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A sudden cessation in nursing can be uncomfortable — for your breasts and for your child. Here’s how to wean your child successfully.
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By Cassandra Willyard
This guide was originally published on Aug. 23, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
My daughter probably would have nursed well into high school if the decision had been hers to make. She adored the boob. And when she turned 1, that love morphed into an obsession. She wanted it. Needed it. NOW!
That’s when I decided the relationship was no longer working for us and I needed to wean her from my breast.
My plan for weaning was based on a hodgepodge of advice from other moms and a significant amount of guesswork. And it did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. The final weeks involved a great deal of floundering and many, many tears (both my child’s and my own).
We don’t want you to have to flounder and cry, so we put together some practical advice to help you wean as painlessly as possible. I read two books on breastfeeding and two books on weaning, and interviewed a variety of experts on lactation, including a family doctor, two psychologists, a certified lactation consultant and a nurse researcher who studies breastfeeding.
The research on weaning is sparse. While there are some studies looking at weaning across cultures or factors associated with weaning, I could not find any scientific assessment of the effectiveness of different weaning strategies. Thus, the few books that address the topic are based on the experience of lactation consultants, nurses and pediatricians.
What to Do
- Figure out when you want to wean.
- Decide on your approach.
- If you choose to initiate weaning, start by eliminating nursing sessions slowly.
- Help your child adjust.
- Relieve breast discomfort.
- If you want to wean abruptly, remove as little milk as possible.
- If you want to let your child take the wheel, be prepared to wait.
Figure out when you want to wean.
This guide addresses how to wean, but doesn’t address the intensely personal question of when to wean. Breastfeeding provides a variety of health benefits for the baby, and even some for the mother. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months, and that they continue to nurse while introducing solids through the first year, or “as long as mutually desired by the mother and baby.” The World Health Organization suggests similar, but with complementary nursing for up to two years or beyond.
Many parents happily nurse for longer than that, and many stop far sooner, in some cases because they lack adequate parental leave. (See our guide on pumping at work for tips.) And some parents don’t breastfeed at all. They may be physically unable to. They may need to be on a medication that is contraindicated for breastfeeding. Or they may decide against breastfeeding for personal reasons.
“Whatever mother decides to do is really the right decision,” said Dr. Anne Eglash, M.D., a family doctor and lactation consultant in Madison, Wis., and a cofounder of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, an organization of doctors dedicated to promoting, protecting and supporting breastfeeding.
Decide on your approach.
When it comes to weaning, there are two main approaches: parent-led weaning and child-led weaning. As their names suggest, the approaches differ mainly by who is taking charge.
Many parents don’t adopt one strategy over another, but one that falls somewhere in the middle. Some might let the child lead, but set limits around how often and where the child can nurse. Others might begin the weaning process themselves, but adjust the timeline to accommodate a child who is having difficulty adapting. Weaning doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As long as your milk supply is well established, you can reduce the frequency of nursing without totally stopping. Your body will adjust. Even parents who decide to nurse just once or twice a day can typically maintain their milk supply.
All experts agree that, however you decide to wean, it should happen gradually. Try not to quit cold turkey unless it’s necessary (see below). Abrupt weaning, especially for women who are breastfeeding many times a day, can lead to breast discomfort, engorgement, plugged ducts or even mastitis.
Also keep in mind that it is not uncommon for babies who are nursing to refuse the breast temporarily, especially when they’re between 4 and 7 months. But a nursing strike isn’t a sign that your child is ready to wean. Most children don’t self-wean until they are well over 1 year old. And weaning typically happens gradually, whereas a nursing strike is sudden.
If you choose to initiate weaning, start by eliminating nursing sessions slowly.
By slowly eliminating breastfeeding sessions over the course of several days or even weeks, you’ll reduce the risk of painful engorgement, which can lead to plugged ducts or mastitis.
First, choose one nursing session to eliminate per day. Babies tend to be most attached to the first morning feeding and the feeding right before bed, so Dr. Eglash typically advises her clients to drop an afternoon feeding. That’s when parents tend to produce less milk.
After several days, and once your breasts start adjusting, you can eliminate another nursing session per day. If you dropped an afternoon session, you might drop an early morning or a night session rather than the one right before or after the one you already eliminated. That should reduce the risk of engorgement. You can continue dropping feedings like this until your child is weaned.
(If you’re exclusively pumping, reduce your supply by lengthening the time between pumping sessions, and by pumping for a shorter amount of time at each session.)
The length of time your breasts will need for adjustment before eliminating your next nursing session will depend: Some parents might need only a couple of days, others might need more time. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., a health psychologist and lactation consultant in Texas, recommended dropping one feeding per week to avoid problems like plugged ducts and mastitis.
Though keep in mind that dropping a nursing session doesn’t necessarily mean dropping a feeding. If your baby is younger than 6 months, offer them pumped milk or formula from a bottle during their typical nursing time. If your child is older than 6 months, she might be ready to drink formula or pumped milk from a cup. (Babies shouldn’t drink cow’s milk until they’re 12 months.) You can offer older children a drink or a snack, or they might not need a replacement.
Help your child adjust.
Weaning slowly not only helps your breasts adjust, but it helps your child to adjust to this new schedule, too.
To wean a baby who is 12 months or younger, try the following strategies to ease the process. (Success rates will vary, of course, depending on your child’s personality.)
Offer distractions to take their mind off nursing. Give them a book or a toy, or play a game.
Revamp their routine. If the bedtime feeding is especially difficult to drop and you have a partner, let your partner put your child to bed. If the morning feeding is the struggle, let your partner take wake-up duty. If you usually nurse at home in the afternoon, head to the park. Develop new routines that take breastfeeding out of the equation.
Provide comfort. Find new ways to foster closeness and respond to your children’s needs. That might mean snuggling, babywearing or reading them a special book.
Eliminating nursing sessions with toddlers can be easier on the breasts, because toddlers tend to nurse far less than infants, and therefore you’ll most likely already be producing less milk. But weaning older children can be difficult because they are often nursing for comfort, Dr. Eglash said. By 15 months, she said, most toddlers can follow commands and understand simple explanations. But “they’re very much still planning on getting what they want,” she added. For older toddlers, talking to them about the weaning plan ahead of time can help set expectations and reduce distress.
Offering games or special activities in place of their typical nursing session can help distract them, and items such as a lovey or a blanket can provide comfort. Acknowledging that your child is feeling mad, sad or scared can also help reduce distress, as can telling your child that nursing will happen later. Setting limits on the length of your nursing session, such as by using a timer, can also help manage their expectations and ease the process.
Relieve breast discomfort.
If your breasts become uncomfortably full during weaning, there are several strategies you can use to make yourself more comfortable. Experts recommend wearing a supportive bra that is not too tight. You can also use cold compresses and ibuprofen to help alleviate the discomfort of engorgement. Cold cabbage leaves placed in the bra also seem to provide some relief, though the evidence on how well this works is mixed (yes, scientists have researched this). Pro tip: Put nursing pads in the freezer for a ready-made cold compress to stick in your bra.
You can also pump or hand-express some milk to reduce fullness. Even a warm shower might be enough to release some milk. But you should never empty your breasts completely. “Leaving some fullness in the breasts gives the breast feedback that not as much milk is needed,” Dr. Eglash said.
If you want to wean abruptly, remove as little milk as possible.
In some cases, you might need to wean quickly because of recurrent infections or another medical emergency. Or, you might want to stop lactating immediately after birth. In general, the best strategy is to remove as little milk as possible. The less you take out, the less you will produce.
To help make the process easier, you can implement some of the same strategies listed above to help relieve discomfort (such as wearing a supportive bra, using cold gel packs or cabbage leaves, and pumping or hand-expressing just enough to relieve discomfort).
There are also over-the-counter medications, like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), which can reduce milk production. (Many lactation consultants recommend taking herbs, like sage, but there isn’t much research-based evidence that supports using them for reducing milk supply.)
If you’ve experienced a stillbirth and don’t want to gradually reduce your milk supply by pumping, Dr. Eglash said she often prescribes a drug called cabergoline, which lowers the level of the milk-creating hormone prolactin and which is even more potent than O.T.C. or home-based remedies in suppressing lactation. But seek help from a certified lactation consultant or your doctor before attempting to use any medications, even those sold over the counter, to control supply.
If you want to let your child take the wheel, be prepared to wait.
The last approach is the simplest, but it requires patience: Let your child decide when she is done nursing. That could happen as early as 18 months, but it could also occur past her fifth birthday.
When to Worry
The most serious complication of weaning is mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue that often requires antibiotics. Symptoms of mastitis can include redness, swelling and tenderness of the breast, fever or other flu-like symptoms. If you develop these symptoms, call your doctor.
Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist and a mom of one very opinionated 4-year-old.
Continue reading the main story
What is the best way to wean baby off breastfeeding? ›
What's the best way to begin weaning? Slowly tapering off how long and how often you breast-feed each day — over the course of weeks or months — will cause your milk supply to gradually diminish and prevent engorgement. It might be easiest to drop a midday breast-feeding session first.How long does it take to wean a toddler from nursing? ›
Some moms commit to weaning right away, with their toddlers fully weaned within a few weeks or a month or so. Others prefer to take their time and wind down slowly, both for the sake of their bodies and their little one – particularly if he or she is having a tough time and strongly resisting weaning.How do I get my 1 year old to stop breastfeeding at night? ›
- Make nursing part of the bedtime routine. ...
- Gradually reduce the length of your overnight nursing sessions. ...
- Increase quality time during the day together. ...
- Get your partner involved in overnight feedings! ...
- Talk to your toddler – and gently tell them no.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 [PDF-30.6MB] recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding while introducing appropriate complementary foods for 1 year or longer.How do I stop comfort nursing at night? ›
Here's how: Reduce the time your child feeds by 2-5 minutes every second night. For example, if your child usually feeds for 10 minutes, feed for 8 minutes for 2 nights, then 6 minutes for the next 2 nights, and so on. Re-settle your child after each shortened feed with the settling techniques of your choice.What are the consequences of breastfeeding for too long? ›
As the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states, “There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful to parent or child.”What happens to your body when you stop breastfeeding a toddler? ›
Both oxytocin and prolactin contribute to feelings of calm, love, relaxation, closeness and contentment. As breastfeeding ends, both prolactin and oxytocin levels will lower – and so may your mood and sense of wellbeing. It may last a few days, or it may go on for longer.Why is my toddler obsessed with breastfeeding? ›
But toddlers don't just nurse for nutrition or quench their thirst; they do so when they are craving connection, attention, are tired, bored, etc. So your toddler may want to nurse a lot sometimes. Other times, they may only nurse a few times a day. This is normal.Why does my 1 year old want to breastfeed all night? ›
Many times active toddlers nurse throughout the night to make up for their lack of daytime nursing. Try offering substitutes during the night when he first wakes. For instance, you could offer him a "sippy cup" with water in case he wants to nurse because he is thirsty.Why does my toddler want to nurse all night? ›
Sometimes your toddler may go through phases of increased night nursing. Common reasons for increased night breastfeeding in toddlers include teething, decreased breastfeeding during the day because of distraction, developmental advances and reconnecting with mom.
Do you lose weight when you stop breastfeeding? ›
That said, it's not a guarantee that you'll gain weight after you stop nursing. “Some women actually lose weight after weaning,” Cording says. It's worth checking in with yourself if you're concerned about your overall health or feel like your eating habits haven't been the best lately.Are breastfed babies more attached to mom? ›
Myth: Babies who have been breastfed are clingy.
Breastfeeding provides not only the best nutrition for infants, but is also important for their developing brain. Breastfed babies are held a lot and because of this, breastfeeding has been shown to enhance bonding with their mother.
Many babies are fussier during growth spurts and will want to nurse longer and more often, as much as every 30 minutes. It may feel like all you're doing is feeding your baby! But this is your baby's way of helping you increase your milk supply so that you can keep up with baby's needs.Why does my baby always want to nurse? ›
Babies Find Breastfeeding Relaxing
Most babies find breastfeeding very comforting and, just like if we feel upset a hug can do wonders. Likewise, a short extra breastfeed does the same for calming our babies! Do not compare yourself with another mum and baby's feeding pattern.
- There can be discomfort involved with breastfeeding. ...
- You may leak milk at times that are inconvenient or embarrassing. ...
- Feeding your baby in public may be more difficult. ...
- Everything you consume is being passed on to your baby. ...
- You need special clothing and bras for breastfeeding.
Breastfed children were almost twice as likely to be highly anxious, while children who had been bottle fed were over 9 times as likely to be highly anxious about parental divorce/separation.What is the negative side of breastfeeding? ›
Many women experience common side effects to breastfeeding, such as back pain, chest and wrist pain. Many also experience bruising on the breast, cramping, and Osteoporosis. None of these should stop you from choosing to breastfeed; you should be aware should you start experiencing the symptoms.Do you gain weight after you stop breast feeding? ›
While the level of prolactin, a hormone produced by the body during lactation, drops once a new mother stops breastfeeding, this is a gradual process. When stored in the body (instead of being expelled while nursing), prolactin reduces fat metabolism, which leads to weight gain as well as depression and grief.Is stopping breastfeeding cold turkey OK? ›
If weaning is your decision, it's best for you and your baby to do it gradually, and with love. If you wean “cold turkey,” your breasts will likely become painfully engorged, and you might develop a breast infection. Your baby will probably fight the switch from your warm, soft breast to a plastic substitute.How do I know my baby is ready for weaning? ›
Signs your baby is ready for solid foods
They'll be able to: stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady. co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth by themselves. swallow food (rather than spit it back out)
Can I stop breastfeeding cold turkey? ›
If weaning is your decision, it's best for you and your baby to do it gradually, and with love. If you wean “cold turkey,” your breasts will likely become painfully engorged, and you might develop a breast infection. Your baby will probably fight the switch from your warm, soft breast to a plastic substitute.Is it worth breastfeeding once a day? ›
Breastfeeding, even just once a day, is worth it.
Your body is regulating your hormones and your endocrine system with stimulation. Second, the baby receives that contact, that transfer of energy from the parent, and being skin to skin continues to support heart rate, respiration, glucose levels and temperature.
Stage 1 – Introduction of solid foods – from around 6 months. Stage 2 – More textures and tastes – from around 7 months. Stage 3 – Wider variety and family food – from around 9-12 months.What age do most babies self wean? ›
When babies stop breastfeeding on their own, they're self-weaning. While there are many anecdotes about babies who suddenly self-wean at 6 or 7 months, it typically doesn't happen until children are over a year old. What's more, self-weaning is a gradual process.How long does it take to establish weaning? ›
Risks of weaning too soon or too late
You should not give your baby solid foods before 17 weeks because: breast milk or formula milk is all your baby needs until they are 6 months old. introducing other foods or fluids can displace the essential nutrients supplied by breast or formula milk.
As long as your milk supply is well established, you can reduce the frequency of nursing without totally stopping. Your body will adjust. Even parents who decide to nurse just once or twice a day can typically maintain their milk supply.Are breastfed babies happier? ›
Breastfed babies cry more, laugh less, and generally have "more challenging temperaments" than formula-fed infants, a study has found. But such behaviour is normal, and mothers should learn to cope with it rather than reach for the bottle, according to researchers.Can I just breastfeed for a few days? ›
Absolutely! As long as baby is getting mom's milk, he will continue to receive many benefits from breastmilk and the act of breastfeeding. Mom can provide 100% of these even if very little breastmilk is being obtained during nursing.