Weaning is the name for the suppression or reduction of breast milk and/or baby formula to replace it with more solid food. Weaning is at the crossroads of biology, culture, and the psychic organization of the mother/child dyad.
Weaning involves the interactive process of interruption of the corporeal relationship between mother and child. It begins spontaneously during the second six months of life as an effect of the infant's maturation; the infant manifests a decreased interest in feeding, especially if it has been breast fed, and begins an active search for autonomy that the mother can perceive and facilitate according to her affective syntony with the infant, as Benjamin Spock described in "The Striving for Autonomy and Regressive Object Relationship" (1963), according to her affective syntony with the infant.
In his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-1917a [1915-1917]), Sigmund Freud described weaning as traumatic, perhaps owing to syntony, but also as the moment when nostalgia for the mother appears, which is present in all infants, and above all in those who have not been breast fed. Melanie Klein studied the relations between weaning and the depressive position that accompanies it and that continues on thereafter. In "Les complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu" (Family complexes in the formation of the individual; 1938), Jacques Lacan organized the various points of view in the following way: Traumatic or not, he explained, weaning leaves in the psyche a permanent trace of the biological relationship it interrupts. This moment also presents the twofold aspect of a crisis in the psyche, the first that unquestionably has a dialectical structure. For the first time, a vital tension is expressed in terms of a mental intention.
Weaning forms the basis for the positive aspect of the weaning complex, that is, the image of nourishment that tends to establish the most archaic and stable feelings uniting the individual with his or her family: It thus constitutes the basis of familial and social life.
In L'Image inconsciente du corps (The unconscious image of the body; 1984), Françoise Dolto discussed weaning as an oral castration of the child, that is, an imposed deprivation of what for him or her is cannibalism in relation to the mother. Dolto also elaborated E. Forman's concept of motherhood as a developmental stage and associated the possibility of successful weaning with the mother's ability to accept the interruption of body-to-body contact, and above all, to communicate with the infant in various ways, among them providing food, but also by means of words and gestures, which represent the desire and possibility to speak for the child: "The baby is talking about feeding, but not about the breast."
The time of weaning, ever earlier in our culture, represents the relational conflict characteristic of the late oral or oral-sadistic stage. Bernard Golse emphasized its ambivalent aspect, due to the fact that incorporating the mother becomes destructive with teething. The infant who suckles the breast attacks it and wins nourishment by inflicting hurt. The cannibalistic impulses of the two partners are reciprocally activated, and both must learn to sense and control aggression. This is indeed what happens in cases of "good" weaning, due both to a simultaneous establishing of distance by the mother and by the infant and to the working out of the child's aggressive and libidinal requirements in the presence of the mother as an object.
Failures in weaning include late weaning (often because of the mother's desire to prolong the erotogenic pleasure of nursing), which can be experienced by the infant as punishment and which makes the process of separation/individuation difficult. Inversely, premature weaning—that is, before the infant has been able to invest other objects—has varying effects according to the circumstances. Among the most serious failures, there is fusion of the life instinct and the death instinct, as in cases of mental anorexia or addictions to orally ingested substances. In extreme cases of weaning following abandonment, Dolto explained in LesÉtapes majeures de l'enfance (The major stages of childhood; 1994), a behavioral regression, due to residual fantasies from before the trauma, compromises the previously acquired sound-producing capability of the larynx and the oral cavity. Psychogenic mutism can ensue, with or without loss of hearing.
James S. Grotstein studied the end of analytic treatment as a weaning that makes possible a liberation of narcissism with the aim of accepting the world as it is. Paul-Claude Racamier more specifically described weaning from the sleeping treatment, during which patients are lavished with maternal care that helps them to emerge from the regression and to establish very deep bonds with the physician providing treatment.
- Template:NILP Ch. 5
- Lacan, Jacques. (1984). Les complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu (pp. 23-30; written for Encyclopédie française, Vol. 8). Paris: Larousse. (Original work published 1938)