Breastfeeding is a journey. Yes, it can be challenging, taxing, and it’s definitely messy sometimes, but it creates a bond like no other with your little one. What’s more, you give your baby the best possible nutrition to start their lives.
But your breastfeeding journey doesn’t last forever. Whether you breastfeed for 4 months or 4 years, it eventually comes to an end when your child weans.
What does weaning look like? Just as with other aspects of breastfeeding, it’s unique to each parent and baby.
The one common factor: Parents deserve just as much support during weaning as they do during the beginning of breastfeeding.
When will my baby wean?
The CDC recommends exclusively breastfeeding your child for at least six months and breastfeeding alongside complementary foods until one year of age. The WHO recommends breastfeeding for two years or longer.
But these are simply recommendations — albeit ones that are based on evidence that considers the greatest lifelong health outcomes — and don’t consider when a parent or a baby might want breastfeeding to come to an end.
In the United States, there’s a wide range of breastfeeding behaviors. These behaviors are tied to whether a parent works, access to care and support, geography, socioeconomic status, education, and more.
As such, it’s hard — and maybe not that useful — to make a blanket statement about when a baby might wean.
The biologically and anthropologically informed answer is that babies usually wean themselves between 2 and 4 years when allowed to lead the weaning process. This age varies between cultures, though — in places with strong social and cultural support for nursing, the age may be older.
What’s the difference between a nursing strike and weaning?
Did your baby stop nursing for no apparent reason? Before you decide that they’ve self-weaned, consider that they may be going on a nursing strike. Nursing strikes are a temporary phase when a baby who has been nursing well refuses the breast.
Nursing strikes don’t necessarily indicate that your baby has decided they’re ready to wean. Instead, external factors can influence them, such as teething or ear infections that make nursing uncomfortable, a change in your diet, a developmental leap, or a change in your milk supply.
Did your baby get surprised or scared during a nursing session? Even that can cause them to refuse the breast.
If you’re hoping to continue breastfeeding, you may be able to encourage your baby to start breastfeeding again with the following tips:
Limit distractions during nursing
Cuddle and snuggle your baby as much as possible
Offer your baby the breast when they are just waking up or sleepy
Try nursing in different positions or different rooms
If your baby has been exclusively breastfed and you’re worried about their nutritional needs, talk to an IBCLC or your baby’s healthcare provider, but also reach out to an IBCLC for support. In the meantime, pump every 3 hours, so you keep your supply up and avoid getting engorged or developing clogged ducts.
Nursing strikes can be emotional for everyone. But, keep calm and remember: A nursing strike in no way means your baby is rejecting you.
What should I expect during weaning?
Physical effects of weaning
When you wean, you might expect engorgement. No surprise — your body has been busy producing breast milk! But with engorgement can come clogged ducts and mastitis. To avoid these problems, wean gradually by dropping one feeding a week and expressing small amounts of milk to relieve milk buildup and discomfort.
Note that not every parent will experience this — if you’ve practiced natural-term breastfeeding, for example, your milk supply might have naturally lowered over time.
Some parents may also experience nausea, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue when weaning. These symptoms are due to the shift in your body’s hormones during breastfeeding and possible lifestyle changes. In addition, decreased sleep and hydration (remember those bottles of water you chugged when you were first breastfeeding – your body still needs water!) can contribute.
So too, can the return of your menstrual cycle, another result of weaning. While some parents will get their cycle back before weaning, others won’t see it again until they have weaned. Getting your period means another hormonal shift for your body to deal with, as well as for your moods.
The emotions of weaning
Even when you’ve thought long and hard about weaning, it can be pretty emotional. You’re ending your breastfeeding journey — or at least, your breastfeeding journey with your nursling. That alone is a lot to process! It’s normal to feel nostalgic for the little baby your baby once was.
What’s more, when you wean, your body stops producing the feel-good hormones of oxytocin and prolactin. For some parents — especially if those who wean abruptly — this can increase feelings of moodiness, irritability, and sadness. For others, it can lead to something anecdotally known as post-weaning depression.
“Weaning is a highly personalized journey,” shares Nest Collaborative IBCLC, Adrienne Koznek. “With proper guidance and support, it can be done in a way that ensures good physical and emotional health of both the breastfeeding parent and the child.”
While there has been little research done on post-weaning depression, many parents reported it. Post-weaning depression can catch you by surprise — after all, you might be well past what is considered the postpartum period. Know that these feelings are temporary and treatable!
If you or someone you love is having a hard time after having a baby, there is help. Jump to the bottom for a list of resources. If you’re in crisis, call your physician, local emergency number, or the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-8255.
How do I wean my baby?
Child-led weaning is, conceptually, straightforward. You let your little one decide when they’re ready to stop breastfeeding. It happens when they no longer have the nutritional or emotional need to nurse.
Child-led weaning means there’s no prompting at all from the parents, although some parents choose to night wean their child for the sake of their sleep and sanity.
The timeline on child-led weaning depends on the child — each one has its own timeline — but most children that self-wean tend to do so between 2-4 years old.
Maybe you’re stretched thin with work and home life. Maybe you’re pregnant and experiencing nursing aversion. Maybe you’re just…done. But, if you’re ready to wean, it’s possible to do so in a way that’s supportive and gentle for your child and you!
We encourage parents to plan the weaning process gradually. Weaning too quickly can cause engorgement, clogged ducts and mastitis, and unpleasant hormonal shifts.
Remember: It’s okay to be done breastfeeding before your child is done with it. Really!
How do I wean?
Depending on how often your child is breastfeeding, you should plan for weaning to take place over the course of weeks or months:
Start by substituting or cutting out their least favorite feeding of the day.
If your baby is under one year of age, offer them a bottle or cup of expressed milk or formula.
If your baby is over one year old, you can offer them a cup of milk (expressed breast milk, cow milk, or a non-dairy alternative) or water or snuggles at that time.
Give your child several days or a week between each dropped nursing session. This will give them, as well as your breasts, time to adjust.
If you feel engorged, express a small amount of milk from your breasts. Express just enough so you feel comfortable — don’t empty your breasts. If you express too much milk, your body will get the signal to make more!
Weaning an older child
Some parents feel like they need to wean by the time their child reaches a certain age. But there’s no need to do that — if you and your child are both still going strong, then there’s no reason to stop. There’s no expiration date on the benefits of breastfeeding!
As your child grows up, your nursing relationship will adapt to your life. Nursing a toddler can be hilarious, comforting, and sometimes exasperating. If you’re feeling stretched thin because of nursing, it can help set limits on nursing frequency and duration. For example, you may choose to wean during the day and continue night nursing. Or wean at night and nurse during the day.
Or wean entirely. It’s your choice!
The benefit to weaning a toddler or older child is that it’s easier to communicate the weaning process with them. They may be upset or frustrated, but they’re often better able to understand and cope with the frustration than a younger child.
Weaning from pumping
Because each parent’s pumping routine will be different, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some parents will drop one pumping session every few days or weeks, but it depends on how frequently you express milk. You do, however, need to gradually cut down on your pumping sessions to avoid clogged ducts, mastitis, and engorgement.
If you’re experiencing engorgement, you can hand express a small amount of breast milk to relieve pressure, but remember just a little bit. Expressing too much can send the signal to your body to make more milk!
For parents who have had pumping as part — or maybe the majority — of their breastfeeding journey, weaning from pumping tends to be less emotional than weaning from nursing. There’s often a sense of relief — no more pumping sessions! No more sterilizing bottle parts! No more managing a breast milk stash.
That being said, it’s okay to feel emotional about weaning from pumping too. While you might not miss your breast pump, you may feel sad about your little one growing up and moving onto the next stage of their childhood.
What if my baby doesn’t want to wean?
No parent wants their child to be distressed, and weaning, especially if you have to do it abruptly, can be hard on your child. However, if they aren’t ready to wean, you may see behavior like:
New anxieties and fears
Waking at night
Separation anxiety and clinginess
You can support your child through this in a number of ways. If your child is older, talk with them. You can share how much you love them. You can develop new rituals and routines that help them feel close to you without breastfeeding.
Some parents throw their children a weaning party to celebrate the end of their nursing journey. These celebrations are joyful, happy ones — there’s sometimes cake, presents, and supportive friends and family.
Obviously, these techniques will not work if the child is extremely resistant to weaning, but many parents have successfully used them. Remember that he will have a continued, perhaps even deepened, need for closeness with you. You can anticipate the child’s need for closeness and spend as much of her day as possible having “special time” with the child.
What if I need to stop breastfeeding quickly?
Cold-turkey weaning is hard on both parent and baby. That being said, sometimes it’s necessary for medical or health reasons or if you and your baby can’t be together. If you do have to wean abruptly, it can be done safely with the guidance and support of an IBCLC.
If you can’t wean gradually, you’ll still need to express some milk to avoid engorgement, clogged ducts, and mastitis. You can use a breast pump, or you can hand express. Remove just a little bit of milk, enough to reduce the pressure in your breasts.
Weaning cold turkey may leave your breasts feeling uncomfortable, swollen, or tender even with expressing some milk. However, your breasts will adapt thanks to something called a feedback inhibitor of lactation (FIL) in your milk — a whey protein in your breast milk that tells your body to slow production as demand drops.
Tips for weaning
There’s no need to wean alone. We’re here to help you find the right way to conclude your breastfeeding journey. Make a virtual appointment with one of our IBCLCs to talk over how weaning might work for you. In the meantime, here are helpful tips to get started.
Weaning during the day is often the easier part of weaning. Life is busier, it’s easier to find distractions, and if your child is in daycare, they may have already transitioned to being bottle-fed.
That doesn’t mean it’s without its challenges, either. The tips below are tried-and-true techniques for managing weaning.
Don’t ask, don’t refuse
Write down this phrase on a sticky note — it will be your mantra over the weaning process. It’s the foundation for gentle weaning. If your child asks to nurse, let them. Otherwise, don’t offer. This approach makes sure you’re meeting their needs while not reinforcing breastfeeding habits.
Find new routines
We’re all creatures of habit. That goes doubly so for breastfeeding children. As you’re dropping nursing sessions while weaning, shifting your daily routines can help distract your child from missing their normal post-daycare, pre-playground, post-snack (you get the idea) snack.
When you’re at home? Avoid spots where you usually nurse, if possible, and keep standing as much as possible. Why? Lots of parents report that sitting down leads to more requests for nursing.
As you drop nursing sessions, it can also be helpful to have appealing distractions at the ready. Snacks, drinks, reading a story, taking a walk, a craft project — pick something that your child enjoys to redirect their attention.
Shorter and postponed nursing sessions
Sometimes, though, only breastfeeding can placate your child. Again, see the first tip — don’t ask, don’t refuse. So if they are asking to nurse, don’t refuse. But you can cut the session down or ask them to wait a bit.
Note: This approach tends to be more helpful with older nurslings. If your child doesn’t understand how time works, it’s less helpful.
Night weaning is the process of weaning your baby from nursing at night. Babies are developmentally capable of sleeping through the night without feeding around 4-6 months of age. By then, they’re between 12-13 pounds and don’t need the extra feeding for growth. Some babies naturally start sleeping through the night on their own. Others need a little help.
In many ways, night weaning is a different — and sometimes more difficult — process than daytime weaning. You’re dealing with a different set of needs and behaviors, and if your baby has been nursed to sleep, it may take some time to set up new habits and routines.
Take heart, though! They will learn to fall asleep — and fall back asleep — without nursing. We promise!
Note: Some parents choose to continue feeding throughout the night, as it supports their milk supply and provides emotional comfort to their babies. This is also fine to do, too! Breastfeeding is a choose-your-own-adventure journey — you get to decide what works best for your baby and your family!
Set new routines
Sleep routines are important, regardless of whether your child nurses to sleep or not. To create a new habit, set your child up for success. Stick to a consistent schedule with consistent expectations.
An example of a new sleep routine might be:
Quiet play after dinner for 30 minutes
Stories and music
Warm cup of milk
As you wean, it can be helpful to involve your partner or another caregiver in the process.
Talk about it
If you’re weaning an older child, talk to them about nursing and new routines. There are many excellent books available that explain when they’ll be allowed to nurse and why.
Have alternatives ready
Waking and then nursing back to sleep is common for breastfed babies. If you’re night weaning, you may want to have formula or milk — depending on their age — available for them if they wake up thirsty at night. Remember, though, IBCLCs don’t recommend weaning a child before they are one year of age!
Consider sleeping arrangements
If co-sleeping has been part of your breastfeeding relationship with your child, bedtime (and late-night wakeups and early mornings) can be difficult to navigate. Some parenting experts advise moving your child into their bed to help weaning progress.
While this may work for some families, others may find that it adds more stress to the situation or that their child increases breastfeeding in response. Only you will be able to determine what will suit your family best.
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