We used a sow-controlled housing system to examine temporal and individual variation in the tendency of sows to associate with young. During a 5-week lactation, 22 sows and litters were housed in a pen where the sow could freely leave and re-enter the piglets’ area by stepping over a barrier that the piglets could not cross. Despite this option, the sows remained with the piglets almost constantly during the 1st day after birth. Nineteen sows (‘leavers’) changed to spending most of their time away from the litter at some point in the lactation. The change was rapid, often within a single week, and occurred in week 2, 3, 4 or 5, depending on the individual. The time of rapid increase in time away was not related to characteristics of the sow or litter, including parity, litter size and sex ratio. Three sows (‘stayers’) did not increase their time away as lactation advanced, and rarely spent more than 15% of their day in the piglet-free area. Nearly all sows showed a clear preference to defecate in the piglet-free area. This study shows 1. that sows voluntarily reduce their contact with the young; 2. that the timing of this reduction varies greatly amongst sows for reasons that may relate to differences in maternal motivation, and 3. that sows do not abandon the litter if the young cannot follow. The clear preference that most sows developed for the piglet-free area reinforces physiological evidence that constant confinement with older litters is aversive for many sows.