Whether you’ve loved every minute of it, slowly came to enjoy it, or simply powered through it, at some point breastfeeding will come to an end. Knowing when and how to begin the weaning process is not necessarily intuitive, but with a little planning and patience, you and your baby will find new ways to nurture without nursing.
When Is the Right Time To Wean?
There is no set point where a parent and baby “should” wean. It depends on many of factors, like mom’s supply and mental health, how baby is doing with nursing, and what the pediatrician recommends is in the best interest of your circumstances. That said, the official guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies are exclusively breastfed for six months and then continue for 2 years, or beyond, “as mutually desired by mother and child.”
Regardless of whether you make it two weeks, to the six-month marker, or 2 years, if you’re considering weaning, it’s the second part of the AAP’s guidance that is key; nursing is a two-person endeavor, and therefore not always a simple decision.
Sara Chana, IBCLC, RH (AHG), certified lactation consultant, birthing instructor, and mom of seven in Brooklyn, New York, tells Pregnancy & Newborn, “If you decide to wean, it is important to ask yourself a few questions: Is this what I feel is intuitively correct, or are others influencing me? Has my baby stopped gaining the weight that they were gaining before? Am I taking a medication my doctor told me I cannot continue breastfeeding on?”
You might think breastfeeding a 1- or 2-year-old toddler seems unnecessary, given that they are eating solid foods by this point, but breast milk still offers a lot of nutritional value at a year or more out, so if it’s societal pressure that’s pushing you to wean, it’s worth reconsidering whether or not it’s the right choice for you and your little one.
According to Nicole Peluso, IBCLC, a lactation consultant with Lactation Link, “After the first year of baby’s life, breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients including protein, fat, and most vitamins.” Additionally, she says, “antibodies in breast milk exist in great concentrations when baby is older and nursing less.”
Again, as beneficial as it is to breastfeed a child this long, it’s not always a realistic option. Some women may encounter medical reasons that necessitate a premature end to partial or exclusive breastfeeding, and others could experience emotional strain associated with the pitfalls of their breastfeeding journey.
No matter the reason, deciding when to stop nursing is as personal a decision as deciding to start in the first place. “Weaning your baby is often difficult for both the mother and the baby,” says Chana. “Sometimes weaning is the best choice for the mother, and sometimes it is the best choice for the baby. Just make sure you are weaning for the right reason instead of weaning from misinformation.”
Communicate What’s Happening
Once you’ve determined that it’s time to move on from breastfeeding and that both you and baby are ready, then what? Unlike the initiation of your nursing undertaking, stopping breastfeeding doesn’t happen all at once. Going cold turkey is a bad idea for both mom and baby.
“Don’t just take away breastfeeding suddenly,” Chana urges. “Change is difficult for most people, including your baby.” Not only will abruptly ceasing to drain your breasts of milk regularly cause pain for you, but it can also result in plugged ducts and potentially lead to mastitis. Not to mention, it may also be emotionally challenging for your baby.
“Make sure to speak with your infant, no matter how old the baby is,” advises Chana. “Explain the process that the two of you will be (or are) going through—all of us would like clear explanations of the changes in our lives.” A gentle approach, with the mindset that the process will happen gradually over time, is best.
Option 1: Parent-Led Weaning
You’ve likely heard the phrase “supply and demand” used to explain milk production—when your baby demands nourishment by sucking, your body supplies it. As you wean, you are simply telling your body not to make as much milk over time, so that slowly, it learns not to make any at all.
You can begin to decrease your output by eliminating one feed a day. Choose the session baby will miss the least or the session in which feeding length is the shortest. This will help with both your engorgement and your baby’s adjustment to a new routine. Gradually take away feedings until you’ve successfully moved to a new schedule that does not include breastfeeding.
Option 2: Child-Led Weaning
If your child is older, Peluso says child-led weaning is a “gentler approach,” for both mom and baby. “One of the most difficult parts of mother-led weaning is, when the baby is not ready emotionally, to break that layer of the bond with his or her mother,” she says.
Instead, if you can, she suggests child-led weaning. This approach is exactly what it sounds like: allowing the child to decide when it is the right time to wean. Peluso explains that this “occurs when a child no longer has an emotional or nutritional need to nurse,” which happens when a child is between 2.5 and 7 years old, according to anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler.
In terms of nutrition, “a child who self-weans seems to innately know when they no longer need the nutrients from breast milk” because they are getting enough from food, says Peluso. As for the emotional aspect of weaning, “Allowing the child to decide [when to wean] avoids stress … from the separation because it’s done when the child is developmentally ready.”
Peluso says, for parents who are able to wean in this way, the transition is usually smoother for both mom and baby. “It takes the guesswork out of mom’s hands and puts the trust in the baby to transition out of nursing when he or she is ready.”
Tips for Stopping Breastmilk Production and Managing Pain
Deciding how to approach weaning with your child is only part of the process—there’s also the physical aspect of reducing your milk supply to consider. Gradual weaning will trigger the body to slow its production of breastmilk over time, but your production won’t stop immediately. It may take a few weeks to wean naturally by doing the following:
- Substitute one nursing session with a bottle of infant formula, cow’s milk, or a new solid every few days (whatever is age and developmentally appropriate for your child)
- Gradually lengthen the time between nursing or pumping sessions
- Nurse or pump for shorter intervals each breastfeeding session
There are also a few things breastfeeding parents can do to support the body’s transition and reduce their discomfort during weaning, such as:
- The use of cold gel packs (avoid heat, as it encourages milk flow)
- Wear cold cabbage leaves in the cups of your bra
- Drink sage or peppermint tea three to four times a day for two to three days
- The use of certain over-the-counter decongestants such as Sudafed and Benadryl (but check with your doctor before taking any of these)
- Prescription medications such as cabergoline, taken as prescribed by your health care provider
- Wear a supportive bra to help with swelling (but do not practice breast binding, as it can result in blocked ducts or mastitis)
No matter when or how you choose to wean, it is an incredibly important milestone for you and your little one. Whether you are celebrating a new beginning or mourning the end, give yourself as much time and space as you need to make sure you are comfortable and that the process is successful.