on return to work in what is termed Mother-led weaning.
There is much diversity in weaning across countries and cultures. The average age of weaning in the U.S. for example is three months old, while the average age for weaning worldwide is 4.2 years old. Mothers in Zulu societies may breastfeed until about 18 months, while in more western societies babies are weaned at much earlier ages. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life in both developing and developed countries.
Factors that impact on the weaning experience:
The age of the baby when weaning begins also seems to depend on several other factors that might characterise these different countries and communities. Some of the factors affecting weaning might include:
Different countries have quite varying policies on maternity and paternity leave. For example, in Canada mothers are allowed up to 12 months maternity leave, while in most other countries maternity leave is an average of 12 to 14 weeks. Often mothers who have to return to work earlier, begin to wean their babies earlier than mothers who are able to stay at home.
Formula can be quite expensive, and especially in poverty-stricken areas and developing countries, mothers may prefer to try to breastfeed for longer instead of having to rely on more expensive formula feeds. In line with this is a mother’s access to clean water and cleaning facilities for sterilizing bottles. Bacteria and other diseases may affect baby’s health if caregivers are not able to properly clean formula bottles.
Some mothers who are on medication or suffer from medical difficulties may not be able to breastfeed without it negatively impacting on their own or their baby’s health. In these instances, medical professionals are needed to explain the pros and cons of breastfeeding and medications to ensure the continued health of both mom and baby.
Young girls who fall pregnant, may not be able to continue breastfeeding for as long as either they or their babies would like, as a result of having to return to school to complete their education. This can often be a difficult time for these young moms, in managing the stressors of writing exams and caring for their newborns.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for new moms to trust their own mothering instincts or their baby’s communications of their needs. Mobile Apps and the advice (although well-intentioned) of friends and relatives leaves mothers confused about how best to go about the weaning process.
- Post-natal depression (PND):
Post-natal depression and the baby blues are emotional difficulties that a mother may experience after the birth of her baby. At this time, mothers may be more tearful, feeling low and fatigued, and helpless about their new role as mother. In these instances, mothers may struggle to enjoy or focus on breastfeeding. Mothers are encouraged to access support in these early weeks and months if they notice that their low mood is affecting their ability to nurture and soothe their baby.
What are the possible impacts of weaning for mothers and babies?
There are mixed feelings involved in the weaning process, making it both an exciting and difficult time for mothers and babies.
Weaning can be experienced as a loss for both mothers and their babies. Breastfeeding for some mother-baby dyads is a special and intimate experience. When this ends, with the normal developmental process of weaning, both moms and babies might feel saddened and unsure about the loss of intimacy and the changes that will need to be made in their relationship. Weaning also becomes one of the first ways that mothers can help their babies learn about how to deal with separations or loss.
On the other hand however, weaning also offers a positive experience for mom and baby of becoming more independent. Mothers may feel relief at having their bodies to themselves again. This sense of freedom and individuality is important for babies to learn more about their mothers as separate and unique individuals. Mothers may also feel excited and hopeful to watch their babies develop and grow. Babies are also able to become more independent. They have the exciting new journey of tasting new foods and different textures.
How to managing the weaning process?
Weaning is an important developmental milestone. It is imperative for mothers to gather information about weaning and breastfeeding from multiple sources and to reflect on their own reasons for weaning so that she can make an informed decision about the process and timing of weaning. Weaning is also the second separation for a baby from its mother after birth, and therefore needs to be handled thoughtfully. Mothers may feel confused by how others respond to their process of weaning –she may feel pressurised to breastfeed for longer than she feels is comfortable, or she may be criticized for continuing to breastfeed for longer than is the norm in her community. It is therefore valuable for mothers and those around her providing support – professionals, friends and family members – to remain flexible, sensitive and in tune with the baby’s experience.
Weaning and nurturing:
The benefits of breastfeeding for bonding are often promoted by professionals. However, weaning and the ending of breastfeeding does not necessarily mean that the intimate bond between mother and child needs to end. Feeding and loving may now be done in different ways! For example, a mommy who has used breastfeeding as a way to soothe her baby will now need to find a new way to help her baby manage feelings of distress. This might include rocking or being held, playing or singing to the baby.