5 Tips for Gently Weaning the Highly Sensitive Child

Nothing about breastfeeding has gone the way that I planned and weaning is no exception. I have been breastfeeding for more than 3 years and tandem breastfeeding for 5 months. The magical days of breastfeeding are over. Now it’s just another part of life that I sometimes enjoy and sometimes despise. At 3 years and 3 months old my oldest son, Jack, breastfeeds more often than I ever expected a toddler would. Tandem breastfeeding has not been the amazing joy ride I thought it would be. I have found myself overwhelmed, touched-out and drained. I needed to make some changes. These are changes that are essentially designed to create boundaries for my 3-year-old. The 5 month old, Exley, needs to be breastfed on demand and this mama needs some energy and sanity leftover to survive. These boundaries are being created and they will not be loosened somewhere down the road so this is basically what starting gentle weaning looks like for us.

5 Tips for Gently Weaning the Highly Sensitive Child

Jack is a highly sensitive child. I mean it with every fiber of my being. His sensitivity affects every aspect of his life and our relationship. Including breastfeeding. So when I discussed my feelings with my husband and we agreed that weaning is something that we need to consider we knew that it wouldn’t be a “cold turkey” situation. If we want to continue to meet Jack’s needs and respect his emotions we would need to tread lightly. We knew this would be a process.

I am not a breastfeeding professional. I am just a mom who has a sensitive child who has tried any things to create boundaries. I share what has worked for us here.

  1. Start talking: I spend a lot of time explaining to Jack that he can eat burgers, eggs, sandwiches, fruit, etc. that a baby can’t eat. I try to make food sound exciting and like he is getting something special that a baby can’t have. I tell him needs food and water to grow big and strong. I am careful to do this when it feels like he is able to hear it. Explaining to Jack that he is not a baby anymore and has different needs can cause him stress and make him feel left out so I am always validating his feelings. “It’s hard having a new baby, isn’t it?” “You used to have all of the boobie for yourself and now you have to share, that’s so hard.” “It’s upsetting to see a baby having boobie all the time.” There are other times when he does not want to have this conversation. He might regress into a “baby” and want to be held, wrapped in blankets and treated like a baby. We always feed into this need, wrap him in a blanket and say “look at the adorable new baby!”
  2. Get Out: It really sucks to get out of bed and immediately start working toward heading out of the door. I would much rather sit and drink coffee while watching the morning rerun of Dr. Phil, but this inevitably leads to Jack wanting to hang out on my boob. I look like shit and my kids pants’ are on crooked, but soon enough Exley is dozing in the carrier and Jack is climbing the ropes at the playground not thinking about boobie. Grandma and a babysitter help with this too!
  3. Tap Your Watch: I mean don’t actually do that because that’s obnoxious, but let your kiddo know that you will be nursing for X amount of time. And then I do the countdown. This is whatever you want. Maybe you do 5 minutes and then countdown the last 20 seconds. I can’t last that long. I do about 1 or 2 minutes and I countdown from ten. Jack knows that it’s time to let go. He usually complies, but if he struggles then I use it as an opportunity to teach him about bodily autonomy. “I am asking you to stop. Please stop, this is my body.”
  4. Distraction: When we first started out on this venture we stocked up on food, games, art supplies, etc. We try to keep Jack on his toes all day long. “Check out this awesome new food you have never had,” “look at this new game mommy invented,” “do you want some chocolate?” Yep, when the going gets tough the tough give in. There have been times during this postpartum period that a few pieces of chocolate chips helped saved my sanity. We also spend time with Jack talking about ways he can cope with his emotions since breastfeeding has always been his main means of coping; such as deep breathing, talking with mom and dad, hugging, telling stories, etc.
  5. 3 Meals a Day: I have identified the most important nursing sessions of our day and I eliminated the rest. It hurts. It hurts my heart in ways that I can’t explain. It hurts in ways that I can no longer say “we” about because I know that my husband can’t understand. Only a breastfeeding mother can understand the pain of turning your child down when they want to nurse. At first I did this too much. I did this at our bedtime session a couple of times. To say it was awful is an understatement and I regret it. Jack writhed around like a heroin addict whose stash was gone. He hit me and kicked me. He cried and so did I. I had to reassess. Bedtime is too important of a session. It might be the most important one. I eventually found a balance of the most important 3 to 5 sessions a day. I do my best to keep my cool during these times. I play on my phone, make grocery lists, sing songs in my head, etc. (If you are experiencing Nursing Aversion you can find more resources here).

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Jack’s sensitivity makes it harder to do things that involve change. Change is hard for Jack. Even small changes can take long periods of time to adjust to. He is sensitive to food, getting hurt, daily routines, nighttime, everything. Big emotions are BIG for Jack. Weaning is a big change for Jack. Bigger than anything in his life right now. It’s been hard. Some toddlers take to weaning easily. Not the highly sensitive child.

I always validate his feelings and do not take his behavior personally. When he acts out with temper tantrums or hitting/kicking I step back and try to identify where I need to adjust my plan. Those behaviors are a signal to me that he is not ready for whatever I am trying.  It’s all a big balancing act. I have to balance my feelings of guilt, sadness, overwhelm and Jack’s feelings as well.

“So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact and remember that life’s a great balancing act.”  -Dr. Seuss

Abby Theuring, MSW with contributions by Kristin Page, LCSW

*Photos by Maggie Cuprisin Photography. Please visit her website and Facebook page. 

Featured posts:

Breastfeeding Evolves

Parenting the Highly Sensitive Boy

Wean That Toddler

My Nursing Aversion Episode

Resources for gentle weaning:

Making Weaning Positive

5 Tips to Gently Wean Your Toddler 

12 Tips for Gentle Weaning

 

About Abby Theuring

Abby Theuring
The Badass Breastfeeder is a mother, writer, social worker, attachment parent, proud breastfeeder and advocate. Her career as a social worker has shown her that gentle and connected parenting is vital for life-long emotional health.You can find her blog at www.thebadassbreastfeeder.com and Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheBadassBreastfeeder.

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19 comments

  1. Amazing! This article could have been written by me. This is my story also. Reading this article is very validating. Weaning my son has been nothing like what I expected. And the nursing aversion jas been probably the most difficult challenge of my life. (Which I think is saying something as I had my first child when I was 16.) So thank you for writing this. It means so much to me to know I am not alone. Oh and I laughed when I saw you were a LMSW. I am as wel, my social work skills come into play each day as a parent. :)

  2. This article really means something to me right now. My 22 month old is a sensitive soul, but I’m also 8 weeks pregnant and the joy of breastfeeding seems to have left me. I have grown an aversion and I feel terrible about it. My husband and I discussed it and we felt it was time to start the gentle weaning process. It has been working well so far. Keep up the wonderful parenting. And thank you again for posting something I really needed to hear at this moment.

  3. Thank you!!! so much for posting this. I have recently started to feel the need to wean my almost 20 month old. She too is very sensitive and it has been very difficult. I love the advice on identifying the most crucial nursing times and keeping those while starting to eliminate the others. We made the mistake of trying to eliminate nighttime feedings and it was awful, very much like you described with Jack. I am definitely going to invest in some chocolate chips, it can’t hurt. Good luck and, oh, you are AWESOME!

  4. Dear Abby, I’m just finding this post now, and I want to give you a hug. I have SO been where you are (and seeing that this post is 2 months old, hopefully you are in a more comfortable place now.) This is such a fantastic article, and describes to a T what I had to do with my 3-yr-old when tandem-nursing became overwhelming. Setting boundaries around breastfeeding and making it ONLY part of bedtime/nap time saved our breastfeeding relationship. It was a rough transition, because, well, 3-yr-olds don’t like boundaries OR change, but after a few weeks, things were SO much better. I still nursed him if he was sick or hurting or scared, but those times were few and far between. Having those boundaries, and replacing our breastfeeding with actually doing things (reading stories, dancing, singing songs, etc) helped me to meet my goal of nursing to self-weaning, and he FINALLY completely self-weaned when he was 45 months old. With no drama, no tears, no regrets, just the bittersweetness of a natural closure to that stage of his life. You are doing SO amazingly well, I love reading and sharing your blog for your insights and research, as well as for your raw honesty and the courage to post about your motherhood journey. Hats off to you, mama!

  5. Abby, Jack is so fortunate to have you as his mummy, always thinking of his needs first and foremost. It makes me so sad to think of children like my very sensitive 6 month old and Jack not having their needs considered and how upset and alone they must feel. I’ve come under tremendous pressure from well meaning relatives with old fashioned ideas to subject my baby to schedules, controlled crying, ignoring her or I’ll spoil her blah blah blah and I’ve ignored it all because I know she would go into utter meltdown in response. Why are we as a society so scared of listening to our babies and making them feel loved?!

  6. Thank you so much for posting your story here. I am Currently experiencing the same and it’s so comforting to read how you feel about nursing a toddler and the weaning process. I am in the process of weaning my 2 1/2 year old. This is earlier than I had wanted to wean but I too have been tandem
    Feeding for the last 9 months and it has become too much for me. I was starting to feel like a really cruel mummy that I hadn’t let him self wean but now I feel better. We also eliminated the least emotions ally driven feeds and eventually just kept the bedtime one. Rightly or wrongly we introduced expressed milk in a bottle (weird I know for a 2 year old to srart on a bottle but it was the only way he would accept any alternative and provided some comfort for him). He now will have diluted coconut milk as an alternative too.

  7. Love this! I am going through the same thing with my daughter. She will be 5 in January and while the nursing aversion stopped a few months ago, I am also nursing my 2 yr old and its SO hard to get anything done when I’m sitting around nursing one of them all the time. I have been trying to get her to cut back on how often she nurses but she is also pretty sensitive and she just started preschool so she has a lot going on right now. Its hard saying no to her and then nursing her sister. I know she really doesn’t get it and I’m afraid she will start to resent her sister.

  8. Wow, It is surprising to find out that you have decided to wean and not let him go 100% natural. While I enjoy your site and many others like it, I have to admit all the empowering things I find online have also made me feel very guilty. I have been sick of nursing for awhile now. But all these blogs and things got me to just keep doing it no matter what. My son is almost 29 months and I am newly pregnant. Last week I started weaning and suddenly he has taken to it very well.

  9. My child is a little over 2 and he is also a very high sensitivity needs child. Also still nursing pretty much when he wants to. Not sure when or how self weaning will go if he hasn’t done it by 3 I will start the process good to know I’m not alone!

  10. Thank you so much for your honest and courageous post/article. I have been waiting to hear what it has been like for another mother breastfeeding a sensitive child and trying to wean this beautiful type of child. It means a lot to me to have someone going through similar and sometimes difficult experiences. Please continue to share your stories. I admire your dedication and love shown both in your stories and you actions.

  11. Hi Abby! :) I just wanted to encourage you… I have breastfed 3 babies. My first, a baby girl weaned all too soon at 14 months because I gave in to “pressure” from those who thought there was something wrong with me for breastfeeding past 1 year…another story for another day. Then my two baby boys… born 16 months apart. My excitement, determination and love propelled me to breastfeed/tandem feed both of them until baby (boy) #1 was about 3.5…I was actually starting to get concerned hed never stop! ;) For reasons much the same as you I tried to “gently wean” him…I was so relieved (although shortly after quickly saddened) when he stopped at 3 years 8 months. I did this by many of the same measures your using and also sometimes he was content to just sit close and rock with us, while I asked him to “sing to the baby” ( this kept his mouth busy!) but he didn’t feel left out this way… Even though i felt baby (boy) #1 nursed SO long…boy was I not prepared for baby boy #2 to persist even longer… being my most sensitive, shy and emotional child…and my youngest this took WAY longer than I thought. I kept encouraging him and distracting him…but to no avail, he still wanted his boobie time! <3 I never pictured myself as "that mom" that would be nursing a 4 year old, but there I was! As with several other things, potty training, being left in the church nursery, ect…he is slow to let go of fears and blossom in his own accomplishments…he would just assume stay with mama and not be praised for his "big boy" accomplishments. I took my wonderful, genuine pediatricians advice and didn't push him… continue to encourage but don't force. As with everything else, eventually the day came for the last day we nursed. Fortunately, neither of us realized it would be the last as it would have been too emotional for both of us, but with a fewdays skipped here and there it wasn't too long before that day about 9 months ago (at 4 1/2) that was to be our last feeding…it happened….naturally, completely on its own, and there were no tears…until mine when I realized it had been almost 2 weeks since the last time he asked for "boobies"…it was all I could do not to go to him and ASK HIM if he wanted to nurse (I know im nuts) but, even though I knew it needed to happen it was truely hard…and he did it all on his own <3 I can't wait to have another baby and start all over again, I miss it so much. Sometimes still even admitting I nursed till 4 1/2 to some people makes me feel, weird…. but I know that for me and my baby there was nothing weird about it, and it was just what he (and in the end I realized even I ) needed :) Cherish these last few months nursing, I know its hard to believe but you WILL miss it <3

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with tandem nursing. I feel as if I could have written most of your posts myself, our experiences are so similar. Thank you for helping me feel not alone in a situation where I often feel extremely isolated. I am nursing my 27 month old as well as my 3 month old. It seemed to be working perfectly until I was hit with a very strong nursing aversion (which I didn’t even know was a thing until reading your blog. ) While my husband is extremely supportive of tandem nursing my family and friends are not as understanding. Whenever I see you have a new blog post, a wave of relief flows over me as I realize there is someone else out there who understands. Thank you so much Abby!

  13. Thank you! I’m sitting in this same position right now. I’ve have managed to tandem nurse for 14 months now with my almost 3 yr old and his little brother. I’m struggling but trying to cut back some sessions and keep my sanity and my bond with my oldest. But sometimes it’s just too much, for him, for me, and I’m so happy to know I’m not the only one going through this. Its a day to day transition but one that needs to be made over time. I love the bond between myself and my boys that breastfeeding has solidified and it’s bittersweet to see this chapter coming to an end, but I know it’s time, no matter how difficult it is. Thank you so much for covering this because sometimes it seems a lonely road for me because no one in my corner can really understand what it is we’re going through.

  14. Jack is probably an “Orchid Child”. Vs a “Dandelion Child”

    Look up orchid theory on Google and read the research and articles about Orchid Children – highly sensitive and when given the right ‘hothouse’ conditions and care will bloom spectacularly into something amazing, and will wilt and fail to flourish if not.
    Versus Dandelion Children – who are more hardy, flexible and will grow and flourish in more basic conditions provided the minimums are met.

    The writing also mentions about gene plasticity, and how orchid children have a higher number of ‘plastic’ genes , and dandelion children not.
    Really helped me understand my sensitive child, and that there was not something ‘wrong’ with them, that they were not weak as such, but that the investment of all that extra attention and care would definitely be worth it. And they had the potential to be an amazing person perhaps with special talents or something similar.

  15. I am going through this same thing with my fourth child. I never even thought about extended nursing with my other three. This kid is different. He has GERD and screamed and puked for the first year. Mommy is all that would calm him. Now he is almost three, and his health is better, but I am his cure for every little thing. I am ready to be done, but he is not. I look forward to more posts on this subject!

  16. Brenda Holland-Robinson

    You’ve gone and done it again, Abby! Poured out your very heart and soul in an attempt to help others. You are THE best.

  17. Tears are running down my face as I read this! I, too, have a highly sensitive child. I have she’d many tears thinking about telling her ” no Mommy milk right now.” She is 19 months old, and my only child. Her nurse called this morning, told me to “give her an iron supplement, make her eat more solids and drink more cow’s milk, and stop breastfeeding immediately.” I told her I was not, I would be changing doctors, and hung up. The doctor just called back to say I misunderstood. She does need iron b/c she is slightly anemic. I need to give her more greens, in smoothies if necessary, and I need to cut back on whatever form of milk she is drinking the most. She said it curbs her appetite too much so she will not eat enough solids. What do you think? She has had so many life changes since she was born–Gramm (my mom) passed away when she was Two months; we moved in June; Grandpa (my dad), passed August 9; we tried Mother’s Day Out in September, took her out of it this month until next year. Just not the time to wean. She picked back up from naps and nighttime to on demand three or four times a day after her grandpa passed. Thank you for this article. It makes my heart rate slow down a little.

  18. Abby, you are a wonderful mother, I am so blown away by your posts, your thoughts and your strength. Even though I weaned my daughter right after her first birthday in April I can not stop reading your blog and learn from all the information about brestfeeding and gentle parenting. We found our way and I am sure as hell that you will find yours. You are doing wonderful, no matter how you decide to take the next step. Sending you tons of strenght, love and nervs!!!

  19. I’m really proud of you. I can’t pretend to understand the day to day struggle – there must be so many emotions involved. Thanks for sharing something so personal.

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