How to Stop Breastfeeding (and Keep Baby Happy)
February 27, 2017
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. But if you need to stop breastfeeding immediately, there are ways to reduce possible issues, such as engorgement, as well. Whatever your situation, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can be as helpful at the end of your breastfeeding experience as she is at the beginning. “Seeking help early can solve potential weaning issues before they arise,” says Rachel Radcliffe, MS, OTR/L, IBCLC, an occupational therapist and lactation consultant at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC. Done right, weaning can be a pain-free experience, physically and emotionally, for both you and baby.
There’s an official guideline for how long to breastfeed, and that’s “as long as possible.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively until baby is at least six months old, and then gradually adding solid foods while continuing to breastfeed until baby is one year or older.
That’s the ideal. But then there’s the reality. Some mothers 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’s a simple lack of desire to continue breastfeeding, and that’s okay too. 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 best way to stop breastfeeding 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.
“Each mother varies in her response to the frequency of decreasing feedings,” she adds, 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.
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 his typical feeding time. Feed him something else during his usual nursing time so he’s satiated, and snuggle with him somewhere other than his 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. She 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 breastfeedings 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 she’ll help you work it out.