Weaning Your Child From Breastfeeding
Weaning is the stage in your baby’s life when he transitions from breast milk to other sources of nourishment.
When to wean is a personal decision. For you, it may be influenced by when you decide to return to work, the health of you or your baby, or simply a feeling that it’s the right time.
Whenever you decide to wean your baby, it’s important to understand that weaning is a gradual process that calls for patience and understanding from both you and your child.
Deciding When to Wean
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding your child only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. After that, a combination of solid foods and breast milk should be given until your baby is at least 1 year old.
Some experts say that after the first birthday is the best age to start the transition from the breast because a child is more adaptable to change at that age. (A 2-year-old toddler, for example, is likely to be much more attached to the breast and less flexible about giving it up.)
A 1-year-old baby is also eating more solid foods and so may naturally lose interest in the breast.
Engorgement will also become less of a problem for the mother around this time because as the demand for breast milk decreases, so does milk production.
Weaning does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Some women choose to wean during the day and breastfeed at night, depending on their work situation and their schedules.
It’s up to what works for the mother and the baby. Some children wean themselves earlier than the mother had intended for it to happen or the child may not be ready to be off the breast as soon as the mother is ready.
The best way to approach weaning is by being flexible and paying attention to what works for you and your baby and your situation.
Weaning is easier if a child has taken milk from some other source besides your breast before that time.
So it’s a good idea to giving an occasional bottle of breast milk to your child around 4 to 7 months (or sooner if you decide to wean earlier) – even if you plan to continue breastfeeding, this can facilitate the weaning process in the future.
Not only does this allow you more flexibility in terms of allowing other family members to be involved, but it also makes it possible to leave him with a caregiver.
If you decide to wean before 1 year and you find that you are not making enough milk to feed your child, or if you no longer want to breastfeed your child, you will need to switch to formula.
Your child’s doctor can suggest a good transitional formula for your baby. If your child is near the age of 1, you might want to start placing formula in a cup instead of a bottle.
Although some children are content to nurse indefinitely and will wait for their mothers to initiate weaning, others will give subtle – or even not-so-subtle – clues that they are ready to wean.
They may express indifference or irritability when presented with the breast or they may nurse in shorter sessions than they did before.
Here are some other signs that may indicate your child is ready for solid foods
- Has your baby’s “tongue-thrust” reflex disappeared? This reflex causes babies to instinctively push objects out of their mouths. If it is still present and your child gags whenever you give him or her food, it may be a sign that your baby is not ready to be weaned.
- Can your baby sit up and hold his or her head up? If so, your baby will be able to sit in an upright position for feeding.
- Does your baby look at or try to grab food when he or she sees it? If your baby shows an interest in the food on your plate, it could mean he or she is ready to move on to solids.
- Does your baby seem very distractible when on the breast and does it seem to take forever to get through a feeding? This could mean that your baby is ready to be weaned.
Approaches to Weaning
To allow both mom and baby to adjust physically and emotionally to the change, weaning should be a gradual process.
One approach to weaning is to drop one feeding session a week until the child is eating all solid foods or formula.
In this case, you may need to express milk to avoid engorgement. If you try this approach, you might want to start with eliminating the midday feeding because it’s usually the smallest and most inconvenient – especially for working mothers.
Many mothers let go of the bedtime feeding last because it remains a special part of the bonding experience. It may also be the one to which your child is most emotionally attached.
Another approach is to leave the decision of when to wean completely up to your child.
Once he or she is eating three meals of solid food a day (plus snacks in between), let your child breastfeed only when he or she asks.
In this situation, you may find that your milk will dry up due to lack of demand. Pumping may be necessary to keep the milk flowing.
Making the Transition Easier
Many mothers decide to wean with mixed emotions. On the one hand, weaning brings with it more freedom and flexibility for a mother, as well as the proud realization that her child is reaching a major milestone.
On the other hand, nursing is an intimate activity that fosters a strong bond between mother and child – and some women find it difficult to let that go. For many mothers, weaning is the first realization that their child may never again depend on them as much as they did in those earliest months.
Expect that you’re going to experience a wide range of emotions, and understand that your child may be ambivalent about weaning, too.
But also remember that there will be countless other ways to nurture your relationship with your child in the days, months, and years ahead.
7 Tips for making the transition easier for both of you
- Engage your child in a fun play activity or an outing when you would usually nurse.
- Avoid sitting in your usual nursing spots or wearing your usual nursing clothes.
- Delay weaning if your child is trying to adapt to some other change in his life. Trying to wean your child when he or she is just beginning child care or when teething is probably not a good idea.
- If your baby is younger than a year, it’s a good idea to introduce a bottle or cup when you would typically be nursing. If he or she is older than a year, try a healthy snack or maybe even just a cuddle.
- Try changing your daily routine so that you are otherwise engaged when you would typically be breastfeeding.
- Enlist your partner’s help to provide a distraction at a typical nursing time.
- If your child begins to pick up a comforting habit such as thumb sucking or becomes attached to a security blanket, don’t discourage it. Your child may be trying to adjust to the emotional changes of weaning.
How Long Is Too Long?
Some experts feel that there is nothing wrong with feeding a child breast milk until well into the toddler or even preschool years, as long as both the child and mother are comfortable with the situation.
However, it’s important to note that after 1 year, breast milk alone does not provide all the nutrients a growing child needs; solid foods must become a regular part of his diet.
As you begin to wean your child, remember that he or she needs time to adjust to eating from bowls and cups. Be patient as your child begins to explore the world of food – eventually, your child will like what he or she sees.