Weaning is when a baby transitions from breast milk to other sources of nourishment. When to wean is a personal decision. A mom might be influenced by a return to work, her health or the baby's, or simply a feeling that the time is right.
Weaning a baby is a gradual process that calls for patience and understanding from both you and your child.
When Is the Right Time?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding babies only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. After that, the AAP recommends that a combination of solid foods and breast milk be given until a baby is at least 1 year old. At a year, babies may begin drinking whole cow's milk.
Most experts agree that breastfeeding should continue for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby. Many women choose to wean after their baby's first birthday. At this age, babies are starting to walk, talk, and eat more solid foods so they may just naturally lose interest in nursing.
Other moms choose to breastfeed longer than a year (this is called extended breastfeeding). Extended breastfeeding is a healthy and reasonable option for mothers and children who aren't ready to wean. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that moms breastfeed for the first 2 years of a child's life.
Weaning does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Some women choose to wean during the day and breastfeed at night, depending on their work situation and their schedules.
Whenever you decide to wean, your child may have another time in mind. Some children wean themselves earlier than the mother intended and others are resistant to weaning when the mother is ready. Those who are weaned later in life tend to be more resistant. For example, a 2-year-old toddler may be more attached and less flexible about giving up breastfeeding than a 12-month-old baby. At times like these, it's important to take it slow and be sensitive to each other's needs.
Some kids are content to nurse indefinitely. But others will give moms clues that they're ready to begin the process of weaning, such as:
seeming disinterested or fussy when nursing
nursing in shorter sessions than before
being easily distracted while nursing
"playing" at the breast, like constantly pulling on and off or biting (babies who bite during nursing should immediately be taken off the breast and told, calmly but firmly, "No biting. Biting hurts.")
nursing for comfort (sucking at the breast but not drawing out the milk)
Approaches to Weaning
To allow both mom and baby to adjust physically and emotionally to the change, weaning should be a gradual process.
One approach is to drop one feeding session a week until the child is taking all of the feeds from a bottle or cup. If you are planning to continue to give your child pumped breast milk, you will need to pump in order to keep up your milk supply. If you are weaning your child off breast milk, slowly dropping feeds can help avoid engorgement.
You might begin by stopping the midday feeding because it's usually the smallest and most inconvenient — especially for working moms. Many mothers let go of the bedtime feeding last because it's still a special part of bonding.
Another approach is to leave the decision of when to wean completely up to a child. Once they're eating three meals of solid food a day (plus snacks in between), kids often breastfeed less and less. In this situation, you may find that your milk will dry up from lack of demand, and pumping may be necessary if you want to keep the milk flowing. If your child is breastfeeding less, make sure he or she is getting enough iron-fortified formula or milk. Check with the doctor about how much your child get.
If your baby weans before 1 year of age, or you find that you're not making enough milk, you will need to give your baby formula. Check with the doctor to see what formula is right for your child.
Weaning is easier if a child has also taken milk from another source. So try giving an occasional bottle of breast milk to your little one once breastfeeding is well-established. Even if you plan to continue breastfeeding, this can ease weaning later. It also lets other family members feed the baby and makes it possible to leave your child with a caregiver.
It's important to remember that infants over 6 months should have solid foods as well as breast milk. After 1 year, breast milk alone does not provide all the nutrients a growing child needs; solid foods must become a regular part of the diet.
As you start to wean, remember that your child needs time to adjust to drinking from cups. So be patient as your little one begins exploring the world of food. Here's some more ways to make this change easier:
Engage your child in a fun play activity or an outing during times when you would usually nurse.
Avoid sitting in your usual nursing spots or wearing your usual nursing clothes.
Delay weaning if your child is trying to adapt to some other change. Trying to wean when your little one is just beginning childcare or during teething might not be a good idea.
If your baby is younger than 1 year, try to introduce a bottle or cup when you would typically be nursing. For an older child, try a healthy snack, offering a cup, or maybe even just a cuddle.
Try changing your daily routine so that you're otherwise engaged during breastfeeding times.
Enlist your partner's help to provide a distraction at a typical nursing time.
If your child begins to pick up a comforting habit (such as thumbsucking) or becomes attached to a security blanket, don't discourage it. Your child might be trying to adjust to the emotional changes of weaning.
How You Might Feel
Many moms make the decision to wean with mixed emotions. On the one hand, weaning brings with it more freedom and flexibility, as well as the proud realization that her child is reaching a major milestone. On the other hand, nursing is an intimate activity that fosters a strong bond between mother and child — and some women find it difficult to let that go.
As you go through this process, expect a wide range of emotions and understand that your child may have them, too. But also remember that there will be countless other ways to nurture your child in the days ahead.