How to Navigate the Weaning Process
For most parents, breastfeeding signifies major life changes: Bringing home your little one, weathering physical and emotional fluctuations, and adjusting to your new role as caregiver to name a few. So when it’s time to stop breastfeeding—when that season of monumental change is over—you might have mixed feelings about letting go.
We interviewed TLN IBCLC Jennifer Horne about this delicate process, otherwise known as weaning, and how to best navigate the transition to your next season of parenthood.
What Is Weaning?
According to the CDC, “weaning from breastfeeding is the process of switching a baby’s diet from breast milk to other foods and drinks.”
When to Stop Breastfeeding
While weaning has a simple enough definition, answering the question of “when” requires some nuance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer.” Sometimes your baby will let you know they’re ready to stop breastfeeding in a gradual process known as baby-led weaning.
Baby-Led Weaning (a.k.a Self-Led Weaning)
In this case, “the natural process of weaning begins when the baby starts solids around six months,” Horne shared. “As children get more of their nutrition from solid foods, they will eventually begin to nurse less often than when they were younger.” Per Mayo Clinic, “some children begin to seek other forms of nutrition and comfort at around age one… Other children might not initiate weaning until they become toddlers, when they’re less willing to sit still during breastfeeding.” Eventually, most children find reasons to self-wean, but there are other ways to transition into the next phase of parenthood.
Choosing to Stop Breastfeeding for Yourself
All reasons for wanting to stop breastfeeding are valid. As Horne said, “it is okay to wean for your emotional or mental well being and you do not have to justify your choices of how you feed your baby to anyone.” Regardless of why you decide to wean, however, experts caution against taking a cold-turkey approach.
“Weaning does not need to be all or nothing,” affirms La Leche League—nor should it unless medically necessary. (And if you do need to wean suddenly for medical or personal reasons, contact an IBCLC for guidance.) “Weaning too quickly,” Horne shared, “can cause painful breast engorgement, mastitis, leaky breasts, and mood changes that may include depression.” Due to fluctuating hormones, even those who wean gradually may experience a subtle difference in their usual demeanor. “The faster the weaning process, the more abrupt the shift in hormone levels, and the more likely that you will experience adverse effects,” cautioned Horne. Sudden weaning may change your baby’s behavior, as well. According to La Leche League, “increased tantrums, regressive behaviors, anxiety, increase in night waking, new fear of separation, and clinginess are all possible signs that weaning is going too quickly for your child.”
How To Wean
If you can, it’s ideal to wean slowly. Horne recommends dropping no more than one feeding per week, over weeks or months. “If your breasts feel full and uncomfortable,” she said, “express just enough milk to relieve the fullness. You can do this by pumping for a couple of minutes or hand expressing. The less milk you remove, the quicker your body will realize it doesn’t need to produce.”
For your child, who’s likely unaware of your feeding goals (unless, of course, they’re old enough to understand—if that’s the case, tell them!), the transition might be trickier. Consider these breastfeeding weaning tips for your baby:
- Try dropping a midday session first. Per Mayo Clinic, “after a lunch of solid food, your child might become interested in an activity and naturally give up this session.”
- Breastfeed when your baby asks, don’t breastfeed when your baby doesn’t. (La Leche League calls this the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” technique.)
- Avoid sitting at your nursing or pumping station so your baby doesn’t get the wrong idea.
- If possible, request help. Cleveland Clinic suggests that you ask your partner to “take over the nighttime routine or get up early to prepare breakfast and act as a distraction from the morning feeding.”
- Be ready to offer food swaps and fun distractions to replace your usual sessions, like a nutritious snack or reading a book together.
With a plan in place to reduce your feeding sessions, what should you feed your child instead? According to the CDC, “if you and your child have decided it is time to wean and your child is younger than 12 months old…give your child infant formula in place of breast milk. If you and your child have decided it is time to wean and your child is 12 months or older…give your child plain whole cow’s milk or fortified unsweetened soy beverage in place of breast milk. [They do] not need infant formula or toddler milks, drinks, or formula.” These easy swaps shouldn’t stress your baby—but what about your stress levels while weaning?
Common Weaning Pitfalls
Weaning can be challenging: Your baby might protest and your body will go through changes yet again. So it’s important to start weaning at a time when external stressors aren’t already high. For example, if you or your child is ill or if you’re in the midst of a move, it would be wise to postpone weaning.
It’s also worth knowing that sometimes babies take temporary breaks from breastfeeding, known as “nursing strikes.” According to Horne, these can happen out of the blue and they’re not to be confused with self-led weaning. Or you might experience the opposite issue with a baby who simply isn’t ready to wean. In that case, you can always press pause and try again in a month or two.
If in doubt about anything, reach out to an IBCLC. “Many parents struggle with how and when to begin the weaning process,” Horne shared. “An IBCLC can help answer questions about the process and create a care plan that works for both you and your baby.” And if you don’t yet have an IBCLC to support you through weaning, request a consultation. We’re always here to help.