The End of Breastfeeding: Weaning Your Baby
For first-time breastfeeding mothers, the end of breastfeeding can be much like the beginning. “How do I do this? Am I doing it right? Is this going to work? This hurts!” Whether you have been breastfeeding for weeks, months, or over a year, it can be a challenging process to ween your baby.
Be Kind to Yourself
First, be kind to yourself about the need or desire to stop breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is so beneficial for both mother and child, but there are many reasons to wean your baby. Sometimes there are reasons to stop breastfeeding sooner than you had planned.
Some women need to start weaning because they are returning to work. (It’s possible though to keep providing breastmilk for your baby if you pump at work!) Others need to stop breastfeeding because of medical issues. Yet for others things need to change when mom gets pregnant again. And then for most mothers there comes a time when the baby is just no longer a baby and you realize that the end of breastfeeding is near.
No matter what the reason, accepting this phase is important to a good end to the breastfeeding journey.
Decide How You Want to Stop Breastfeeding
There are different methods for weaning your child depending on what you want to achieve. If you need to wean your baby quickly because of medical reasons or a need to return to the workplace, then you might need to do the “cold turkey” method—stopping all at once. It will be uncomfortable and even painful, but it can be effective. Another way to stop breastfeeding is to do it gradually. It is going to be less painful to reduce feedings, increase bottle usage, and let your milk supply run dry eventually. Some mothers of older babies follow baby-led weaning/feeding so that their child starts to eat solids on their own and more naturally lose interest in nursing.
Cold Turkey Weaning
When you need or want to wean your baby quickly, then you may have to go cold turkey. If you are weaning a young baby, you’ll need to start pumping so that you can replace nursing sessions with bottle sessions.
You may want to have someone else start feeding the baby the bottles so that your child will get used to eating without you. If the baby really fusses about not having mommy nearby, get them used to the bottle first by cuddling your baby, perhaps next to your skin, and having them drink from the bottle that way. They can still smell you and taste the breastmilk. They may fight it, but when hungry enough, they’ll eventually take the bottle.
If you are weaning an older baby then you can replace their nursing sessions with solid foods, in addition to pumped milk or formula for nutrition. (Please speak to your pediatrician about the dietary needs of your child.) Moms whose goal is to stop milk production altogether will eventually see a natural decrease in their supply as soon as they replace breastmilk with solid food or formula.
However, many women will experience engorgement at the onset of weaning. The body is still producing milk which causes pain when that milk is not leaving your body. If you must, use a pump to express just a small amount, enough to relieve the pain, but do not express too much or your body will continue to produce milk. Also, many women have placed cabbage leaves in their bras to relieve pain with great success!
A less painful way to stop breastfeeding is to do it gradually over several weeks or more. For example, if you are nursing your baby three times a day, you may want to cut that down to twice a day. You may also want to cut down on the length of the nursing sessions so that instead of feeding for 20 minutes, you feed for 15 minutes. Keep decreasing nursing frequency and length of sessions. You may also want to start feeding in different spots and not your usual nursing chair. This will help your child get used to the changes ahead.
In order to make up for any lost calories, older babies can eat more solid food while younger babies might need pumped milk or formula from a bottle.
Eventually, your milk supply will decrease as you nurse and pump less. If you do this over weeks or even months, you’ll naturally stop producing milk. Your baby will also get used to nursing less as your production decreases.
Even with gradual weaning, there is a chance of engorgement so see the advice above for how to relieve some of the pain.
Baby-Led Weaning/Baby-Led Feeding
Older babies are a good candidate for baby-led weaning. They have a natural curiosity and ability to eat more solid food. There are many dedicated books and articles on baby-led weaning but the general idea is to allow babies 6 months or older to jump straight to finger foods instead of purees. This lets them learn how to hold food, gum food, and decide how much they want to eat. They will still need the nutrition from breastmilk or formula, so moms may need to continue to nurse or pump. However, the idea is to let your child choose whether they want solid food or breastmilk at adult mealtimes with the rest of the family. If they fill up on solid food, they won’t need a nursing.
Like gradual weaning, this method requires you to replace certain nursing sessions with solid food. Don’t be surprised if your baby does not choose to eat much on their own at the beginning. They are still developing hand-eye coordination, but as they get more skilled at eating different kinds of solid food and drinking water from a sippy cup, they’ll gradually take less breastmilk or formula.
No matter what method you choose, the end of breastfeeding can be emotional. There might be stop and starts in the weaning process. Some moms want to get it over quickly, some want to take their time, and others may not even have a choice when they realize their babies are weaning themselves. How to wean is a personal decision. However, if you need any advice from our experienced lactation consultants, feel free to contact the Motherhood Center. We are ready and willing to help you in your breastfeeding journey from beginning to end!
(Be sure to consult your doctor if you experience any difficulties or increased pain while trying to stop breastfeeding.)