Weaning Guide: When and How to Stop Breastfeeding

Jul 31, 2022 |Breastfeeding

Is it time to wean your baby? Not sure how to go about it? In our guide, we share everything you need to know about stopping breastfeeding and the different approaches you might take.

Reasons you might start weaning from the breastThere are many reasons why you may wish to stop breastfeeding, or start to gradually reduce feeds. Reasons could include:

  • Going back to work
  • Painful or uncomfortable breasts
  • Certain medication
  • Being pregnant again
  • Finding the demand overwhelming
  • Going away from your baby

When is the right time to wean?

It is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF that babies are exclusively breastfed for their first six months of life, then continue having breast milk alongside foods until at least two years old. (1)

However, it isn’t always practical to breastfeed into the toddler years, and sometimes babies even wean themselves off the breast.

The right time to wean from the breast is ultimately when you and baby are ready, and it can take as long as you want it to. There is no rush.

Weaning at different ages will require a different approach and may come with its challenges. Depending on the baby's age, you may need to supplement with formula or pump and bottle feed with breast milk.

Weaning a baby under six months

When you are weaning a baby who is under six months the baby will still need milk as the main source of nutrition. As your baby can’t have solids just yet you will need to switch to formula or pump breast milk.

 

Making the switch to the formula is best done gradually. If you stop breastfeeding suddenly you may end up with mastitis. This is a condition that leaves you with a sore breast and sometimes flu-like symptoms. (2) Not only that, but a sudden switch in diet could also be too much of a change for your baby’s digestive system.

Start by replacing one breastfeed with a bottle feed. After a few days, your body will have adjusted to making slightly less milk. You can then replace another feed with a bottle. Over a few weeks, you could have entirely stopped breastfeeding and switched to the bottle.

If you stop breastfeeding your baby but decide you want to start again, this is possible. You should know that it will require time and a baby willing to cooperate. To relactate you need to stimulate your nipples to encourage milk which you can do with a pump or your baby – if they are happy to suckle!

Weaning a baby over six months

When your baby reaches six months you will start offering complementary foods. These foods are to go alongside milk, not replace it. However, when a baby starts eating more solids they may naturally start to reduce their milk intake.

If you decide to wean a baby over six months then you may need to switch up the routine to distract them from their usual feeding patterns. You might offer a healthy snack or breast milk in a sippy cup, have a cuddle, go for a walk, or play a game.

You should start reducing the breastfeeding that your baby will miss the least. Usually, the morning and bedtime feeds are the last to go.

Baby-led weaning from the breast

Baby-led weaning allows the baby or toddler to choose when nursing stops. They may start gradually reducing time spent at the breast, or skip nursing sessions altogether. If you go down this route your body will have enough time to adjust your milk supply so there shouldn’t be any problems with mastitis or engorgement.

Baby-led weaning can be a longer process as you are leaving the decision in your baby's hands.

Partial weaning

Partial weaning, or combination feeding, simply means you feed your baby from both bottle and breast. Some families decide to do this if mum is going back to work, or needs some help through the night. If the baby is over six months then food and drinks can be offered alongside the breast.

Weaning a toddler

Weaning a toddler can come with its challenges. Toddlers are very strong-willed and they’ve likely made the connection for how to ask (or demand) a feed. Toddlers don’t need milk as their main drink, however, they get more from the breast than calories. It is a time to reset and be quiet, be close to mum, and feel comforted. You may find their demand for the breasts increases when they are unwell or overwhelmed.

Feeding a toddler can be intense, sometimes they seemingly feed more than newborns! If you are ready to stop then there are lots of different strategies, but the option you choose will depend on your toddler's personality.

Here are a few things that may help:

  • Change your daily routine
  • Ask someone else to help with bedtime
  • Offer a snack or drink instead of the breast
  • Talk to your toddler about stopping breastfeeding
  • Distract your toddler with a game when they ask to feed
  • Don’t offer, but don’t refuse
  • Give your child extra cuddles

For specific advice, talk to your healthcare provider who will be able to make suggestions that work for your family.

A final note on weaning from breastfeeding 

Weaning from breastfeeding can be an emotional time, even if you are 100% sure you are ready to stop. There’s a huge hormone shift that can leave you feeling pretty down.

When you are breastfeeding oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) increases, however with weaning it decreases. This hormone change can bring with it a sense of loss and leave you feeling teary and sad.

Be kind to yourself during this time and find new ways to bond with your little one.

 References:

  1. https://www.who.int/health-topics/breastfeeding#tab=tab_2
  2. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mastitis/

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