A Weaning Party is a fun strategy to help your child mark the transition from breastfeeding. You can prepare your child in advance to think about the end of breastfeeding, and then afterwards you can use it as a reminder of closure. Of course, this only applies to children old enough to grasp the concept. You’re helping them to come to terms with the conclusion of a nurturing behaviour that is very important to them.

Some children wean themselves early, ours didn’t. Siena’s first, second and third birthdays came and went without any indication that she wanted to stop breastfeeding. I had become comfortable with a child focussed parenting approach and breastfeeding an older child. However, I wanted some strategies to gradually introduce the idea of weaning somewhere in her third year. The concept of a weaning party appealed to me because it prepared the child, it celebrated breastfeeding and gave the child a reference point.

Our daughter Siena had her weaning party 3 months ago. She had her 4th birthday party six weeks later.
Why on earth did I continue to breastfeed a child of such an advanced age? A child who could competently pronounce four syllable words, dance for hours at weddings and politely decline Muesli because it requires too much chewing.

Accurate and timely information.

Before I joined the Australian Breastfeeding Association, I assumed 12–18 months would be the maximum time that I would try to breastfeed. However, accurate information can change your intentions. The ABA was not only a rich source of information but it was also a network of women supporting each other in the skills of parenting. The more I learnt about breastfeeding the more astonished I was at how comprehensive a system it was. Here was the perfect convenience food, with numerous sophisticated hidden extras for both mother and child. For example: hormones to relax the mother, it could decrease the incidence of cancers of the reproductive system for women who breastfed longer, increase the child’s immunity plus modify as the child’s needs change. And that was just a brief list of benefits. It was also the pacifier extraordinaire. All this came at negligible cost and little preparation. It suited my needs and Siena’s perfectly initially and in the longer term.

It made sense to me that most non-western cultures still breastfed their young children until their 3rd or 4th year. As an industrialized nation, we had accepted at some stage that it was not necessary to breastfeed babies for longer than 6-12 months or less. I found plenty of research to suggest that both breastfeeding and breast milk are important for emotional and physical needs even in older children. I continued to breastfeed Siena into her fourth year because children seem to have a need to suck. I had observed that many children have a need to regularly suck something for comfort up to and into their fourth year. E.g. ‘dummies’, a thumb or finger, a blanket or a toy. I decided if sucking is such a widespread need in this age group then instead of a substitute she might as well have the real thing. It is only anecdotal but Siena has never accepted a “dummy”, or sucked her thumb or any other toy. Breastfeeding met this need.

My instinct was to use an “Attachment Parenting” style, of responding intuitively to your child, before I knew it was a soundly researched model. I was very grateful to Dr. William and Martha Sears for their books outlining this method. Breastfeeding can be an integral part of responding to your baby or young child’s’ needs and gaining their trust. Not only could it make discipline easier with young children but could significantly improve the level of trust your older child or teenager has in you. A pattern of being responsive to your child’s needs will give you a significant advantage when they are asserting their independence as they grow up. I thought building a sound foundation for relating to an older Siena was definitely worth doing.

They were my reasons for lengthy breastfeeding; now back to the weaning party.

Who to invite? Well, that was going to be a short list. We had some relatives who would not have coped with the concept, “What! You’re not still breastfeeding her??” and friends who had no idea that Siena was still being breastfed. As Siena’s breastfeeding sessions coincided with bedtimes, they had not needed to be publicized. That left a handful of mums and kids who did or had breastfeed and would cope with the idea.

The weaning party didn’t need to be a big occasion, it just needed to be recognition of a milestone, a simple event to mark the occasion. In fact, we adults talked about it a bit at the party but the major work of the party was in preparing Siena beforehand for weaning. In the final 12 months before weaning her breastfeeds had gradually reduced to bedtime only. Most of the preparation was in pointing out all the “big kid” things she could already do, and highlighting the fact that she had outgrown many clothes and habits and the time would come to finish breastfeeding as well. I wanted her to have time to adjust to the idea rather than to impose a “cold turkey” regime. I could not have coped with that method either. I wanted Siena to conclude breastfeeding on a positive note. There are many strategies available for helping children to bid farewell to the breast. The challenging part was to find out what would work best for our family.

I had been preparing Siena for the idea of having a weaning party for some months before an unexpected opportunity arose to implement the plan. One Thursday night Siena was babysat by my sister-in-law and fell asleep without her bedtime breastfeed. The next night we happened to go to a party and again she fell asleep without a breastfeed. The third night when she requested a breastfeed, I brought to her attention the fact that she had missed a breastfeed the last two nights and hadn’t even noticed it. I suggested to her that this would be a good time to organize her weaning party for the following week. She accepted that idea and joined in talking about who to invite and other preparations.

The timing was obviously about right for her because I couldn’t believe how straightforward a process it was. I had seen the struggles and distress of children who had been weaned abruptly at an earlier age, and we had none of that. I did have to decline a few requests for breastfeeds but not many considering this had been a daily practice from her birth. When I did decline and remind Siena that she had already had her weaning party, she seemed to register “Oh, that’s right,” and accept stories, a drink, or a hug instead.

The party itself was very similar to conducting a homegrown child’s birthday party. The children made their own party hats on arrival, we had fun healthy food, games, and they played on the equipment at the park. I had specified no presents so as not to put any pressure on the guests. (Well, where would you start looking for a “weaning party gift”?) There were a few presents, which was nice but not essential. What amazes me is that with preparation and eventually the right timing for both of us (after several attempts) this has been such a smooth and easy transition. Siena requested breastfeeds three or four times in the fortnight after the weaning party. However, she usually accepted my explanation that she had had her weaning party already; therefore that was the end of the breastfeeds. Except there was one poignant moment when she said “But mummy, nipples are my favourite thing in the world!” At which point cuddles, acknowledgement of feelings and reading stories came into play.

So the idea of a weaning party is quite simple, the timing for implementing it is the challenging part. I found taking my cue’s from Siena was the best guide. We had several false starts with ill health etc., but if she wasn’t coping with the idea I just decided to try again later. I also had the advantage of seeing this process work with my niece when she was 3 years old and she was a very committed breast feeder, so I had evidence that this would eventually work. A common assumption is that breastfeeding an older child will create dependence in them. I have found with Siena and other children who have been breastfed into their third or fourth year that they are often much more independent. They have had their emotional needs met and are freer to explore the world and engage with others.