Weaning: When and how to stop breastfeeding

When’s the right time to stop breastfeeding your baby, and what’s the best way to do it? Read on for plenty of practical weaning advice

Weaning - how and when to stop breastfeeding

Once you’ve established breastfeeding, how long should you continue? Three months? Six months? A year? Or several years?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other health bodies recommend that babies are fed entirely on breast milk for their first six months of life and continue having their mother’s milk alongside other foods – known as complementary foods – until at least the age of two.1

This is because breast milk isn’t just food. A natural comforter if your child is worried or tired, it also contains immunity-boosting components that increase dramatically in number whenever she’s ill.2

Anthropologists estimate the natural age for humans to stop breastfeeding is even higher than two. Looking at factors including tooth development, body weight, comparison with other primates and historical evidence, some say it could be two to four years, while others believe our ancestors might have been breastfed until the ages of six or seven.3

Today, more than 60% of mums in developed countries give their baby some formula or complementary food before the age of six months,4 even though WHO guidelines don’t recommend this. 

When’s the right time to start weaning my baby?

Weaning is the process of stopping feeding your baby with breast milk. Ideally, the first step towards weaning your baby is introducing complementary foods alongside your breast milk around the age of six months. The weaning process continues until breast milk is completely replaced by other foods and drinks.

“After six months, your baby begins to need higher levels of certain nutrients – such as iron, zinc and vitamins B and D – that she can’t get from your breast milk or her own reserves alone,” explains UK health visitor and nurse Sarah Beeson.

“But solid food will only complement your baby’s milk intake to start with, and replace it gradually. Breast milk will remain her major source of nutrients for many months to come.”

A typical seven-month-old still gets 93% of her calories from milk. Even at 11 to 16 months, milk may still provide around half her daily calorie intake.5

“Mums sometimes think breast milk isn’t important once their baby has started eating solids, but in fact there’s no better milk for her, however old she is,” says Sarah.

Indeed the entire weaning process can take as long as mum and baby want it to: “When to stop breastfeeding is your choice,” says Sarah. “Don’t feel pressured by what friends are doing or what family members – or even strangers – say. All that matters is what feels right for you and your baby.”

How to stop breastfeeding

Whenever you decide to start weaning your child off breast milk, it’s best to do it gradually. Stopping breastfeeding suddenly could put you at risk of engorgement, blocked ducts or mastitis, as well as being an abrupt change for your baby’s digestive and immune systems to cope with. It may also be difficult for you both emotionally.

Do I need to stop breastfeeding?

Sometimes mums mistakenly think they need to stop breastfeeding when they don’t. If you’re returning to work, breastfeeding can be a great way of maintaining intimacy during a big change in both your lives. You can express milk for your baby at work and keep nursing sessions as a special time together at the beginning and end of the day. Or if you need to travel without your baby, you could express milk to take or send home.

If you get ill, it doesn’t always mean you need to stop breastfeeding either – read our advice on breastfeeding while you’re sick and be sure to consult with your healthcare professional.

Stopping breastfeeding before six months

If you feel unable to continue breastfeeding until the six-month mark and want to try mother-led weaning, start by cutting out one breastfeed a day and replacing it with a bottle of formula.

“Ideally, start with the mid-day feed. Babies are remarkable and can identify the scent of their mother’s milk nearby, so ask your partner or a relative to give your baby the bottle while you are in another room,” says Sarah.

“Be mindful of good hygiene when preparing feeds. It may be that your baby takes fewer feeds of expressed breast milk than from the breast during a 24-hour period. Don’t force her to take more milk than she wants.”

You’ll probably notice your breasts feel full and tender as your body adjusts to producing less milk. If this becomes uncomfortable, try expressing a little breast milk – just enough to relieve the discomfort without stimulating your body to make more.

Once your body is used to this new volume – usually after a few days – cut out another feed each day. Repeat until you’re no longer breastfeeding and your baby is fully weaned.

“I had complications after my first birth which meant I lost a lot of weight very quickly and I also suffered with mastitis. My supply was low and at three months, I needed to stop,” says Jennifer, mum of two, UK. “I swapped one feed at a time so didn’t struggle too much physically, but I found it hard mentally.”

If you want to maintain the intimacy and health benefits of breastfeeding, but need to cut back, try partial weaning, where only some of the feeds are replaced with formula.

Stopping breastfeeding after six months

As your baby starts to have solid foods at around six months, you will find that her breastfeeds naturally become less frequent over time. Within a year she will probably be down to a couple of feeds a day, complemented by meals and healthy snacks.

However, if you’d like to cut back further, do it gradually, dropping one breastfeed at a time and offering your baby formula milk instead if she is less than 12 months old. Cow’s milk should wait until she is at least a year old.

“My son was down to three breastfeeds a day and having three meals plus snacks when I decided to start weaning him. I gradually replaced each feed with a bottle of formula – leaving the night one until last, at 11 months,” says Ruth, mum of one, UK. “The slow pace meant I had no problems, just a little fullness for a few days.”

There are various ways to distract your child from the change in her feeding patterns. Some mums offer a drink and a snack instead, which you could share to bring a feeling of closeness. You could also alter your daily routine, play a favourite game, or replace a feed with a cuddle from you or your partner.  Some children will take longer than others to feel happy with the change, but things will get easier over time. If you’re having any difficulties with weaning, it’s always helpful to seek support from your healthcare professional.

Stopping breastfeeding naturally over time

If you choose to let your toddler decide when to stop breastfeeding (known as baby-led weaning or natural-term breastfeeding), the weaning process is likely to be slow and gradual. Over the months, her feeds will probably become shorter and less frequent, while some mums report their child simply losing interest one day.

“My daughter self-weaned at four,” says Sarah, mum of one, UK. “She gradually slowed down and hardly fed at all from three-and-a-half. Then she seemed to forget when we were on holiday. Six months on, she sometimes wants to latch on, but knows the milk is gone.”

Your body should have plenty of time to adapt, so you’re unlikely to experience any uncomfortable engorgement. You may find it tough emotionally, though, so make time for plenty of cuddles and bonding moments.

“Baby-led weaning was right for me because my son had never had formula or a bottle. I didn’t want to stop suddenly and deny him,” says Kelly, mum of one, UK. “He lost interest at two-and-a-half. It was the best scenario for us, although I was quite emotional.”

What if I need to stop breastfeeding quickly?

Although it’s best not to stop breastfeeding abruptly, sometimes it’s necessary for health reasons, or because you and your baby can’t be together.

If your baby has been breastfed until this point, you’ll almost certainly need to express milk to avoid your breasts becoming uncomfortably engorged. Some women find a breast pump easiest for this, while others prefer to do it by hand. Again, only express enough to ease any discomfort – you don’t want to encourage your body to produce more milk.

While your breasts may feel swollen and tender at first, they will adapt. Your breast milk contains something called feedback inhibitor of lactation (FIL). When your baby stops breastfeeding, FIL tells your body to slow production, but it may take a few days or even weeks for your breasts to adjust.

Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to relieve any pain (although ibuprofen has contraindications for those with asthma). Always follow the manufacturer’s and pharmacist’s guidance and consult a healthcare professional about any medications you need to take.

“I had to give up breastfeeding suddenly when my daughter was eight months old because I needed to take strong painkillers,” says Peggy, mum of one, Switzerland. “I found it very hard – she kept looking for my breast and crying. I held her tightly against me for reassurance while giving her a bottle. After a month, she seemed OK with it.”

Can I continue breastfeeding if I want to get pregnant again?

While breastfeeding is a natural contraceptive, it’s not foolproof. And it’s unlikely to be effective after six months, or if you’re not exclusively breastfeeding. This means you could conceive while still nursing your child.

Pregnant breastfeeding mums sometimes receive conflicting advice about whether to wean. Tandem feeding two children of different ages is certainly possible and when your new baby arrives, your body will produce milk to fit each of their needs.

Some mums find that their older child weans naturally during the pregnancy or drops certain feeds. This may be due to changes in the composition of your milk during pregnancy, which mean that it tastes different and less sweet.6 If your breastfeeding child is under a year old when she starts to wean, keep an eye on whether she continues to gain weight.

You should take advice from your healthcare professional if you want to continue breastfeeding while pregnant if you have previously had a premature birth, a miscarriage or are suffering any bleeding.

If you need medical help to conceive, you may find that doctors will not administer certain fertility drugs or treatments if you’re breastfeeding. Discuss all the options before making a decision on weaning.

The last word on baby weaning

Whenever and however you stop breastfeeding, be gentle with yourself and your baby. It’s a big shift physically, hormonally and emotionally for you both, so do it with thought and care.

“While my body coped with weaning fine, I felt very emotional. It was something we’d shared for so long and it had come to an end,” says Jane, mum of two, USA. “I was working long hours, five days a week, and breastfeeding made me feel very relevant in their lives. But when that stopped, we soon found other ways to bond.”

References

1 World Health Organisation. [Internet] Health Topics: Breastfeeding: 2018 [Accessed: 08.02.2018]. Available from: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en

2 Hassiotou et al. Maternal and infant infections stimulate a rapid leukocyte response in breastmilk. Clin Transl Immunology. 2013;2(4):e3.

3 Dettwyler KA. When to wean: biological versus cultural perspectives. Clin Obstet Gynecol. 2004; 47(3)712-723.

4 Victora CG et al. Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. Lancet. 2016;387(10017):475-490.

5 Dewey KG et al. Breast milk volume and composition during late lactation (7-20 months). J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 1984;3(5):713-720.

6 Prosser CG et al. Mammary gland function during gradual weaning and early gestation in women. Aust J Exp Biol Med Sci. 1984;62(Pt 2):215-228.