The correct time to wean is a very personal decision which means that you will face criticism if your decision does not resemble someone else's.
Parent 1: I breastfeed until my child entered college. It was really difficult and required a lot of sacrifice on my part, but I felt it was important to do what was best for my child
Parent 2: [feels bad for only breastfeeding for a year]
Parent 1: [breastfed child for 6 months]
Parent 2: [is still breastfeeding at a year]
Parent 1: What, are you planning on breastfeeding them until college?
Deciding when to wean (or even to breastfeed at all, but that's a post for another day) falls under the category of decisions a parent has to make by weighing their own needs against their child's. I have read in more than one place that children will self-wean naturally at a certain age, and have thereby concluded that since children are only young for such a little time and it goes so fast, etc., etc., then parents should put aside their own needs and make whatever sacrifices necessary to continue to breastfeed until that point. I have rarely read that it is totally acceptable (and even encouraged!) that a parent put their needs ahead of their child's. (The Horror!) However, parenting is a balancing act of making sure that our needs and our child's needs are met. I don't have the right answer for you, but I will say that you do have the right to take your needs and even your wants into consideration in this question.
Are you ready to stop breastfeeding? What kinds of "shoulds" are coming up for you when you ask yourself this question? "I *should* breastfeed my child longer." "I *should* wean my child by x age otherwise it's weird." If you were making your decision in a total vacuum, away from the judging eyes of others, what would your decision be?
When I had decided to wean, there was a little bit of uneasiness. I could have chalked it up to the fact that I (or my daughter) wasn't ready, and have continued past my decided weaning date. At the same time, I realized that this was a big transition for both of us, and that it was ok to not be 100% ready for it. It's possible that at a later date I might have felt 100% ready (I guess we'll never know) but at the same time, I can look fondly both upon my breastfeeding days as well as on when and how I weaned.
Is your child ready to stop breastfeeding? Especially if your child is older, and has more of an awareness of what's going on, it can be a really difficult thing to go through. Does this mean you shouldn't stop until they're ready? Well, this week my son cried because he didn't like where I parked, should I have parked elsewhere? At a certain point, our kids are not going to be happy with our decisions and you would think parking in the "wrong" spot was equivalent to telling him I was no longer going to be feeding him the way he carried on. And honestly, I almost considered parking somewhere else -our brains are wired to respond to our child's needs, and so we have to really think about what's a need and what's a want. Your child NEEDS food. I'm not convinced that they NEED breast milk. If you are concerned about weaning because of your child's response, there are many ways you can approach this that respect their loss without overriding the boundaries you have decided upon. Obviously, it's much harder to do if you're feeling that you're depriving your child of something they are entitled to.
For both of you, the transition into not breastfeeding anymore will mean a loss of connection. I remember when my daughter would get sick and just want to cuddle with me, and I realized that we didn't do that as much anymore. This may be a valid reason for not weaning. However, if weaning is something you want to do, it will just require a little consideration on your part to figure out how to make that connection with your child.
If you have decided that you are ready to wean, there are a few different ways to do it. Some advocate "don't offer, don't refuse." This is a good option if you're not in a hurry to wean. If your child asks to nurse, you nurse them. If they don't ask, even if it's a time when you would usually nurse, you don't nurse them. You can also just drop one nursing session at a time, or decide that you will only nurse at home, or only before bed. If you have decided to drop a feeding, but your child still wants to nurse, you can tell them you will nurse later, or offer them a snack, or find another way to connect with them that doesn't involved nursing (including listening to them cry because you won't nurse them).
When I weaned (both times, and my children were a year old each time I weaned), I cut out one feeding every day until I was done. I started with feedings which could be replaced with snacks. The last feeding I eliminated was the night-time one, and it took a few nights with a little crying before they stopped waking up to nurse at night. I distinctly remember bringing a sippy cup with water to my daughtetr's room, but of course she didn't want it. We would sit in the rocking chair but when she realized that breastfeeding wasn't happening I put her back in her crib and she went back to sleep.
Expect fullness and discomfort for a few days once you've completely weaned. The slower you go (dropping a feeding every week rather than every day, for example), the easier it will be for your body to adjust. If you have to express milk, try to express as little as possible, since the milk that is expressed will always be replaced with more milk.
Again, this is a hugely personal decision that is fraught with all of the worries that parenthood brings about making the "right" decision. Not only do you have to face the judgement of other people, you have to deal with the feelings of the child involved in this decision. You are living in a world which constantly tells you that your needs and wants don't matter, so to make a decision based on your needs and wants in all of this is a recipe for doubt. At the same time, this is big transition and change is hard. So have compassion for yourself and your child as you go through this together.
For Further Thought:
1) Are you ready to wean?
2) Is your child ready to wean?
3) What "shoulds" do you have about breastfeeding and weaning?
4) If you are prepared to wean, what is your plan, and does it take into consideration the needs both you and your child have that used to be met by breastfeeding?
For Further Reading:
Ask Moxie: Weaning, or Not Weaning (this is a website where it's safe to read the comments)