I breastfed my second child for 4 years and 4 months and recently successfully weaned her from breastfeeding. Read on if you want to learn more about our experience and hopefully you will takeaway some tips on how to stop breastfeeding a 4 year old.
How to stop breastfeeding a 4 year old – our journey
Over a year ago, in this post about the end of the baby days, I wrote about how I could feel breastfeeding beginning to wind down. We had a photographer take shots of me nursing to capture the end, Lena was 3 years and 2 months then. I spoke about how I felt my milk supply was dwindling and that we were entering the final phase.
I had always planned to let Lena self-wean, that was my plan and I feel somewhat conflicted that I’m taking the lead and nudging her into this.
Why am I weaning my 4 year old?
The biggest reason I’m weaning is for over a year now Lena’s latch has been atrocious on my left breast. I’ve been going back to basics with her, trying to get her to nurse properly but we’ve had little success.
She’s ok (ish though has been getting worse) on the right but on the left no matter how deep her latch starts off she will slip back to a shallow latch and grind her teeth on my nipple.
It’s uncomfortable and triggering for me. I tolerate it for so long before it becomes unbearable and I have to tell her to come off. I’ve been persisting because she loves it so much but it’s got to the point where I’m just ready to be done now.
I have to admit that the prospect of Lena starting school soon has also been on my mind. As much as it shouldn’t the social stigma of breastfeeding at school age is a small influencing factor. Not so much for me as I don’t really care what people think of me but I don’t want Lena to be shamed for it.
That said, I know the social stigma of nursing a child going to school is very much a ‘western construct’ and the natural term weaning age is around 7. If her latch was still great I wouldn’t let this aspect stop us. I’d just be lying if I said it never crossed my mind.
In addition, I’m very ready to have my body back just for me again – it’s been 8 years 3 months and 4 days of being continuously pregnant or breastfeeding. I’ve definitely put my time in to these kids.
First step – night weaning a 4 year old
Up until her 4th birthday Lena had bed-shared with me from birth and would night nurse on demand all night, this was often every hour since birth. As we bed-shared it didn’t hugely bother me, she would just help herself, latch on and we would both drift back off to sleep together.
Towards the end of last year though, I started to notice that whilst she was beginning to sleep longer stretches, she was waking up to nurse, out of habit and comfort (which I don’t have an issue with per se – those reasons aren’t inherently bad).
When I went away somewhere overnight and Lena stayed with her dad or a grandparent she would sleep through though. I would notice that I would wake Lena up when I got into bed at night. I need to move around in my sleep a lot and that was waking her too.
I realised it was time to try to move her to her own bed so towards the end of 2018/start of 2019 I started to night wean her. She was ready, there was some grumbling but she understood. If she ever got really upset I would just nurse. We take a gentle approach to stuff like this. I wouldn’t have forced it upon her if she was getting distraught.
Our approach to night weaning with both our children has been to involve their dad who would take over from me and rock/cuddle/pace the kids to get them to asleep instead of using the breast.
If they aren’t comforted by that, won’t settle and continue to cry then I just take back over and nurse. We wait for them to be ready, when they are, it works and when they are not its stressful for all involved.
Step 2 – big girl bedroom
Night weaning went well with minimal support from Papa Ginge. So for her 4th birthday, we did operation BIG GIRL BEDROOM! Having bed-shared for her whole life I suspected that she might want to continue, or at the very least have nights where she needed to.
Up until this point, our eldest Arlo (7) had been bed-sharing with Papa Ginge while I was sharing with Lena. Arlo finally felt ready to sleep on his own so we bought him a cool Ikea loft bed and a new desk and chair for his computer so he had a little room makeover.
The double bed that the boys had been sleeping on in his room would be Lena’s new bed and we transformed our office (ahem messy room), into a room for Lena. We are now over 4 months on from this and the transition went well – mostly.
The tricky bit for us was before the move, if she didn’t nurse to sleep, Papa Ginge would rock her to sleep in his arms in our rocking chair and then lay her down once she was asleep. As well as moving her to the new room, we decided to wean from the rocking chair too. This is the area of the transition we are still struggling with a bit.
Previously she would go to sleep without much fuss, relatively quickly. Now she acts up – begs for me, another snack, another drink, a toy, an extra story etc. She’s having tantrums and crying. We are still working on making bedtime a smoother process. We do still stay with her at bedtime until she’s fast asleep – for now.
All that said, the girl who was still waking frequently now sleeps through the night. Which is incredible for a family that has been chronically sleep deprived for over 7 years.
Papa Ginge is still bed-sharing with Lena at the moment. She’s scared of the dark and initially when she was waking up in the new room she was freaking out so at first I still bedshared with her in the new bed to get her used to the room and then Papa Ginge took over once she had settled in there.
Once she’s over the transition of weaning Papa Ginge is going to try leaving her room. I’m currently enjoying a glorious period of the bed entirely to myself and I’m DOWN FOR IT. I’m soaking up all the sleep and it feels amazing.
It is not a coincidence that since around the time Lena moved to her own room and I started getting sleep again, I’ve been working out every day again. I’m feeling so much better.
Step 3 – cutting down the feeds
Lena has always truly nursed on demand, we never spaced her feeds at all. She might have left a minute between sessions, ten minutes, an hour etc. Day or night rarely an hour went by where she didn’t breastfeed. Trying to quantify it would have been futile.
First we started off doing ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ to begin our weaning journey slowly but allow for self-weaning.
Then, I can’t remember how long ago now but we started to reduce day feeds and told her ‘minkies’ (milkies became minkies at some point and it stuck) was just for in bed.
We went through periods where we dropped the bedtime feed then it came back again depending on what she felt she needed. Sometimes she would beg to nurse in the day and we would. We tried to follow her lead whilst also starting to build some boundaries.
Most recently we tried a sticker chart to stop breastfeeding. If she didn’t have minkies at bedtime for a week and got a sticker on her chart for 7 days she would get a toy pterodactyl she had fallen in love with.
But then Papa Ginge gave her the toy for Easter despite my protestations and she said ‘I don’t need to do my stickers now as I’ve got my toy now’ and began begging for minkies again. Grrrr Papa Ginge.
Step 4 – talking about it was an important part of stopping breastfeeding my 4 year old
A few weeks ago we had a chat about how we weren’t going to do minkies at bedtime anymore. How she was a big girl now.
We looked through photos of her as a new baby breastfeeding and talked about how babies need to drink milk as they can’t eat food yet and they don’t have teeth.
I told her how breastfeeding used to help her grow and how she didn’t drink anything else and didn’t eat anything else.
We talked about how now she drinks and eats lots of other things and we looked at how many teeth she has in a mirror.
I told her that her big brother doesn’t breastfeed anymore and how she’s becoming a big girl and needs to say goodbye to minkies soon.
We discussed how it has been hurting me for a long time now as her teeth have gotten bigger and how I don’t like doing it anymore because it hurts me.
I think she understood well and this was the turning point that led to the end of the night feeds.
We dropped just bedtime feeds for a week or so to let my breasts adjust. Then we moved to stopping morning feeds. Again we chatted about it all, gave her advanced warning and we discussed the last feed.
Step 5 – the last feed
Friday 14th June 2019 we did the last morning feed. I suspected it would be the last feed so we took our time. I took some selfies to help remember it (as you can see pictured through this post).
We were both half-naked, her tiny toes curled into my thighs. It was precious. That is one of the nice things about directing weaning as it doesn’t just happen you can say goodbye.
My son self-weaned pretty abruptly at 2.5 and I can’t remember the last feed. With Lena, I’ll treasure these messy raw real life photos I have.
It turns out though, that wasn’t the last feed, as the next night she ended up having a bedtime session too – don’t worry, I took more selfies though.
Papa Ginge is intrinsic in the process as if she’s sleepy and I’m next to her it’s irresistible, she just wants to nurse. Papa Ginge had to go to work on Saturday night so I was doing bedtime and laid in bed with her it was all too much for her.
She begged me, saying ‘pretty please, I pinky promise I won’t bite’ (turns out that pinky promise isn’t worth much tbh). She also sniffed me like I was a slice of pizza saying ‘but you smell so good’.
In the end, I couldn’t refuse her so we had one last feed that I was quite relieved to do. I was feeling a teeny bit of fullness that felt good to ‘be emptied’.
She fell asleep on the breast and I’ve just realised writing this that unlike the morning last feed, this would be the last time she fell asleep on my breast. The last time I had to pop my pinky in her mouth to break her latch and extract my nipple. Gosh, I’m welling up writing this. Gah hormones, gah emotions.
It’s now nearly 3 weeks on and she is occasionally asking for ‘minkies’ and getting a little upset when I say no. She says she loves it and misses it but if I’m honest, she acts similarly when I tell her she can’t have more chocolate so I’m trying not to take it to heart too much. She’s very adept at trying to get what she wants this one!
How I’ve felt physically after stopping breastfeeding my 4 year old
Physically I must have mostly dried up a while ago (as I had suspected – I felt my boobs get smaller, noticed I no longer got engorged and started to gain weight over a year ago) as I’ve had no engorgement.
I’ve had some slight twinging but nothing bad. I had feared I would get blocked ducts or mastitis as I’m so prone to them but we are nearly 3 weeks on from the last feed now and so far so good.
As for my boobs, I’m now nearly 3 weeks in and my boobs haven’t changed shape or size yet at all. I don’t expect they will now at this point but we’ll see. (Update, it’s now 2022 and my boobs might have settled a little but largely look the same).
How I’ve felt emotionally about stopping breastfeeding my 4 year old
It’s hard to tell what is the hormones dropping and what is just sadness at moving on but I’ve felt very emotional and teary about it. Some moments I’m happy, excited and proud.
Others I’m wracked with guilt and questioning whether I’m doing the right thing at the right time. There have been times I’ve felt quite low and it did feel hormonal but that is passing now.
Step 6 – marking the end by celebrating stopping breastfeeding at 4 years old
Because I’ve felt so emotional and the occasion is so bittersweet I wanted to mark the occasion for both Lena and I. Lena asked for a party so we ended up arranging a last minute family BBQ with my parents and my sister and her family at our house, complete with a chocolate cake with unicorns and rainbows.
It was such a lovely day, first we went to the cinema to see Toy Story 4 (Bonnie is starting school and it nearly finished me off) and then popped to the supermarket opposite the cinema to get burgers and sausages and had an impromptu BBQ.
Papa Ginge doesn’t really get why this is such a big deal to me but my sister and mam totally got it and I needed to be around that. We did a toast and my mam and sis told me and Lena how proud they were of us. I think this helped solidify the end for both Lena and I.
In fact, just last night, Lena asked to nurse again and got a little upset and I reminded her how we said goodbye at her party and now ‘minkies’ was gone. The habit is still there for both of us. I guess it’s just going to take a while for us to adjust not to going straight to the boob to fix all of our problems.
Beware of the period of increased illnesses following stopping breastfeeding
Recently she had chickenpox and it was really hard for me to not nurse her through it – though having stopped weaning may be why she caught them in the first place.
When my eldest weaned at 2.5 we went through a spell where he caught every bug going so I’m aware she might pick up more illnesses for a while.
Other articles about weaning older children that I found helpful
The end and the beginning
I’m beyond grateful for being able to experience this unique bond, I’ll always treasure it. There have been times I’ve been exhausted, hospitalised with mastitis or nursing through a vomiting bug where I feel I’ve nothing left to give when it’s been so incredibly hard.
But those times pale into comparison with every time I’ve sniffed her scent on her hair as she curls into me. When I’ve watched her palms relax as she feels safe and content. The times she’s stared deep into my eyes as she nurses and I stared into hers as her chubby little hand reached up and stroked my face.
It was worth it for every time she’s been upset or hurt and I’ve been able to take all the pain away with my body.
I will miss this. I miss it already.
But it was time.