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. Breastfeeding is important and thankfully there are many resources for this, but it can be stressful when you are ready to wean and have limited evidence of how to do it. This article 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.
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Article and Resources
For all of the breastfeeding resources, episodes, and articles in one place, see this page.
The Lack of Support for Quitting Breastfeeding
There are many resources for breastfeeding that are amazing when you are learning 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 the benefits of breastfeeding, tons of reasons why you shouldn’t quit breastfeeding, and how to fix issues so you can continue breastfeeding. The evidence 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. There is a page on the Pregnancy Podcast website with all of the breastfeeding resources, episodes, and articles in one place.
Weaning can be baby-led weaning or mother-led weaning, and this refers to who initiates it. Typically a baby wouldn’t initiate weaning by themselves before at least the age of two. As children get older, they may decide they are done with it, even if mom is not. Mother-led weaning is when mom decides that she no longer wants to breastfeed and initiates it.
There is something different called baby-led weaning that refers to feeding your baby solid foods. Rather than spoon-feeding with traditional baby food, you give your baby food they can feed themselves. In this article, references to weaning are in the context of ceasing to breastfeed, and baby-led weaning describes when your baby initiates the weaning process.
Dealing with Social Pressure
It can be challenging to deal with social pressure, both to continue breastfeeding or to stop. Someone, or everyone, in your life 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 others 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 if your time and energy are worth nothing, which couldn’t be further from the truth.) You may not prepare for 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. Excellent, thanks for that nonsense. People’s opinions should not have any bearing on your decision to wean.
Reasons for Weaning
There are many reasons mothers choose to wean. Some mothers decide to stop breastfeeding for health reasons. A mother may need to take medications that are not compatible with breastfeeding. If you want to know whether a medication is safe to take while breastfeeding, the LactMed database is an excellent resource. A mother may need to have a medical procedure that is not compatible with breastfeeding.
Some mothers that return to work after maternity leave do not wish to pump to continue to provide milk for their baby.
Some babies have food sensitivities that make their mother’s diet too restrictive.
Another completely valid reason to quit breastfeeding is that it is not working for you or your baby, and you do not want to continue breastfeeding. The challenges of breastfeeding, both physically and emotionally, are seldomly discussed. If you want to continue breastfeeding, you should have the support and resources to do that, and the same should go for when it is time for you to quit.
When to wean?
When is the right time to wean is a question that only you can answer. Every mom and baby is different. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding (with no other drinks or solid foods) for the first six months. Then adding in solid foods gradually after that point with continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, with the continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.
One or two years may sound like a long time. Any amount of time your baby is getting breastmilk will benefit them greatly. If you stop breastfeeding before your baby’s first birthday, you need to supplement with formula. When to wean is a tough decision and one that is up to you. If you have questions about your baby’s nutrition and diet, your pediatrician is a great resource.
Some times may not be ideal for weaning. This would be if you have another big transition going on in your life, like moving to a new home. Your baby breastfeeds not only for nutrition but also for comfort. If they are dealing with one significant 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 significant life changes and when your baby is healthy.
The Basics of Weaning
Your child’s age when you wean has a lot of impact on how you do it. Weaning a three-year-old and a six-month-old is 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 how often your baby is nursing, you will effectively tell your body to produce less milk. Plus, once you add in solid foods, your baby decreases milk consumption. A six-month-old baby drinks a lot more milk in quantity and frequency than a three-year-old.
It is generally recommended that you not quit breastfeeding cold turkey, meaning that you stop at once. It is more favorable that you stop gradually. The main reason for this is that it will be easier for your baby and your breasts to adjust. If you have a six-month-old baby, you are feeding throughout the day, and you quit cold turkey, your breasts are still producing a lot of milk, and you are at a higher risk for things like plugged ducts and mastitis. Weaning gradually will help minimize these risks.
Some organizations, like La Leche League, break weaning down into daytime and nighttime weaning. In some respects, daytime weaning can be easier because you can use other distractions like people or food to help. At night you may find yourself 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
This article includes a lot of tips for weaning. Not all of these will apply to you, but some will.
Supplementing with Formula for Babies Under One
If your baby is under one year old, you will need to supplement with formula. You can start with replacing one nursing with a bottle and gradually increase that over time. This way, you gradually decrease your supply to minimize risks to you, like plugged ducts and mastitis. For example, you could swap out one feeding, give yourself three 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 of where you hang out at home, what you do first thing in the morning, or your routine before a nap.
Babies tend to like routine, and it is good to plan to avoid the situations that trigger 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 stay at home with your baby and 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 if your baby is older than six months.
You can also cut down on the amount of time you are nursing. Instead of a complete feeding session, you do it for a few minutes.
Tips for Nighttime Weaning
Change where your child sleeps.
Get someone else, like your partner, to tackle getting your child 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. Typical 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. With an older child, this will be helpful and assist them in understanding that changes are coming and help them accept those changes.
Breastfeeding can be very emotional, and you may find yourself emotional about quitting, even if you are ready. Plus, some hormone changes may 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 significant life change, don’t expect to adapt instantly.
Troubleshooting Issues When Weaning
There are some issues that can come up when weaning your baby. The goal of educating yourself about these issues is to recognize them and know how to handle them. It is 100% possible to wean without these problems, and I do not want to contribute to anxiety about weaning. A lactation consultant can also be an excellent resource for troubleshooting weaning issues if you or your baby have a difficult time.
Engorgement during weaning happens when your breasts have not adjusted to producing less milk. If you do not remove milk for too long, your breasts may feel full, heavy, tender, hard, and even hot. If your breasts become engorged, you can express just enough milk to make yourself comfortable. The trick is not to empty your breasts. That effectively tells your body to produce more milk. There is no magic number, and you can pump for only two minutes or express just one ounce. A warm shower can also make it easier to hand express some milk. The heat doesn’t help engorgement, but it does seem to help you express milk. Cooler temperatures may be more helpful for dealing with the discomfort from engorgement. For more information on engorgement, see this KellyMom article.
Plugged Ducts and Mastitis
Engorgement can put you at a higher risk of a plugged duct or mastitis. Your breast has many ducts that send milk to your nipple. When one of those ducts gets plugged, it doesn’t get emptied, and it can get hard, swollen, red, and feel warm or hot to the touch. The best method to treat a plugged duct is to empty the milk from your breast, make sure you drink plenty of fluids and eat well. Before you breastfeed, you can apply some heat to your breast with a warm compress or a warm shower and massage it. While you are nursing, you want to massage from the plugged duct towards your nipple to try and help get in unclogged.
If you do not resolve a plugged duct, it can turn into mastitis. The symptoms are similar but often more intense and can include a fever and flu-like symptoms like aches and chills. Mastitis is a more severe plugged duct and may or may not be an infection. Bacteria entering through a point of damage on the nipple can cause infection. To treat mastitis, you want to follow the same treatment as for a plugged duct, but you also want to rest, preferably in bed, with your baby. Your care provider may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection. If you are running a fever and have flu-like symptoms contact your doctor or midwife to talk to them about their suggested course of action and whether or not you should consider antibiotics.
Plugged ducts and mastitis are very similar, and there is an excellent article on KellyMom compares and explains the two. While you want to slow down and eventually stop producing milk during weaning, you need to resolve a plugged duct or mastitis, even if that means temporarily postponing weaning. If untreated, mastitis can turn into an abscess and pose a serious risk to your health.
Decreasing and Drying Up Your Milk Supply
There are some things you can do to decrease your milk supply. These methods are only for extreme cases of oversupply or when weaning. The evidence on these methods is mixed, but you should only employ these if you are weaning or want to reduce your milk supply dramatically.
Binding Your Breasts
Please do not 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 may be helpful when trying to give your breasts some relief if they are engorged and to try and dry up your milk. In one study with 39 women comparing cabbage leaf extract with placebo, no differences were observed in breast pain or breast engorgement. Some results suggested no differences between room temperature and chilled cabbage leaves and between chilled cabbage leaves and gel packs, with all interventions producing some relief. Overall, the authors of the reviews concluded that there is insufficient evidence from published trials to justify widespread implementation. It is also worth noting that the participants in this study intended to continue breastfeeding, not wean their babies.
Sudafed, which is the brand name of the drug pseudoephedrine, is a decongestant. 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 interested in something more natural than over-the-counter medication, some herbs can reduce your supply. Sage and jasmine are the two most popular, but some other herbs like peppermint may reduce supply. For more details on herbs that can reduce your milk supply, KellyMom has an in-depth article on this topic.
When Will You Stop Producing Milk?
After you stop breastfeeding, it may take some time to stop producing milk completely. Most mothers see their milk dry up within a few weeks. You may continue to produce a small amount of milk for weeks or months longer. That depends on how long you breastfed and is more likely to continue if you stimulate your breasts by trying to express milk. You may want to check from time to time to see if you can express milk, but it is not something you want to make a regular habit.
My Secret Weaning Hack
The last thing I want to include in this article is my personal secret weaning hack. I found this buried pages deep in a chat on some random website when I was panicking out about how to stop breastfeeding my first child.
My secret is limes. I cut a slice of lime and squeezed the juice on my nipples. When I came across this tip, it suggested lemons. I didn’t have any lemons at the time, but I did have limes. I thought this would 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 the time, I thought it might be backfiring, and she would like the taste. She too got over breastfeeding. I am 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 Additional Help
Get a lactation consultant involved 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 help with breastfeeding, they can also be helpful when the time comes to wean. 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 complete that phase of your parenting journey, and you may be ecstatic that you have more freedom and are ready for the next stage. 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.
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