An expert guide to weaning

Baby Milk Bottles on a table with a breastfeeding mom in the background

Weaning baby off the breast can be a stressful experience for mom and baby. As with most other parenting challenges, there is not one correct way to do it. You must find the solutions that fits you and your family.

What is weaning?

For the purpose of this blog, weaning refers to stopping breastfeeding. In many countries ‘weaning’ is the term used for introducing solid foods. This is part of eventually getting baby off the breast and onto other food and drink, but it is very normal to continue breastfeeding after a baby has started solids.

READ MORE: Age appropriate feeding guidelines 

First things first, congratulations on feeding as long as you did!

Give yourself a pat on the back mom, wether you breastfed for one day or one year, well done! It is normal to feel guilty when one stops breastfeeding, but try not to do so. You do the best that you can and your baby has benefited from getting breast milk for this long.

So how long is one supposed to breastfeed?

When looking at a baby’s immune system and the enzymes in their tummies, they need breast milk until 2 years. This is also the recommendation from the World Health Organisation. There are many benefits to feeding babies beyond this period as well. But not all moms want to feed that long. This is of course a personal choice.

Many factors influence the choice on how long to breastfeed. Firstly, most moms have to go back to work which often complicates breastfeeding. Remember that working and breastfeeding is possible, so don’t just assume that you need to stop. But for some moms it may mean the end of their breastfeeding journey.

How you go about weaning will really depend on baby’s age. It will also depend on the reason for weaning.

Weaning for medical reasons

As a lactation consultant I see many mothers who have been advised by healthcare professionals to stop breastfeeding for a medical reason. It may be due to a medical condition, the need to take medication or before a surgical procedure. This is quite a big decision with a big impact on your baby’s health. I would like to urge moms to seek a second opinion

Many healthcare professionals are not up to date on good breastfeeding practices. Moms are often advised to stop for something which would have done no harm to her or her breastfeeding baby. You want peace in your heart that this really was the best decision.

Gradual or immediate weaning?

It would always be gentler on mom and baby to wean gradually. This gives your body time to naturally tone-down production. Your baby also has the chance to gradually let go of both his main nutritional source and his biggest comfort.

For some, immediate weaning is the only option. Remember, if you stop suddenly you will need to manage the milk your body still produces to reduce the risk of mastitis. 

Remove milk from the breast when you feel uncomfortable to provide relief, being careful not to encourage additional milk production. You will notice your milk gradually coming in less often, eventually stopping after about a week or so.

Will babies self-wean?

Yes they will, eventually. If you continue feeding and allow baby to set the tone, most will wean themselves somewhere between 2 and 4 years. Occasionally it may take longer than that.

Allowing babies to self-wean is a beautiful process. They typically just ask for it less and less, eventually only feed before bed-time, and then one day just stop on their own.

Babies are unlikely to self-wean before the age of two years, although many mothers will say that they did. Those babies were typically already taking a bottle.

Weaning a smaller baby (younger than 9 months)

If you need to stop breastfeeding your smaller baby, the easiest would be to introduce formula systematically, gradually increasing the amount of bottles given in a day. This will give your body time to gradually reduce your milk supply.

If you need to wean immediately, continue reading for more tips:

The first challenge here would be to get baby to take a bottle. Babies older than 3-4 months can be very resistant to this. Try the following tips:

  • Read on paced bottle feeding, a method of feeding that allows baby to control the flow of milk and that works better for breastfed babies.
  • Slightly heat the teat before putting it in baby’s mouth.
  • Give the bottle to someone else to feed to baby, as he is unlikely to take it from you (or if you are in the vicinity).
  • Try not to stress about it as baby will sense your anxiety and will respond by resisting more.
  • Older babies sometimes skip a bottle and drink from a sippy-cup.

Weaning an older baby

Older babies and toddlers have formed a strong bond with mom through breastfeeding, thus weaning will be more challenging. Please don’t see this as a negative thing, that bond is one of the biggest gifts of breastfeeding. But you will need a bit more patience when it comes to weaning.

Once again you should first try gradual weaning, but be prepared for it to take some time. You can read more below on immediate weaning. 

Daytime weaning:

  • Don’t refuse when he really wants to feed (as this will make him more anxious), but also don’t offer the breast. Even though you have been using it as a soothing tool until now, you will need to find other tools.
  • Wear clothes through which your breasts are not easily accessible.
  • Wear a bright coloured shirt at certain times and let your little one know that no feeding can happen when mommy is wearing a red shirt.
  • Distract his attention when he wants to feed by singing a song, playing a game or just letting him wait while you complete a task. Sometimes they forget and the moment passes.
  • Change routines in times when he normally would have fed.
  • Have other snacks or drinks at hand for when he is hungry.
  • He will need lots of love and reassurance; expect some emotional reaction.
  • Pull in the help from the other people in your family with all of the above.

Nighttime weaning

This is far more tricky. Drinking at night is also one of the main reasons why many moms choose to wean.

  • If he is older, you can talk to him and explain why he cannot drink anymore at night.
  • Offer a bottle or sippy cup (but remember that after the age of 18 months or so they really don’t need to have milk anymore at night and it would almost be better to not get them used to it, so rather offer water).
  • Let someone else take over the nighttime routine. This person will need to have patience though.
  • You can try moving him to his own bed, but see how your child responds as this is another big change in his world.
  • Try Natura’s Rescue Remedy for both of you.

If you need to wean immediately:

  • Wear clothes that makes your breast inaccessible.
  • Wear a supportive top, but not one so tight that it places pressure on your breasts.
  • Don’t express all the time as this will overstimulate, but if your breasts get too full you should express to relieve the worst pressure.
  • Put cabbage leaves on your breasts a few times a day for 20-30 minutes (unless you are allergic to sulphide).
  • Give baby lots of love and attention.
  • Alternatively you can let baby stay with someone for a few days, but this will depend on whether your little one has been separated from you before and are OK with it. You don’t want to make this more traumatic for your both.
  • Use Natura’s Rescue Remedy.
  • Eventually baby will adapt and take milk from another source.

Medication for weaning

When wanting to stop breastfeeding, moms will often ask their doctor for a prescription to dry up their milk. Cabergoline is the medication given for this purpose that works against prolactin (the hormone responsible for making milk). 

However, this medication is only truly effective before your milk ‘comes in’ (so if in the first 2-3 days after birth), and then to a degree in the early weeks of breastfeeding. It won’t help much for an older baby, and you will likely keep producing milk despite the medication.

Moms that have been breastfeeding for longer are sometimes given Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) in high dosages to help reduce supply. The evidence on this is inconclusive, but you can talk to a lactation consultant for some guidance on whether this option would be suitable for you.

You should know though that medication is only supportive, and that you need to follow a holistic approach to make your process as easy as possible.

Mom bottle fedding her baby
Mom breastfeeding toddler
Mom cuddling toddler while smiling
Mom bottle feeding her baby
Mom receiving a kiss from her toddler daughter

Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.

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