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There is not a huge amount of research on quitting breastfeeding. Research is more focused on keeping mothers breastfeeding. This makes sense, but it isn’t a lot of help when you are ready to wean and have limited evidence of how to do it. Some of the best breastfeeding resources lack great information on weaning. What you find instead is information on why you should keep breastfeeding and anxiety inducing articles on all of the things that can go wrong when you stop nursing. This episode aims to take the anxiety out of weaning. Get actionable tips on how to stop breastfeeding and transition from being a breastfeeding mother to your next parenting adventure.
The definition of weaning is to introduce your baby to food other than mother’s milk. In the context of this episode we are talking about weaning as in stopping breastfeeding. This is something I have done twice now and both times I had so much anxiety about quitting breastfeeding. I want to take the anxiety out of this for you and that is exactly the goal of this episode. Plus, I want to share something I did with both my babies that I think made quitting breastfeeding a lot easier. It will probably make you laugh, but it helped a lot.
I have some go to resources for breastfeeding that are amazing when you are learning about how to breastfeed or troubleshoot specific issues. Where these resources fall short is that they lack actionable advice on weaning. Instead what you find is tons of reasons why you shouldn’t quit breastfeeding, how to fix any issues you are having so you can keep breastfeeding, and the benefits of breastfeeding. You know I support breastfeeding and the evidence to do that is overwhelmingly in support of breastfeeding over formula feeding. This is all fantastic, but you will hit a point when you are done. I am going to spare you the lecture on all of this. For all of the breastfeeding resources, episodes, and articles in one place and you can click here.
There is not a huge amount of research on quitting breastfeeding. Research is more focused on keeping mothers breastfeeding. This makes sense, but it isn’t a lot of help when you are ready to wean and have limited evidence of how to do it.
Weaning is often talked about in terms of baby led weaning vs. mother led weaning. This refers to who initiates it. Typically your baby will not get over breastfeeding by themselves before at least the age of two. As children do get older they may just decide they are done with it. Mother led weaning is when mom decides that she no longer wants to breastfeed and initiates it. I should mention that there is something different called baby led weaning that refers to feeding your baby solid foods. Rather than spoon feed with traditional baby food you give your baby food they can feed themselves. Here I am referring to weaning as in ceasing to breastfeed and baby led weaning in terms of your baby initiating the weaning process.
Reasons for weaning
Taking medications that are not compatible with breastfeeding. If you do want to know whether a medication is safe to take while breastfeeding the LactMed database is an excellent resource.
Having a medical procedure done
Returning to work and not wishing to pump to continue to provide milk
Your baby food having sensitivities
You are done breastfeeding. This is a completely valid reason to quit breastfeeding. It is seldom talked about that breastfeeding can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. If you are over it, that is also a reason to wean.
Dealing with social pressure
You may find yourself dealing with social pressure, both to continue breastfeeding, or to stop breastfeeding. Someone in your life, or everyone, will have opinions about breastfeeding and how you feed your baby. Other people’s opinions don’t matter. This is easier said than done I know. You need to do what is right for you and your baby, regardless of what other people think.
You may expect that people would make comments in favor of breastfeeding. Things like, “why would you quit breastfeeding? It is so beneficial for your baby”. Or “formula is so expensive and breastfeeding is free”. (Breastfeeding is only free is your time and energy are worth nothing, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
What you may not be prepared for is people saying things like, “Oh, wow you are still breastfeeding”. I had a friend tell me once that I needed to stop soon before I wrecked my boobs. Awesome, thanks for that nonsense. People’s opinions should not have any bearing on your decision to wean.
When to wean?
This is really a question that only you can answer. Every mom and baby are different. The American Academy of Pediatrics official policy on breastfeeding recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months as the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
Also keep in mind that if you stop before your baby’s first birthday it is recommended that you supplement with formula. When to wean is a tough decision and one that is up to you. If you have questions as to your baby’s nutrition and diet your pediatrician can be a great resource.
There are some times that may not be ideal to wean. This would be if you have another big transition going on in your life, like you are moving to a new home. Your baby breastfeeds not only for nutrition, but also for comfort. If they are dealing with one big change it may not be the best time to introduce another one.
You may also want to avoid weaning if your baby has a cold or is sick. Babies and even toddlers tend to nurse more often when they are sick. Maybe it has to do with antibodies in your milk, which will help them get healthy quicker. Perhaps it is just the comfort of nursing when they do not feel well.
Ideally you wean when you don’t have any major life changes going on and when your baby is healthy.
The Basics of Weaning
When you wean your baby has a lot of impact on how you do it. Weaning a three year old and a 6 month old are very different.
One key thing to keep in mind is that your milk works on a demand and supply system. The more you breastfeed, the more milk you will make. If you lessen the amount of time your baby is nursing you will effectively tell your body to make less milk. A six month old drinks a lot more milk, in quantity and in frequency than a three year old.
It is generally recommended that you do not quit breastfeeding cold turkey, meaning that you stop at once. It is more favorable that you stop gradually over a period of time. The main reason for this is that it will likely be easier for your baby to adjust, plus your breasts need to adjust. If you have a 6 month old baby you are feeding throughout the day and you quit cold turkey your breasts are still producing milk and you are at a higher risk for things like plugged ducts and mastitis. Not to freak you out. That is the last thing I want to do, but weaning gradually will help minimize these risks.
Some organizations, like La Leche Leaugue break weaning down into two things, daytime and nighttime weaning. Daytime in some respects can be easier because you can use other people or distractions or food to help. At night you may find yourself just wanting to do whatever will get your baby to sleep, or back to sleep, as quickly as possible. Which is often breastfeeding.
KellyMom also has a great article on weaning.
How to wean
I am going to cover a lot of tips for weaning. Not all of these will apply to you, but some will. If your baby is under a year old you will need to supplement with formula. You can start out with replacing one nursing with a bottle, and gradually increase that over time. This way you are gradually decreasing your supply to minimize those risks to you, things like plugged ducts and mastitis. An example of this would be to swap out one feeding, give yourself 3 days to adjust your supply, then swap out another feeding, wait three days, etc. Morning and nighttime feedings usually tend to be the last to go. Many moms find it easier to swap out a bottle for a mid day feeding, than to try and give your baby a bottle, rather than your breast, right before bed.
Tips for Daytime Weaning
Don’t offer to breastfeed, but if your baby wants to breastfeed, don’t refuse.
Alter your routine
Where you hang out at home
What you do first thing in the morning
What you do before a nap
Plan ahead to avoid the situations that tend to trigger you breastfeeding
Get other people involved, like your partner. If you nurse your baby to get them down for a nap, have your partner get them down. If you are staying at home with your baby and you don’t have someone else around I get that this wouldn’t work.
Distractions can be great tools, like getting out of the house and going to a park or on a walk.
Offering snacks or food
Cutting down on the amount of time you are nursing. Instead of a full feeding session you do it for a few minutes.
Tips for Nighttime Weaning
Change where your baby sleeps
Get someone else, like your partner, to tackle getting your baby to sleep
Offer your baby or child a snack or a drink before bed
Revisit and change your bedtime routine so it does not revolve around or include breastfeeding – common nighttime routines include a bath, reading books, or singing a lullaby
Your baby often associates nursing with comfort and time that they get to be close to you. You can still give them this in the form of hugs, holding them, and lots of cuddles.
Talk to your child to let them know that nursing is coming to an end. This may seem silly with a younger baby, but they understand far more than we give them credit for. With an older child this will be helpful and assist them to understand that changes are coming and help them to accept those changes.
Breastfeeding can be very emotional, and you may find yourself emotional about quitting, even if you are ready. Plus, there may be some hormone changes that happen as your body is adjusting which can contribute to your mood and emotional state. Give yourself some patience, and some love, and some time to adjust to being a mother who does not breastfeed. It can be a major life change, don’t expect to adjust perfectly overnight.
Engorgement happens when your breasts have not adjusted to producing less milk and if milk is not removed your breasts may feel very full and heavy. Your breasts may be uncomfortable or painful. If your breasts become engorged and it is uncomfortable you want to express just enough milk to make yourself comfortable. There is no magic number, like pump for only two minutes, or express just one ounce. The trick is not to empty your breasts. That effectively tells your body to make more milk. Your may find it helpful to take a hot shower, which can make expressing milk by hand easier. You may find the heat comforting, and alternatively you can try a cold compress and see if that helps.
If you are concerned that you have a plugged duct, or are getting mastitis you do not want to let that go untreated. I can tell you that it is 100% possible to wean without running into these problems. Please do not panic about the potential risks. Like may mothers, I dealt with plugged ducts and mastitis during both of my breastfeeding journeys and neither happened during the weaning process.
It is not recommended that you bind your breasts. This is outdated advice, and can put you at a higher risk for plugged ducts. You may find a supportive bra comfortable, but do not tightly wrap your breasts or bind them. That will not do anything to slow down your milk production.
Cabbage leaves are something that may be helpful when trying to give your breasts some relief if they are engorged and to try and dry up your milk. I dug into the evidence on cabbage leaves in this Q&A episode.
Sudafed, which is the brand name of the drug pseudoephedrine is a decongenstant. It is typically used for stuffy nose and sinus pain or pressure from a cold. This drug gives you relief from those symptoms by shrinking swollen nasal mucus membranes. It turns out that this may also reduce milk production. In a small study researchers found that a 60 mg dose of pseudoephedrine vs. a placebo reduced milk production by up to 24%. If you are looking for another way to reduce your milk production this could be something to consider.
If you are interested in something more natural than an over-the-counter medication there are some herbs that can reduce your supply. Sage and jasmine are the two big ones, but there are some other herbs lie peppermint that may reduce supply. For more details on herbs that can reduce your milk supply, Kellymom has an in depth article on this topic.
My Secret Weaning Hack
The last thing I want to include in this article is my personal secret weaning hack. This is something I found buried pages deep in a chat on some random website when I was freaking out about how to stop breastfeeding with my first child. Want to know my secret? Limes.
I cut a slice of lime and squeezed the juice on my nipples. When I came across this tip it actually suggested lemons. I didn’t have any lemons at the time, but I did have limes. I thought this was going to burn my skin, especially because your nipples are sensitive, but thankfully it did not. What it did do was make my milk taste sour. I explained to my son, who was just over a year and a half at the time that my milk was yucky. He didn’t believe me, so I let him try it, and he found out I was right. I did this a couple of other times in preparation for my son to throw a fit when I didn’t breastfeed and that never happened. It worked like a charm.
It wasn’t the limes alone, I employed a lot of other techniques we have talked about today like don’t offer, don’t refuse, the frequency of nursing had slowed down quite a bit, my husband was helping get our son to bed, I hopped in a hot shower and expressed a little milk when my breasts were engorged. There were a lot of different things in play but I do think the limes helped.
I tried this again with my daughter and she tried to nurse a few times with lime juice on my nipples. At one point I thought it might be back firing and she would like the taste but she too got over breastfeeding. I’m not saying it is magic and will work, but it might be worth a shot in combination with some of the other tips mentioned in this episode.
Getting more help
A lactation consultant can help if you are having any difficulties or want someone to help walk you through the weaning process. While we think of seeing a lactation consultant to help with breastfeeding, they can also be helpful when the time comes to stop. You can also talk to your midwife or doctor, and even your pediatrician may be helpful.
Ending your breastfeeding relationship can leave you feeling a lot of emotions. You may be sad to end that phase of your parenting journey, and you may be ecstatic that you have more freedom and ready for the next phase. Both are normal and healthy. Even if you do run into some snags, I promise you will not breastfeed forever. Eventually you will get your boobs back to yourself, your baby will be eating all kinds of solid foods, and you will be on to new parenting adventures.
I hope this episode helps put your mind at ease a little bit and takes some of the anxiety out of weaning.
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