Most mothers choose to breastfeed their babies at birth. And many moms will continue breastfeeding to age one or beyond.
However, there are many reasons why supplementing or making a complete switch to the formula is necessary before your baby’s first birthday.
More than half of moms will do so, which is why we know plenty of parents are wondering the best way to transition from breastmilk to formula.
They were returning to work—a more flexible feeding schedule.
You are letting your partner or family join in feedings. Parents use the formula for a bunch of reasons.
Whatever your reason, the formula gives your baby all the nutrition they need to thrive. And, don’t worry, you can still maintain a close bond no matter how you feed.
Hopefully, if you chose to breastfeed, it was an enjoyable bonding experience for you and your little one.
But like all milestones, it eventually comes to an end. First, congratulate yourself on making it this far!
If you still find nursing satisfying and enjoyable and dread giving it up, there’s no reason to stop breastfeeding your baby altogether.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding exclusively for about the first six months of a baby’s life and longer if both mother and child are game.
What if you’re not game? If your milk supply is waning (maybe your baby seems fussy and still hungry after feeding or isn’t gaining as much weight), or if pumping at work is inconvenient, it might be time to start gradually switching him over to formula (or, if you wait until he’s 1, you can wean him straight to whole cow’s milk from a cup).
Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
You may be tired of nursing, and that’s fine, too.
Here’s how to start the transition in a way that’s most comfortable for both of you.
When to Transition to Formula from Breastmilk
You can find plenty of material on the internet telling you that you should not give your baby any formula until they are at least six months of age, and breastfeeding until their first birthday is ideal.
This is usually advice from medical experts whose job is to share what is the most healthy from a medical standpoint.
And that’s all fine and good in a perfect world or for the mom who breastfeeds without issue.
But breastfeeding is not easy. There are many reasons why mothers may need to supplement with formula or make the switch completely. You should never feel like you need to justify your reasoning since a fed baby is best.
There is no perfect answer to the question, “When should I transition to formula?” You need to supplement with or switch to formula when that is what’s best for you and your baby.
You may have a medical reason that requires you to stop breastfeeding.
Beyond that, choosing when to wean your baby off breastmilk should be a personal decision. You need to do what’s best for yourself and your baby – and that’s often different from what the experts suggest or what your well-meaning loved ones are telling you to do.
Do not let anyone, including yourself, make you feel guilty for making the switch to formula.
That said, there are some times when you should try to avoid weaning if possible. You might want to consider holding off if:
- Your child is sick or teething. Your little one will have an easier time with the change when he’s feeling his best.
- Your family is going through a transitional period. Going back to work, starting with a new caregiver, or moving can be stressful. Wait until things have settled before adding another significant change.
- You have a family history of food allergies. If you or your partner have food allergies, breastfeeding may lower your baby’s chances of becoming sensitized to specific allergens.
- You’ve had a rough day of breastfeeding. Some days are just hard. It’s lovely to stop if nursing continues to be challenging or unenjoyable. But give yourself a few weeks before making a final decision.
Once you’ve made the decision, here’s how to make the transition.
How Do You Wean Your Baby?
If your child is still an avid nurser, but you’re less inclined, allow plenty of time — a few weeks or longer — for a gentle transition.
Ideally, you should start the weaning process a month or two before your actual deadline.
If you want to make sure your baby gets the benefits of breast milk for as long as possible, you can start replacing your nursing sessions with pumping until you’re ready to wean your baby completely.
Try dropping one feeding at a time, giving him some formula before a nursing session or gradually reducing the time he spends nursing at each feeding.
For toddlers over 1, you can replace breast milk with cow’s milk or a snack.
Taking it slow is good for you, too.
Gradually weaning allows your supply to taper off slowly, helping you avoid uncomfortable engorgement and plugged ducts.
If you’re weaning in preparation for the end of your maternity leave, allowing plenty of time can also ease some of the emotional pressure involved.
Many moms find that starting by dropping or shortening a midday feed is best, especially if your child has recently had lunch and might not be hungry for milk.
Once you successfully stop one feeding, you can give yourself and your little one some time to adjust — a few days or even a few weeks, depending on what feels right — before moving on to dropping another feeding.
If stopping nursing gradually isn’t possible, you can hand express or pump to relieve the pressure as your milk supply gradually decreases.
Placing cold cabbage leaves in your bra can be soothing. Applying cool compresses to your breasts or taking a pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) can also help ease some of the discomforts.
Regardless of how slowly or quickly you decide to wean, pay attention to how your little one is weathering the change.
Some babies and toddlers take to weaning quickly.
But if your child shows signs that things are moving too fast — waking more at night or acting moodier or more clingy during the day — it might be worth thinking about slowing the pace a little bit.
For this method, we suggest trying a few different formulas with your baby to see which one they take to the most easily.
Once you find one they are happy to take, you can begin substituting a feed with a formula bottle instead of breastmilk.
If multiple bottles were given, it would be best to utilize more of a gradual weaning strategy.
Gradual weaning is an excellent method to use when you plan to stop breastfeeding shortly, but you want to conduct it in a way that gives your baby a little less breastmilk every day until they’re onto drinking 100% formula.
However, you could use a gradual method for partial weaning, as well. Dropping one breastfeeding session per day (while replacing it with a formula bottle) is a great way to do this.
Switching Cold Turkey
Making a cold turkey switch from breastmilk to a formula is not generally suggested.
However, there are specific reasons why you might need to stop breastfeeding and pumping immediately and start giving your baby formula 100% of the time.
If your baby is already used to drinking breastmilk from a bottle, this transition will probably be easier on them.
If your baby has been accustomed to only taking milk from the breast, you may run into your baby refusing the bottle as the experience and nipple are different.
If you are in this position, we suggest you read “The Best Bottles for Breastfed Babies”, which will help you choose a bottle to make the switch easier on your baby.
We also talk about our top suggestion below.
Remember that you will likely see differences in indigestion when you switch to the formula, including different poops, from your baby as breastmilk and formula are not the same.
This is normal and not cause for alarm as long as your baby is comfortable and happy.
Partial Weaning Vs. Full Weaning
Whether you’re getting ready to head back to work or you’re simply feeling overwhelmed by round-the-clock nursing, you may want to try partial weaning—breastfeeding during certain times of the day but not others.
For most moms, partial weaning means giving up breastfeeding during the day and continuing to nurse in the morning and night.
In short, breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing—so if full-time nursing feels like too much, think about whether partially cutting back might be a good fit.
Age-By-Age Guide to Weaning
Weaning a young baby is quite different from weaning an older baby or a toddler. Here are some strategies for stopping or cutting back on nursing based on your little one’s age:
How to Wean at 0-3 Months
Sometimes early weaning is more accessible because your baby isn’t quite as attached to breastfeeding as he will be a few months down the line.
You’ll need to get him well acquainted with the bottle, which can be done by offering it before each breastfeeding session and then tapering off nursing completely.
You are worried that your baby might come to like the bottle more than the breast altogether?
Milk or formula tends to flow more quickly from a bottle, so your baby doesn’t have to suck as hard.
But you can slow the flow of the procedure and make sucking from a bottle more like sucking from the breast by using a bottle nipple made for a preemie or newborn and sticking with paced bottle feeding.
How to Wean at 4-6 Months
By four months, your baby has likely grown attached to his favourite source of nourishment: your breasts.
So weaning might be more difficult.
A little distraction never hurt anyone, and it’s beneficial at around five months when he starts to notice the world around him.
Start gradually with the daily feeding he’s least interested in, and then taper off from there.
How to Wean at 6-12 Months
Some babies will self-wean between 9 and 12 months, which could make the process much simpler.
Nursing for less time, fussing or being easily distracted while nursing, or frequently pulling at biting at the breast instead of eating are all signs that your sweetie could be losing interest.
But bear in mind that others don’t take well to being told that breastfeeding is no longer an option.
Luckily, the introduction of solid foods between 4 and 6 months can help in a big way. Is your baby going gah gah over breastfeeding?
Try distracting him with finely mashed or pureed bananas or sweet potatoes.
How to Wean a Toddler
Some toddlers will wake up one day and decide they’re done—that they no longer need the security of nursing and are ready to graduate to whole cow’s milk and solids.
Others don’t lose interest in nursing and may need a nudge in that direction.
It might be helpful to explain to him that now he’s a big boy, and it’s time to stop nursing.
And then gradually reduce nursing sessions to only when he asks. He is changing up your routines during times when he usually nurses or offering a snack at times before he usually nurses can help, too.
How to Make Weaning Easier
Even if you’re ready to be done breastfeeding right now, weaning can often be more of a marathon than a sprint—mainly if your little one is used to nursing several times a day.
Some strategies that can ease the transition for both of you:
- Share feeding duties. If your baby seems frustrated when you offer a bottle instead of the breast, try having a partner or caregiver do the feeding instead.
- Find other ways to stay close. Set aside time just for snuggling, so you and your sweetie are still getting that all-important physical contact. For toddlers, also plan for plenty of just-the-two-of-you activities where you’re giving him your full attention, like going to the park together or reading.
- Tweak the bedtime routine. Bedtime or naptime breastfeeding sessions can be the hardest for your little one to let go of. Try to find something other than breastfeeding to help whisk your child off to dreamland. Maybe it’s singing a song or reading a book. No matter what, give yourself a break and be as gradual as is feasible.
- Don’t rush it. Cutting out one feed every two or three days should be slow enough to help you manage any engorgement issues. But you can undoubtedly move slower if you want to, or if it seems like your little one would benefit from a more gradual pace.
- Hit pause if needed. If it looks like your little one is having a hard time adjusting to weaning, or if he hits a snag like teething or gets a cold, consider taking a short break wherever you’re at and starting back up in a week or two.
How to Care for Yourself When You Stop Breastfeeding
Weaning is just as significant for you as it is for your baby.
In addition to dealing with physical changes as your body’s milk production shuts down, it’s completely normal to have big extensive and often mixed! — feelings about the end of your breastfeeding experience. Some ways to cope:
- Expect to not feel like yourself. Similar to the days after giving birth, weaning causes a major hormonal shift that can trigger feelings of sadness, anxiety, relief and happiness — all at the same time. But if you feel more than a little depressed, check in with your doctor. Sometimes postpartum depression can develop after weaning.
- Take it easy if you’re feeling overwhelmed, cut out the outside noise and give yourself some space to adjust to the new normal.
- Try cold cabbage leaves for comfort—Tuck the leaves in your bra to ease soreness from engorgement. Once the leaves warm up, replace them with fresh cold ones.
Proper weaning doesn’t just mean focusing on your baby’s needs but also yours.
Even if your baby is happily taking formula, you still need to care for your body as you limit breastfeeding.
Stopping breastfeeding abruptly can lead to health issues for mothers, so you want to make sure you do it safely.
If Your Baby Refuses the Bottle
Some babies take to the bottle better than others.
If yours rejects the bottle at first, try experimenting with different brands of bottles and nipples until you find one your baby likes.
Or, have a caregiver or your partner offer the bottle since your baby may associate you with breastfeeding.
Give your baby a bottle at a feeding when they’re not overly tired and hungry since they may be more willing to accept it then.
Maintaining a Bond
You are worried that transitioning to the formula could mean a loss of intimacy with your baby? This doesn’t have to be the case. You can create other moments to bond with your baby.
- Hold your baby close as you offer a bottle, gazing into their eyes.
- Talk or sing softly to them.
- Try skin-on-skin contact, holding your baby close without clothes or blankets between you.
- Give your baby a soothing massage before bedtime, or cuddle together while reading a book.
- There are endless possibilities for one-on-one time. As you start to bottle-feed, you can take advantage of a more flexible schedule to create memorable moments together.
Are you still feeling emotional about switching from breastmilk to formula?
It’s completely normal.
You might want to talk to other moms who know how you’re feeling and can offer support, whatever you decide.
Like learning how to breastfeed in the early days, weaning is a process for most moms and little ones.
So take your time settling into this new stage with your sweetie, if you can. And above all, congratulate yourself on an incredible mission accomplished.