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Book Review
How Weaning Happens

Diane Bengson
La Leche League International, 1999
Softcover, 156 pages
Available from the LLLI Online Store

Reviewed by Diane Beckman
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 5 September October 1999 pp. 186-187

It was well worth the wait! HOW WEANING HAPPENS, the latest installment in the authoritative series of LLLI publications on breastfeeding has arrived. LLLI's publishing history began in 1958 with the publication of the first edition of THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, a guide to the entire course of mothering through breastfeeding. In 1980, Norma Jane Bumgarner boldly sailed into the uncharted world of toddler nursing with MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER. Dr. William Sears opened our eyes to THE FUSSY BABY and NIGHTTIME PARENTING in 1985. La Leche League Leader Diane Bengson accepted the challenge of tackling the universal subject of weaning, a part of every breastfeeding relationship. HOW WEANING HAPPENS offers breastfeeding mothers excellent resources for facing this inevitable, sometimes mysterious, and often challenging rite of passage.

La Leche League's approach to weaning is very different from the conventional view that weaning is something abrupt and painful that one must do to a baby to push him into the next stage of maturity. HOW WEANING HAPPENS presents weanings that are gentle, gradual, and natural. "Weaning can be seen as a lesson in trust. Trusting that your child will wean when he's ready is an act of faith, as is trusting that you and your child can find gentle, acceptable ways to wean."

The Founders of La Leche League recognized that mother-to-mother support was a powerful way to help mothers to breastfeed. This holds true for weaning as well. Many mothers devote a great deal of thought to weaning. This book shares many of those thoughts—the happy and sad stories—through more than 60 mothers' stories. These detailed stories are the heart of this book, offering the authenticity that comes only from mothers who speak from experience.

Every page is a testament to what makes La Leche League's approach unique. Here you'll find a complete list of advantages of extended nursing and gradual weaning. Bengson demystifies weaning, explaining what it is—a cooperative venture that recognizes the needs of both mother and baby—as well as what it isn't: "This book does not view weaning as the primary way to solve problems in the mother-child relationship. Instead this book will help you recognize the value of nursing in your life and your child's, and help you to find creative and personal answers to the challenges you face."

Above all, HOW WEANING HAPPENS recognizes that weaning is a process, not an event. It starts when a baby takes anything besides breast milk by mouth. Gradually, the baby finds other activities and pleasures to meet the needs that were once met exclusively by nursing. The weaning process may extend over months or years and over many stages of a child's development. Leaders often say, "Watch the baby, not the clock," about how often you nurse your baby. In the case of weaning, the slogan might translate to, "Watch the baby, not the calendar." As one mother in the book observed, "Weaning is not about logic or charts or time. Weaning is about readiness. I only know this because I can see that my baby is not ready to wean. She hasn't shown me at all that she is ready to wean, and she is the one person whose opinion on this subject counts."

Bengson's focus on developmental readiness lends credibility to the book's vision of weaning: "Natural weaning isn't about being the mother who nurses the longest or about entirely denying your own needs and limitations. Setting guidelines is a natural, necessary part of all aspects of your child's life as she grows older." The mother's role in lovingly guiding a child towards readiness is clearly recognized.

My favorite chapter in the book is the fifth, "Gently Encouraging Weaning." It is filled with the collective wisdom of women who have "been there." There is a helpful list of signs that a child is ready for weaning and pages of creative examples of distractions and substitutions. Often mothers who are troubled about weaning feel stuck or have run out of ideas. This chapter is full of mother-tested ideas that respect the needs of both partners in the weaning process.

It can be hard to balance the needs of mother and child in the cooperative venture of weaning. Many mothers find themselves thinking about weaning before the child is ready, while others experience disappointment when their baby or toddler initiates weaning earlier than expected. Things grow even more complicated when the rest of society weighs in. An entire chapter is devoted to "Pressure to Wean." It helps mothers deal with criticism or misinformation from others. The chapter on "Weaning Because of Medical Advice" is equally useful and presents information, resources, and enlightening questions to ask when a health care provider suggests weaning.

HOW WEANING HAPPENS does an excellent job of portraying the advantages of natural weaning. Bengson also has the courage to recognize that weaning can be hard emotional work. HOW WEANING HAPPENS respects mothers by addressing both the positive and negative sides of extended nursing: "Being aware of and honest about your own needs is the best way to avoid feeling burned-out or put upon by a nursing toddler." "Extended nursing isn't about being a martyr or feeling powerless in your nursing relationship . . . Instead of seeing nursing (or not nursing) as a power struggle to be won or lost, consider that your child is asking to nurse in order to get his needs met." Bengson helps the reader sort out whether taking a more active role in weaning will be worthwhile. There is a useful section about how weaning should not be expected to change your child's other behaviors, such as eating patterns or night-waking. Chapter 10 also takes us into a new arena: concrete advice for what to do when weaning doesn't go well.

The book ends on a positive note, reminding us that breastfeeding is only one aspect of the mother-child relationship. As one mother expresses it: "We are still very close. I realize that nursing did not equal mothering. I am still his mother and we are still attached." A satisfying weaning is as precious as the beautiful bond of breastfeeding. HOW WEANING HAPPENS will help many mothers achieve this satisfaction.

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