How to Stop Breastfeeding

How to Make Weaning a Positive for Yourself and Baby

You're really rocking the breastfeeding thing. Your baby latches on like a pro, and you can operate your nursing bra with one hand while holding a wiggling baby. You can even navigate midnight feedings when you're half asleep. Like all pros, you eventually reach retirement age, and breastfeeding is no different. Whether you wean at a few months or a few years, having some pro weaning tips up your sleeve makes the transition smooth for both you and your baby.

When Should You Wean?

Toddler drinking from milk bottle

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Like so many parenting decisions, when to wean is a very personal question without an exact answer. Experts often recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months, when you can begin to introduce other foods while continuing to breastfeed until your baby is a year old. After that, continue until it's no longer working for you or your baby. For some women, that's just not feasible, so don't worry if you need to wean much sooner than the recommendations. Other women breastfeed much longer, and that's acceptable, too. In many countries, it's common to breastfeed until the child is 2 or 3 years old.

So, when should you wean? Everyone has an option, but it's something only you can decide. It depends on your circumstances and your personal preferences. It's best to avoid breastfeeding during a major change, such as a move or a job change. Moms can handle a lot, but throwing in another major life change like weaning can cause stress you just don't need. Weaning when your child is sick is also challenging because your child often wants the comfort that comes from breastfeeding.

Some babies start to self-wean, gradually nursing less often, so you don't have to guess when to start the process. Follow your little one's lead if you notice a change in eating habits. Others need a little encouragement to transition away from the breast. Choose to wean when it seems right for you and your baby.

How to Wean

Weaning is usually a gradual process that involves slowly cutting out feedings until your little one no longer nurses. Nursing isn't just a source of nutrition for your baby; it's also a source of comfort and a big part of the daily routine. Stopping breastfeeding suddenly without the gradual separation can be upsetting for your baby and uncomfortable for you. Your breasts continue producing the same amount of milk, so you may become engorged if you suddenly stop nursing.

Start by cutting out a feeding that isn't important to your baby and one that is easy to replace with another activity. Babies often enjoy nap and bedtime feedings the most, so keep those for now. An easy one to skip is sometime during the day when you can distract your baby with fun play activities.

Continue cutting more feeding sessions, saving the favorite sessions until last. It's often tough to cut those feedings, especially if your little one really likes to nurse. If you have a persistent baby who doesn't want to let go, try shortening those last nursing sessions if you can't cut them completely. You can also try offering expressed breast milk in a sippy cup or bottle in place of breastfeeding.

Handling Engorgement

Toddler drinking from milk bottle

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If you suddenly stop breastfeeding, your breasts will continue to fill with milk, causing discomfort. Relieve the pressure by using a breast pump to express milk. Only pump until you feel comfortable. If you pump until your breasts are empty, it send signals to your body to continue milk production. Slowly cut down on the pumping sessions much as you would with nursing.

You can also get a little comfort with pain relievers and cold compresses. Apply the cold compress to your breasts as needed for soothing relief. Wear comfortable bras that provide support without constricting your breasts.

How Long Does Weaning Take?

The length of the weaning process varies and is often based on how willing your child is to give up the breast. Some babies are weaned in a matter of days, but the process often takes a few weeks or even months. Don't get discouraged if your baby takes longer than you expect to give up breastfeeding completely.

Tips for Making Weaning Easier

Think about your favorite food or activity. If you suddenly had to give it up, you might feel a little unhappy about the situation. It's the same for your baby when you start cutting back on breastfeeding. You can make the process a little easier for both of you by following some helpful tips:

  • Use distractions to your advantage. Keeping your little one busy during normal feeding times helps you skip out on the sessions.
  • Avoid trigger situations that remind your baby of nursing. If you always sit in a specific spot to nurse, avoid that area, especially during normal feeding times.
  • Stop offering the breast at mealtimes. Experts often recommend to not offer, but also to not refuse to breastfeed. If your baby insists on nursing, refusing can cause a temper tantrum and increase your baby's desire to breastfeed. 
  • Don't compare yourself to other families. The weaning process is different for everyone, so don't feel frustrated if the process takes longer for you and your baby.
  • Give your baby extra love and attention during the process; it can be tough on little ones. 
  • Acknowledge your feelings about weaning. Moms often have mixed feelings when they stop breastfeeding. You finally get your body back, but you also give up that intimate time that only you have with your baby.
  • Ask for help if you need it. Having your partner feed your baby a bottle can make weaning easier. If you have any concerns about the process, consult with your health care provider.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Weaning can be challenging, but you don't have to do it alone. A lactation consultant can help you create a plan if your baby resists weaning or if you have any questions or concerns about weaning.

Your baby's pediatrician and your care provider also are important sources of information while weaning. Contact your provider if you have any concerns, or if you experience the following problems:

  • Refusal to eat solid foods or drink from a cup or bottle
  • Weaning after age 3
  • No progress in weaning after a month of trying
  • Tooth decay or other teeth problems
  • Suspected anemia
  • Strong feelings of sadness, guilt or other negative emotions associated with weaning
  • Breast inflammation, flu-like symptoms, pain or other symptoms that could indicate a breast infection from engorgement