By Ali Weatherford and Cassie Terrillion
Weaning is the process of changing what an infant eats from breast milk or formula to a more “grown-up” diet. It can also refer to when they stop breastfeeding. That process can look really different from one family to the next. Like so many things I get to write about, there is not just ONE RIGHT WAY to do this. As a parent, your family’s circumstances and your feelings and intuitions matter when making decisions.
How to Stop Breastfeeding Cold Turkey
Some people need or want to make a very quick and abrupt change in the baby’s diet. One day there’s milk, and the next day there’s a four-course meal on a plate that looks just like everyone else’s. That’s it. This might work really well and be met with compliance, or this might cause a lot of distress and resistance. This kind of change might actually be very necessary and the best way to handle things in certain situations.
For example, if you have to have major surgery which means hospitalization, unsafe medications, and significant time away from your baby, it might be necessary to make a clean break. If your baby is old enough to eat solid foods, it might be easier for some families in the long run NOT to replace the baby’s food source by introducing a bottle or a milk habit that can be difficult to break later on. It might mean some initial struggles and the babies might have a hard time adjusting at first, but it happens and they do get through it. Be aware that abrupt weaning makes it more likely that you’ll experience plugged milk ducts and an infection called mastitis. Doing the weaning more gradually can lower that risk.
Abrupt weaning is also associated with a higher risk of postpartum depression. Milk production is a very hormonal process and big abrupt changes can lead to more dramatic hormonal changes.
If you are breastfeeding, slow weaning might make a lot of sense for you. For some people, it’s just what happens naturally and doesn’t involve much effort. You might go from breastfeeding a newborn or young baby around the clock every 2-4 hours to feeding a six-month-old just four or five times a day. You might then start to cut out middle-of-the-night feedings with your nine-month-old and then replace more of the day snacks with solid food. By the time your baby is one year old, you may only be breastfeeding three times a day, and that might feel very manageable for a while. Then your 18-month-old might only breastfeed twice a day.
When it starts to feel like the right time to stop completely, you might just be able to cut out one of those feedings. Then soon after, cut the other. This gradual process often means that babies don’t experience much distress and that your body gets to downshift the milk-making process more slowly. It is even possible that there is nothing to do! You may not need to worry about pain or leaking or having to intervene in any way to make the milk stop. It’s possible that your baby might end breastfeeding without even realizing it.
Another benefit of slow weaning is that you can worry less about nutrition. When babies are breastfeeding it’s important, but maybe not quite as critical, to pay close attention to what they are eating. Breast milk is complete nutrition and one of the many great things about it is that we don’t have to stress out about making sure our babies are getting the right balance of nutrients at every meal. It buys us a little time while our babies get the hang of solid food and begin to eat more varied and significant amounts of food.
If you have a very clear idea of when you want to be finished breastfeeding, lactation consultants will usually recommend a gradual weaning process. That means dropping one feed per week. If there is more flexibility in the length of time weaning may take, you could go even slower, but for those that are wanting sooner than later one feed per week is a good starting point. If your baby is under one year, you would start with the feed that is the “easiest to drop” and offer a bottle or sippy cup at that time in place of the feed.
This is what I call weaning which involves using something else to replace what your baby was getting while they are transitioning. You might be breastfeeding and then decide that it won’t continue to work for you. Depending on the baby’s age, they might need to continue getting either pumped breastmilk or formula. If you haven’t done this before, it would be time to introduce a bottle. This is the substitution for the breast.
It might be tricky at first. Sometimes babies don’t easily take to bottle-feeding, but it will eventually work. You may need to try a few different bottle/nipple types, and you might have to find someone else to bottle-feed the baby at first. It can be harder for the breastfeeding parent to bottle-feed because the baby knows that their favorite alternative is right there! Often, another caregiver can more easily get a baby to drink from a bottle.
Once the baby gets the hang of it, you can continue to feed your baby this way until it’s time for the next transition. It can sometimes be a difficult process to get a baby off of a bottle, but these suggestions can be used for weaning from a bottle as well. When it’s time to stop using a bottle, you might substitute milk or something else to drink in a sippy cup and then finally to a regular cup.
Your Body’s Response to Weaning
If you have to stop breastfeeding early or more abruptly, there might be some difficult physical transitions.
- Your breasts might get very full and painful.
- It can be OK to pump a little bit or hand express just enough to feel better. You want to be sure not to do too much though, because that can actually trigger your body to continue making milk.
- Some people like to use cold cabbage leaves, cold compresses, or ice packs on the breasts to relieve pain and swelling, or use an over-the-counter pain reliever.
- Your breasts might leak a little or a lot. It can take some time before the milk stops being produced. While your body is adjusting:
- Wear extra pads in your bra for leaking.
- Try not to wear bras or clothing that are too tight because that could lead to plugged ducts or infection.
- A warm bath can be soothing, but try to avoid shower spray directly on your breasts which can possibly trigger continued milk production.
- While some discomfort and swelling might be normal for the weaning process, you would definitely want to seek help from an IBCLC or doctor if you have symptoms of plugged ducts or infection such as:
- Breasts that are warm to the touch
- Chills, fever, flu-like symptoms
- Hard lumps in your breasts
- Red streaks on your breast
What Your Baby Needs
If your baby is less than one year old, it is usually recommended to continue using stored or pumped breast milk or formula. After the first year, babies can usually transition to cow’s milk or toddler formula until they are eating enough to make the milk a less significant part of their diet. After that first year, babies can eat a significant amount of solid foods, and there doesn’t need to be as much concern about getting milk. Babies benefit from getting breast milk, even if it’s not for the full recommended two years. How long to provide breast milk is different for every family. Read this recent article to find out more about how long to breastfeed.
Of course, if you have any questions or concerns about weaning your baby, please reach out to our expert team of IBCLCs to schedule a call or consultation.