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Weaning Your Tot (Without the Trauma): Essentials for Success

Katya Bowd

Posted on May 12 2017

Much of parenting can be summed up in the adage, “Pick your battles.” In some cases, this means not letting one unimportant battle use up your reserves of willpower and patience because you have bigger fish to fry. Other times, it means realising that a particularly important development needs to take place right now – so we need to let other important things wait until that process is finished. The best tips for parenting are often going to come down to one idea: priorities. So whether the upcoming milestone is teething or toilet-training, or letting go of the bottle or the breast, the starting point is always going to be the same: recognize that your child is going to need extra understanding and TLC (tender loving care), and determine to give as much as you can of both to help the process go more smoothly – even if it means less social time or slightly shorter workdays for the time being. If your first attempts at weaning have been full of unbearable screaming, long nights of inconsolable crying or sudden power struggles left and right, the following four areas may need your undivided attention for a while until your little one can manage them without needing so much of your help.

Learning to self-soothe

So many people somehow reach adulthood without learning the fine art of “calming down” when they are upset. This skill is heavily linked to sources of security. For veteran mothers, it is pretty easy to recognize when breastfeeding or the bottle has become more of a source of security than of nourishment to your little one. But new mums may need some tips. Does your little one refuse to go to sleep without nursing or taking a bottle to bed? Has he or she developed the ability to use actual words to ask for what is wanted (and throw a fit if it isn’t offered)? If so, start to look for other ways of bestowing special attention in a tactile way to begin breaking the habit – such as baby massage. Books about child care tips that include step-by-step guides for effective baby massage are an excellent addition to your parenting library. Massage sessions can recreate the closeness of breastfeeding and allow for attention and lots of eye contact – both of which are critical in large doses for your baby’s development in the first two years. Also, especially after the one-year mark, it is important to begin introducing methods of relaxation that your child has the ability to practice themselves anytime, anywhere.

One idea involves teaching them how to cup their hands around their ears and close their eyes, and practice deep-breathing. Have you ever held a conch shell to your ear and “listened to the ocean?” It’s the same idea; it gives them the power to create a white noise on which to focus when they feel agitated. For the first few nights with this method, it is fun to make up a story with your little one about going to the beach. Use your hands around their ears so they get the idea, and use a hypnotic, low voice and a slow way telling the story about “a day at the beach.” This inadvertently teaches your child to create a “happy place” in their imagination, which is especially effective if elements of your stories make them focus on all 5 of the senses. They will forget all about their need for the bottle or breast once they learn this fun new bedtime or nap time ritual. Once they are 2-3 years old, if you have done it regularly don’t be surprised if you see them begin doing it all on their own without needing your suggestion.

Managing/eliminating stressors

This can’t be over-emphasized: change that which you can control. Again, many people never properly learn how to do this, and it comes down to how mum and dad teach by example. Another critical tip on parenting is to always evaluate your example. Do you find yourself stressing out about things you can’t control? Do you cope via extra intake of chocolate and spiral into Drama-Mama mode? Or do you regularly practice the fine art of letting go and focusing instead on things you CAN control? It is hard to effectively teach what you don’t practice. Pay attention to stressors that you as a parent bring into your home – from work, from friends, etc. Any unnecessary stress YOU feel as a parent is guaranteed to contribute to the stress your child feels… leading to an increase in the need for security.

As much as you can, focus on maintaining a peaceful environment in the home while working through this first major milestone in your child’s behavioral development. Then focus on teaching stress-management techniques for the stressors that can’t be helped (i.e., an upcoming family move, illness, etc.). Put music on that your child finds fun and relaxing. Sit down with a cup of tea and fix a little cup or sippy of diluted juice for your little one (scoring some practice at preferring something other than the bottle) and snuggle in for some reading together. Have regular yoga sessions together. All of these things promote the sense of being independent of the bottle for comfort and security. They also equip your child with ways to manage stress and/or eliminate unnecessary stress themselves in the future.

Acknowledging other legitimate ways of coping with change

Let’s face it, we know exactly what those kiddos are going through. If anyone has ever tried to cut back on caffeine or nix sugar, you know the hardest part is finding an alternative for the go-to that always gets you through when you need it. When it comes to weaning from the bottle or the breast, there are really two options: cold turkey or gradual replacement. And the best tip for parents approaching this milestone is to be empathetic. You know your child best. If you try going cold-turkey and the results are disastrous, try a more easy-going approach. In our case, the sudden introduction of several other coping mechanisms simultaneously was what my daughter needed. We tried gradual weaning… it was long, drawn-out, and ultimately unsuccessful. But by introducing fun cups with favorite characters, putting ice in water or juice, and suggesting activities whenever the normal time for nursing came, we finally made it happen. These ended up taking the attention off of the sudden absence of her preferred way to wind down or to be comforted in the midst of agitation. However, you do it, be ready with lots of snuggling and story times. Introduce a small plush animal friend – anything that will supplement and eventually replace that former source of security. For mums who are breastfeeding, a good tip is to take a favorite toy animal or doll and use it for communicating with your little one as a distraction when he or she wants to nurse. Make it tell jokes, or use it to give time limits on the nursing that steadily get shorter and shorter (“ok, only five minutes, then it’s time to play!”) until they stop altogether.

Creating a milestone celebration

Don’t forget to plan some pomp and ceremony when it’s officially time to be “done.” One awesome way to help your child “graduate” might include letting him or her pick out a new cup at the store in a favorite color, and taking them with you to donate the bottle paraphernalia “for mummies who have new babies.” You could choose a day together on the calendar, and plan a mom-and-tot ice-cream date into the outing for extra incentive to look forward to it. Whatever you choose to do to celebrate, make the lead up to the experience of weaning as positive as you can by being relaxed, eliminating unnecessary stress for your child, and thinking creatively about ways to help them cope with the change.

What other creative suggestions have you heard or tried for helping your toddler let go of the bottle? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!