How to Stop Breastfeeding (and Keep Baby Happy)
September 21, 2021
All good things must come to an end, and breastfeeding is no exception. But your body’s incredible ability to make milk doesn’t shut down in an instant. Weaning is a process that happens best over the course of several weeks. Of course, if you need to stop breastfeeding immediately, there are ways to reduce possible issues, such as engorgement. Either way, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can be as helpful at the end of your breastfeeding experience as they are at the beginning. “Seeking help early can solve potential weaning issues before they arise,” says Rachel Radcliffe, IBCLC, an occupational therapist and lactation consultant in Washington, DC. Done right, weaning can be a pain-free experience, physically and emotionally, for you and baby.
Making the call to stop breastfeeding is hard—regardless of how long you’ve been doing it. So whether it’s been days, weeks or months, we’ve got your back. Ready to begin the weaning process? We’re sharing helpful tips and suggestions straight from the experts. Want to know how to stop breastfeeding gradually (or immediately)? Need help with night weaning? Curious when your milk supply will dry up? Read on for all the answers.
Thinking that you may be nearing the end of your breastfeeding journey? Before you even try to figure out how to stop breastfeeding, you’ll want to determine the timing that best suits your unique needs. Doctors often say to breastfeed for as long as possible. But that advice is both vague and subjective. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding until baby is about 6-months-old, and then gradually adding solid foods while continuing to breastfeed through their first year of life.
Yes, breastfeeding for a full year (or as long as possible) may be the ideal, but it’s not always realistic. Some moms have medical reasons for weaning off breastfeeding sooner than six months or a year. They might have had an extremely tough time getting baby to latch on correctly, or they’ve been experiencing excessive pain when breastfeeding or an insufficient breast milk supply. They may need medication, which would otherwise be passed on to the child through the breast milk if they didn’t start weaning.
For other moms, external influences hamper breastfeeding: They may feel it’s close to impossible to pump at their workplace, or perhaps they need to depend on a caregiver. Sometimes, it boils down to a simple lack of desire to continue breastfeeding—and that’s okay too. The truth is: if you’re wondering when to stop breastfeeding, you have to evaluate your own sets of wants and needs. There’s no definitive right or wrong answer.
Just remember, if you’re weaning before baby is one-year-old, you’ll need to feed her baby formula to ensure she receives proper nutrition. After age one, you can switch to cow’s milk.
The process of stopping breastfeeding is referred to as weaning. Ideally, the preferred way to wean baby without pain is to do it slowly. “Gradual weaning, by phasing out one feeding or pump session every few days, is usually a good way to start,” says Radcliffe. Besides cutting back on a feeding every three days or so, you can also shave a few minutes off of each feeding.
When doing so, don’t be surprised if your body has some physical reactions to weaning. “Each mother varies in her response to the frequency of decreasing feedings,” Radcliffe says, but weaning from breastfeeding in a measured, steady way can help avoid engorged breasts and reduce the risk of clogged ducts or mastitis, an infection of the milk ducts in your breast.
During this new stage, you may want to pick up a supportive bra to prevent putting any additional pressure on your already sensitive breasts. Some moms also like to use hand pumps to reduce engorgement; just take care not to empty your breasts completely because that could actually promote an increase in milk supply—exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to do!
You may also feel emotional at this time. Fluctuating hormones are, once again, partially to blame. What’s more, this is a huge milestone for you and baby, and you may feel sad about this change. Breastfeeding establishes a special connection between you and baby, and it can be hard to close that chapter. Show yourself kindness through this transition: continue to nourish your body with healthy food, get rest and share your feelings with a loved one or professional. Your schedule may free up just a wee bit in the coming weeks as you no longer need to breastfeed or pump regularly—take advantage by trying a new hobby or enjoying some much-needed me-time.
To make the skipped sessions a little easier for baby to handle, start the weaning process by cutting your child’s least favorite feeding—and keep in mind that the first feeding of the day and the last one before bedtime will probably be the last to go. When weaning, it also helps to distract your child during their typical feeding time. Feed baby something else during their usual nursing time so they’re satiated, and snuggle somewhere other than the usual “feeding spot” (like the nursery room rocking chair).
It’s not ideal to stop breastfeeding abruptly, since weaning quickly can lead to greater discomfort. “Potential complications can include engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis,” Radcliffe says. But if a gradual approach to weaning isn’t a possibility, there are some tips for how to stop breastfeeding cold turkey, and how to relieve engorged breasts when stopping breastfeeding suddenly.
Fortunately, a few tried-and-true weaning strategies can help reduce discomfort: You can reduce the pressure and pain by using a breast pump or your hands to express a small amount of milk. You’ll want to express enough to make you comfortable but not enough to completely drain your breasts—emptying your breasts will only encourage your body to continue producing more milk and hinder your weaning efforts.
Ice-cold cabbage leaves or ice packs are an old weaning standby for relieving the pain of engorgement—just put them inside your bra to reduce discomfort. Some lactation experts believe that using them may also help reduce how long it takes for your breast milk to dry up. You can also take pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) to help reduce weaning-related swelling and pain, and antihistamines or birth control pills to decrease your milk supply. The Office on Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services also recommends teas and herbs, including sage, peppermint, parsley and jasmine, to help reduce your milk supply faster.
Keep in mind too that breastfeeding is about more than just food for baby. They may miss that closeness with you once weaning begins, so you may need to set aside a little extra snuggle time to compensate.
Night weaning can present its own challenges for moms who stop breastfeeding, since “many women tend to make the highest volume of milk in the middle of the night or early morning hours,” says Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC. To help baby adjust as you’re weaning off night feedings, “offer lots of nutrient-dense foods during the day to make up the calories that night feeding can offer,” O’Connor says.
You can also try offering breastfeeding more frequently during the afternoon and early evening hours, says Rachel Borton, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Bradley University. When weaning, “try feeding every two to three hours from 1 to 7 p.m. instead of every three to four hours.”
As for when your milk supply will slow and eventually stop after weaning, several factors come into play. “It depends on the age of the baby and how often the baby nursed or the parent pumped milk,” says O’Connor.
“Once a mother completely stops breastfeeding, her milk supply will dry up within 7 to 10 days,” Borton says, though you may still notice a few drops of milk for weeks or even months beyond when you stop breastfeeding. If you do continue to produce significant amounts of milk weeks after weaning baby, you might be experiencing a hormonal issue. Talk to your doctor, and they’ll help you work it out.
Above all else, do what feels right for you and baby—and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Figuring out how to stop breastfeeding or when to stop breastfeeding is often the easy part. It’s facing the self-doubt and guilt that can make the weaning process stressful. So take a deep breath and enjoy your nursing sessions while they last. And when you’re ready to stop—for whatever reason—show yourself grace and be confident in your decision.
About the experts:
Rachel Borton, FNP, is an assistant professor and the director of the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Bradley University. She received her PhD in Nursing at Mennonite College of Nursing, Illinois State University.
Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, is a lactation consultant, serving as vice president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association. She is also a certified childbirth educator in New York City.
Rachel Radcliffe, MS, OTR/L, IBCLC, is an occupational therapist and lactation consultant and the owner of RadMilk Lactation and Occupational Therapy in Washington DC.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.