Breastfeeding baby is a personal decision. Deciding when to stop breastfeeding is just as personal, and both decisions are entirely up to you.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and that nursing should continue until baby is 1 year old (with complementary solids added to the mix at 6 months). After that, the AAP recommends nursing baby for as long as you (and baby) want. There is no “correct” time for a child to wean, says Natasha K. Sriraman, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia. Just be sure to do it at a time that’s right for you and your child. When you’re ready, here’s how to make the transition as easy and pain-free as possible.
What is weaning?
You actually start the weaning process the first time you offer baby any sustenance beyond breast milk. Essentially, weaning prepares your mind, body and baby for an inevitable end to nursing—it sparks a hormonal shift in your body that causes your milk to go away.
When you decide it’s time to stop breastfeeding, that’s your cue to start weaning.
“Weaning can take several weeks or months and should be done as slowly as your situation permits,” Sriraman says. (Also, weaning doesn’t have to be an all-or-none process. You can do partial weaning if, say, you’re returning to work but still want to nurse before and after your work day.) No matter how long it takes, know that during the weaning process, your breast milk changes to accommodate baby’s shifting nutritional needs. “Even when the volume of your breast milk is decreasing, an appropriate level of nutrients remains present, and immunological protection is not compromised,” Sriraman says.
Deciding when to stop breastfeeding
Despite the AAP’s recommendation, many moms don’t breastfeed until the 1-year mark. “It can be difficult for many mothers to reach the 1-year milestone because of obstacles such as returning to work and poor pumping, lactation and even societal support,” says nurse practitioner and lactation consultant, Kathleen F. McCue, DNP, FNP-BC, IBCLC-RLC, owner of Metropolitan Breastfeeding in Bethesda, Maryland.
If you stop nursing before the 12-month mark, you must replace breastmilk with formula. “While complementary solid foods are a good source of calories for babies around 6 months and older, it’s not enough nutrition for those under a year old,” McCue says. If you’ve made it to a year, congratulations—there’s no need for a formula-like replacement, and you’re free to transition baby to cow’s milk (two to two and a half cups of whole milk daily).
How to stop breastfeeding
There is no one-method-fits-all style to phasing out breastfeeding. But here are some universal tips that can help you and baby better adjust to this change:
If baby takes a bottle (whether with pumped breast milk or formula), you’ve already begun the weaning process. “If your infant is already accepting bottles, then she’ll usually do well when you gradually decrease the length or frequency of nursing sessions and replace it with a bottle,” says Stephanie Nguyen, RN, IBCLC, a board-certified lactation consultant and founder of Modern Milk, a breastfeeding clinic and prenatal-postnatal education center in Scottsdale, Arizona.
If baby hasn’t had a bottle yet, introducing it is a necessary step. If this is baby’s first go at a bottle, you’ll likely need a little help. Sriraman suggests having your partner, your caregiver or another family member first offer baby a bottle without you present. “Sometimes, Mom and her scent triggers baby’s urge to nurse,” she says. Don’t worry too much: Eventually, baby will learn to take the bottle from you too.
If you plan to pump breast milk, “reduce those sessions by just a few minutes each day,” McCue says. “Same goes for nursing: Trim sessions daily until you can remove one entire breast milk feeding.” The middle-of-the-day feed is usually the easiest to eliminate. (Remember, for babies 12 months and younger, the breast milk that’s phased out must be replaced by formula.)
Your body will naturally produce less and less breast milk as you reduce your nursing sessions. In terms of how to stop breastfeeding without pain, this gradual approach helps keep most discomfort at bay. But there may still be some engorgement and pain even when weaning is spread out. “Use ice packs and take Ibuprofen to help ease the pain,” Nguyen says. “You can also express a small amount of each breast to help alleviate the engorgement—just enough to make you feel more comfortable.”
Side effects of weaning abruptly
It’s never a good idea to stop breastfeeding cold turkey. Instead, a slow and steady wean is best for mom and baby. Here’s what happens if you go too fast:
You’ll endure painful, engorged breasts
“Most of the time, pain is experienced during weaning when your breasts become engorged—similar to when breastfeeding began,” McCue says. “This can lead to many problems related to the milk not being removed from the breast. For instance, milk can back up into the ducts, causing a painful plug or clog, which can then get infected.” That infection may lead to mastitis or an abscess.
It takes an emotional toll
“Weaning is often a bittersweet time for mother and child, as bonding time shifts from the nursing connection to other outlets,” McCue says. “It’s important for you to be gentle with yourself and baby as you go through the weaning process—and take it slow.” In short: a quick stop is stressful for both of you.
When an abrupt end to nursing is needed
While weaning slowly is always preferred, sometimes you have to stop breastfeeding suddenly because of illness or other unforeseen circumstances. If this happens, turn to your physician or lactation consultant for guidance. “Birth control pills, pseudoephedrine, peppermint tea and sage all can help reduce milk supply and help with the weaning process,” Nguyen says. You may also consider hand expression or using a breast pump to express enough milk to keep you comfortable as your body adjusts.
When baby wants to stop nursing
As baby grows and changes, her approach to nursing shifts too. Does that mean baby is trying to wean? Here’s what you need to know.
Confusing signs your infant wants stop nursing
“In all honesty, most babies do not self-wean before the age of 1,” Nguyen says. “Instead, what you are likely noticing is some normal developmental milestones.” For instance, when baby starts to cut teeth, she may fuss at the breast because she’s trying to avoid hitting sore spots on her gums. “It’s also very natural for babies to become distracted while nursing as they grow and become more aware,” Nguyen says. This doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to stop. It may simply mean that you need a quieter locale to nurse.
When food prompts weaning
Most babies start eating solid foods around 6 to 12 months. While this in no way should elbow nursing out of the picture, it can complicate matters. “If baby is offered too much solid food, she may fill up on and not want to nurse,” Nguyen says. To curb this, try timing your breastfeeding sessions further away from baby’s solids-filled mealtime and establishing a routine schedule for mealtimes.
Clues your toddler is ready to wean
“Weaning after the age of 1 usually occurs when baby is ready developmentally and emotionally,” Nguyen says. Hints that she’s ready: Your child can drink well from a cup, gets the majority of her nutrition from solid food and distraction-while-nursing is ever increasing. “Most babies will self-wean between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, depending upon the circumstances,” Nguyen says. (A child who is self-weaning will almost always cut down on nursing very gradually over a period of months, one feed at a time, leaving the nighttime session for last, Sriraman adds.)
Comforting a weaning baby
Saying good-bye to this stage of motherhood can be tough—for you and for baby. Good thing there are ways to make it easier. Here’s how:
During the weaning process, your child will likely miss the bonding and closeness that nursing offers (and so will you!), so it’s important to offer lots of cuddles, hugs and kisses to help make up for the decreased physical contact, Sriraman says.
Find a substitute
“If baby is over 1 year old, try to find a breast milk stand-in that she enjoys, like warm milk sweetened with a bit of honey and cinnamon,” Nguyen says. Whatever the replacement is, as long as it’s healthy and baby views it as something special, it can help ease the transition.
Bring on the distraction
When phasing out a nursing session, it’s a good idea to use that nursing time for an activity baby enjoys. “Get out a special game or toy, or change up your environment by going on a walk or heading to the park,” Nguyen says. This makes the time feel like a gain as opposed to a loss.
Weaning can be a challenging experience for both mom and baby, but with a little foresight and a lot of love, you will get through it.