It’s hard for parents to follow their young child’s lead, especially when it comes to weaning. A child will nurse or use a bottle only as long as he needs to, but most parents don’t trust that he will stop on his own. Instead, they try to hurry him by taking away the bottle, breast, or pacifier before he’s ready.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents to wean their child. The pressure can be strong when the child reaches one year old, and increases as he grows. Friends and relatives ask, “What’s he doing with a bottle? Can’t he drink from a cup yet?” The pediatrician may say, “He doesn’t need to nurse or use a bottle anymore”. One mother reluctantly weaned her twenty-one-month-old son after such a statement from his doctor, although the child still enjoyed the bottle. Even passersby may comment, “He’s too big for a bottle”. Negative remarks are directed not just at the child, but at the parents. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you still nursing?” “Why don’t you take his bottle away?”

Parents feel especially self-conscious when judged by other parents. If the parents of a two and one-half-year-old believe theirs is the only child on the playground who still drinks from a bottle, they will wonder how it looks to other people and what other parents are thinking. They’ll doubt their own judgment and wonder what they’ve done wrong or what’s wrong with their child: “Do I baby him too much? Do we give in to him?” These parents would feel better if they knew that many children are just not ready to be weaned at an early age. Parents can avoid feeling embarrassed in public by distracting their young child and telling him that he’ll have to wait before he can nurse or have his bottle.

If the bottle, breast, or pacifier is taken away from him too soon, he’ll probably look for other ways to satisfy his sucking needs. He might become irritable or start sucking his blanket. One mother, who threw out her fifteen-month-old’s bottles on the advice of her pediatrician, said, “My son seems OK but he started sucking his thumb”. Some breast-fed babies who are weaned at twelve to eighteen months may not yet be ready to give up sucking. If they are only offered a training cup, they may suck the top of the cup just as they would suck on a nipple.

Many children who drink frequently and successfully from a cup still nurse (usually under the age of two) or use a bottle. Between ages two and three, a child may want to suck when he’s tired, feeling stress from a fall or hurt feelings, spending time with a caregiver, or just relaxing with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. He also may want a bottle whenever he sees another child with one. And during times of transition, such as a move or the arrival of a new baby, a child’s sucking needs may increase.

If he’s allowed to nurse, drink from a bottle, or use his pacifier when he wants, his needs gradually will decrease. Then either on his own or with your help, he will wean himself. This often happens by the time the child is eighteen months to two and one-half, although many older children will still relax before sleep with a bottle.

If parents feel they must hurry the weaning process, they should do so carefully. They should be sure that weaning will not interfere with another stage of development such as learning to use the toilet, beginning day care or nursery school, or adjusting to a new sibling. The process should be stretched over several weeks so the child is not forced abruptly to give up something important.

As your child gives up the bottle or breast, you may have ambivalent feelings. If you nursed, you may feel good about “having your body to yourself” again, or you may be glad to stop fussing with bottles. But you also may feel sad to give up the warm, close feeling you had as you held your child and offered him milk or watched him lie contentedly with his bottle. You also may miss the free time you had when he drank quietly by himself. Whatever your feelings—impatience or reluctance—in time your child will be weaned. If you can wait until he is ready to wean himself, the process will be simpler and more natural.

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