The decision to wean or stop breastfeeding can arise from many different reasons—and every one of them is valid. Although the World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for at least the first six months of their lives, what's recommended isn't always possible. Maybe you're going to be traveling soon or your baby is going to daycare or you just don't feel that the breastfeeding process is sustainable for you or your child.
Every breastfeeding journey is unique—from family to family and even from child to child. Deciding when to stop breastfeeding is a personal decision, mama. Here's what you need to know about weaning your baby.
When should I wean my child?
Some parents never want to breastfeed, and others do it for years. Deciding when to cease breastfeeding is a personal decision with a lot of factors, but ultimately, the choice is up to you. If you have any questions or reservations, you can contact your doctor or talk to a local breastfeeding support group. Connecting with other parents who are or have gone through breastfeeding and weaning will help you prepare for what's to come.
No matter when you start, weaning is something that's best done slowly, as moving too quickly can be detrimental for both you and your baby. By allowing a few weeks or even months to gradually reduce your milk supply, you'll help relieve some of the physical and emotional side effects. The basic idea is to gradually reduce the number of daily breastfeeding sessions for your baby, rather than stopping suddenly.
If you have an end date in mind, it can help to map out a plan. Generally, a good pace is to drop one feeding session every 3-5 days. If you need to wean suddenly for medical reasons, your doctor or a certified lactation consultant will be able to help you get there faster, but it's not recommended for you to stop breastfeeding abruptly otherwise.
How to wean a child younger than 1 year
If you no longer want to breastfeed and are interested in weaning a child who is less than a year old, you'll need to replace their breastmilk with formula.
Some children may be resistant to the bottle if the breast they once ate from is nearby. If your child seems reluctant to try the bottle from you, try leaving the room and allowing someone else to initiate bottle feeding sessions.
After your child turns 1 year old, you can wean them off of formula the same way you did with breastmilk.
Tips for stopping breastfeeding
Sometimes, weaning happens naturally as kids grow older, but other times, it takes more involvement from parents. As you slowly drop a session every few days or once a week, here are some ideas to help your child if they're resistant to the idea.
Change up your routine. By switching up your routine—even in small ways—you can help curb breastfeeding associations. Maybe you normally breastfeed your baby to sleep after reading books at bedtime. But to drop a feed, you might want to nurse first and then read stories before laying your little one down to sleep, so that the reading becomes more strongly associated with sleep than nursing.
Avoid familiar places. If you have a place where you usually go to nurse (such as a certain chair or a corner of the room), you may want to choose another place to nurse when weaning to avoid the strong associations.
Call in a partner for help. If you can, have a non-nursing partner or family member take charge during times when you would normally nurse, such as when getting your child up in the morning.
Employ distractions. When your little one seems like they want to breastfeed but you're trying to wean, try talking about their favorite stories, making funny faces together or playing a game.
Sing a song. For older children, you can start cutting nursing sessions short by singing a song to set a time limit. You can also try counting aloud to a number and decrease that number every week.
Replace their sessions with snacks. If your child is old enough to eat food beyond breastmilk and formula, then gradually increasing the amount you're giving them at mealtimes will help to fill their bellies.
"Don't offer, don't refuse." This phrase is often used among breastfeeding support groups. Although this is a method that takes longer, the idea is that by not offering the breast, you'll cut down on the sessions just by the nature of children having other things going on to interest them. This is a child-led approach which tends to decrease tantrums and any other difficulties that come from refusing.
Postpone your sessions. By saying "Let's wait a while," you can show your child that they can wait, which might help to build their patience during this difficult time. Offer a future time that you might have your next session, so they know when to expect it, such as after bathtime.
Tell them the truth. If your child is older, you can be more frank with them about what's happening. Explain that you're moving away from breastfeeding by a certain date, and celebrate this day with a toy, a special meal or an event.
Tips for nighttime weaning and nap-weaning
Oftentimes, a child's sleep routine is centered around night feeding, which sometimes makes dropping this nursing session the hardest. Even though this may be the last feeding you drop, by establishing strong techniques during the day, you and your child will be better equipped to handle letting go at night.
Much like daytime weaning, by allowing other family members to take over sleep-time routines, you'll create an "out of sight, out of mind" approach. Additionally, try to gradually switch up your bedtime routine. For example, something like adding a small snack before you read a book might help them feel fuller, or you can have your partner cuddle with them to help your child feel more secure when they're in this vulnerable state.
How weaning affects you
Although a lot of the conversation around weaning revolves around the best ways to help your child, it's likely this stage is also going to be a physically, emotionally and mentally challenging time for you, too.
As you slowly replace breastfeeding with bottle feeding session by session, La Leche League recommends expressing some milk during each session to help with pressure as your body transitions. Don't overdo this part, though—instead of draining the breast, just try to release a small amount of milk. Otherwise, you might accidentally increase or maintain your supply while you're actually trying to lessen it.
One of the most common—and painful—side effects of weaning too quickly is mastitis, which is an infection caused by an obstruction of a milk duct or bacteria entering through dry or cracked skin. If you experience swelling, tenderness, itching, tenderness, or fever, contact your doctor, since mastitis treatment can include antibiotics or minor surgery if an abscess forms. The best way to prevent mastitis is to slowly move through weaning, dropping one session every 3 to 5 days.
Some anecdotal reports suggest that applying a cold cabbage leaf over each breast and wearing a supportive bra to hold them in place can help with engorgement and prevent mastitis when weaning. Be sure to change out the leaves every hour or so, and don't try this method if you're still planning to breastfeed for a few more days or weeks.
Although you might be looking forward to a rush of freedom when you end your last breastfeeding session, weaning can have a lot of unexpected effects. Ceasing breastfeeding can cause a significant hormonal shift as prolactin levels drop, estrogen levels start to rise, and levels of the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin may drop off, too. This can result in post-weaning depression, which may just last a few days—but can stick around longer, possibly even requiring therapy. Take care of yourself, mama, and learn to recognize the signs of depression early on—and reaching out for help if you need it.
Bonyata K. Flora B, Yount P. Kelly Mom. Night weaning. Updated Jan. 14, 2018.
Bonyata K. Flora B, Yount P. Kelly Mom. Sadness and depression during (and after) weaning. Updated Jan. 15, 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weaning - Nutrition. Updated July 9, 2021.