All good things must come to an end, and breastfeeding is no exception. If you’ve nursed your baby into toddlerhood, congratulations!
That’s a lot of work, and while you’re probably looking forward to being near the end of it, it’s normal to have mixed emotions about the transition away from breastfeeding.
However, you can help ease the process by making gradual changes and focusing on the relationship between you and your toddler.
Weaning is a process that happens best over several weeks. But if you need to stop breastfeeding immediately, there are ways to reduce possible issues, such as engorgement.
When you stop breastfeeding, only one thing’s for sure: you’re bound to run into some surprises. Just like every other aspect of motherhood, weaning very rarely happens the way we think it’s going to.
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How Long to Breastfeed
It’s recommended that you breastfeed your baby exclusively (give them breast milk only) for the first six months of their life.
Breastfeeding still has lots of benefits for you and your baby after six months.
It protects them from infections, and there’s some evidence that it helps with the digestion of your baby’s first solid foods. It also continues to provide the balance of nutrients your baby needs.
The World Health Organization recommends that all babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life, and from 6 months, babies should start eating solid foods and be breastfed for up to 2 years or longer.
When to Stop Breastfeeding
There’s an official guideline for how long to breastfeed, and that’s “as long as possible.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively until the baby is at least six months old and then gradually adding solid foods while breastfeeding until the baby is one year or older.
That’s the ideal. But then there’s the reality. Some mothers have medical reasons for weaning off breastfeeding sooner than six months or a year.
They might have had an adamant time getting the baby to latch on correctly, or they’ve been experiencing excessive pain when breastfeeding or an insufficient breast milk supply.
They might need medication, which would otherwise be passed on to the child through breast milk if they didn’t start weaning.
For other moms, external influences hamper breastfeeding: They may feel it’s close to impossible to pump at their workplace, or perhaps they need to depend on a caregiver.
Sometimes, it’s a simple lack of desire to continue breastfeeding, and that’s OK too. Just remember, if you’re weaning before the baby is one year old, you’ll need to feed her baby formula to ensure she receives proper nutrition. After age one, you can switch to cow’s milk.
Common Reasons for Stopping Breastfeeding
Sore or Painful Breasts
Some women find breastfeeding uncomfortable, especially in the early days and weeks. Common problems include sore or cracked nipples and painful breasts.
These problems can often happen when your baby is not positioned or attached well to the breast. A midwife, health visitor, or breastfeeding specialist can help you place your baby and get them properly secured.
Not Enough Breast Milk
Lots of women worry that their baby is not getting enough milk when they have plenty to meet their baby’s needs.
A midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding specialist can suggest ways to increase your milk supply if necessary. This could mean making sure your baby is well attached to the breast and that you’re feeding often enough.
Going Back to Work
Some women worry about breastfeeding and returning to work. However, going back to work does not necessarily mean you have to stop breastfeeding.
If your breast milk supply is well established, going back to work does not have to affect your milk supply for your baby. You can either express at work and give your breast milk to your child’s carer or provide formula milk while you’re away.
Suppose your employer is not familiar with the rules around breastfeeding and expressing in the workplace. In that case, it’s worth sharing the ACAS guidance on pregnancy and maternity with them or contacting your union if you have one.
Going on Holiday
As with work, going on holiday does not mean that you have to give up breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding can be more convenient while you’re away.
If you breastfeed, you do not need to worry about boiling water and sterilising feeding equipment. Plus, if you’re flying, there’s no need to worry about restrictions on carrying bottles or cups of formula through airport security checks.
Breastfeeding also helps to equalise the pressure in your baby’s ears on take-off or landing.
Getting Pregnant Again
If you get pregnant again while you’re breastfeeding, it should not affect your baby or the pregnancy. However, you may feel tired, and changes in your appetite and emotions can make breastfeeding more challenging.
Occasionally, women are advised to stop breastfeeding before getting pregnant again, particularly if they’ve previously had a miscarriage or premature labour.
Do not be put off feeding an older baby and a newborn (tandem nursing). The more milk your babies take, the more your breasts produce, so it’s possible to feed more than one baby.
Taking Some Medicines
Most medicines can be taken while you’re breastfeeding without harming your baby. But it’s always best to tell a doctor, dentist or pharmacist if you’re breastfeeding.
How to Stop Breastfeeding Gradually
There’s no right or wrong way to stop breastfeeding. For many mothers and babies, stopping breastfeeding happens gradually as the child grows and eats more solid foods.
Solid food mustn’t simply replace breast milk. There’s evidence that breast milk may play a part in helping a baby’s digestive system to deal with its first solids.
Once they’re eating solids, your baby will still need to have breast milk or formula as their main drink until their 1st birthday.
Cows’ milk is not suitable as a main drink for babies under one-year-old, although it can be added to foods, such as mashed potatoes.
Carrying on breastfeeding while giving your baby some formula can work very well.
Babies breastfeed for comfort as well as food. Phasing out breastfeeding gently will give you both time to get used to the idea. Stopping gradually will also help prevent problems like overfull, hard (engorged) breasts and mastitis.
You’ll probably find it easiest to drop one feed at a time. It does not matter which spread you drop first, so it will usually be a case of how it fits in with your life. For example, some mothers may prefer to continue night feeds so their baby can still have comfort at night.
If your baby is younger than one year, you’ll need to replace the dropped breastfeed with a formula feed from a bottle or (if they’re over six months) a cup or beaker instead.
If your child is over one year and has a variety of foods and drinks, they will not need a replacement feed.
Once you and your baby are settled into a pattern of having one less breastfeed, you can then think about dropping another feed. Completely stopping breastfeeding can take anything from a few weeks to several months.
If you’re trying to stop breastfeeding and having problems, you can get help and ideas from a health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist.
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How to Stop Breastfeeding Immediately
It’s not ideal to stop breastfeeding abruptly since weaning quickly can lead to more significant discomfort.
Potential complications can include engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis.
But if a gradual approach to weaning isn’t a possibility, there are some tips for how to stop breastfeeding cold turkey and how to relieve engorged breasts when stopping breastfeeding suddenly.
Fortunately, a few tried-and-true weaning strategies can help reduce discomfort: You can reduce the pressure and pain by using a breast pump or your hands to express a small amount of milk.
You’ll want to express enough to make you comfortable but not enough to completely drain your breasts—emptying your breasts will only encourage your body to continue producing more milk and hinder your weaning efforts.
Ice-cold cabbage leaves or ice packs are an old weaning standby for relieving the pain of engorgement—just put them inside your bra to reduce discomfort.
Some lactation experts believe that using them may also help reduce how long it takes for your breast milk to dry up.
You can also take pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) to help reduce weaning-related swelling and pain and antihistamines or birth control pills to decrease your milk supply.
The Office on Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services also recommends teas and herbs, including sage, peppermint, parsley and jasmine, to help reduce your milk supply faster.
Keep in mind, too, that breastfeeding is about more than just food for the baby. She may miss that closeness with you once weaning begins, so you may need to set aside a little extra snuggle time to compensate.
Tips on How to Stop Breastfeeding
Start Weaning at a Time When Things Are Calm.
Don’t start weaning when your child isn’t feeling well or your family is going through any transition.
That much change at once could feel overwhelming and scary to a small child, and they might be more resistant to weaning in general.
For instance, it’s probably best to wait a few weeks if you’ve recently gone back to work, moved to a new home, or had a new baby, or if your toddler has recently switched daycares or hasn’t been feeling well.
Explain What’s Going on to Your Child.
Even if your toddler isn’t talking much yet, they can still understand a lot of what you say.
Talk to them in simple language to prepare them for the idea of weaning, and give them plenty of reassurance that you’ll still make time to cuddle and spend time together.
For instance, you might say something along the lines of, “Mommy’s milk is going away,” or, “You’re getting bigger and don’t need to nurse anymore.”
You could follow that with something like, “But, when we don’t have to stop for milk, we’ll have more time to play games and sing songs. What’s your favourite game to play with me?”
Recognise When Your Baby Is Ready to Stop Breastfeeding.
Your baby will give some clues that they’re ready to wean.
For example, they’ll hold their head in an upright position, sit with support, and express interest in what they’re eating.
In addition, their active tongue-thrust reflex will disappear, and they may act indifferent or cranky during regular breastfeeding sessions.
Set a Schedule for Weaning.
Allow yourself a whole month to successfully stop breastfeeding; this gives Mom and Baby extra breathing room for obstacles and setbacks.
Also, it would help if you avoided weaning during a significant life change (teething, moving homes, starting daycare, etc.). And realise your baby will be more apt to cooperate when they aren’t overly tired or hungry.
Easing into a weaning routine allows you and your baby to adjust to the change.
For instance, you may omit one breastfeeding session per week-probably the most inconvenient feeding or the one your baby’s least interested in-and gradually drop feedings until they’re solely having bottles and solids.
(Note: If your baby is nine months or older, it’s best to wean directly to a cup, so you don’t have to deal with getting them off the bottle in a few months.)
By going slowly, you’ll produce less and less milk, making weaning more comfortable for you.
It will also make weaning more pleasant for your baby since they’ll be progressively adjusting to nursing less and drinking more from the bottle or cup.
Introducing New Breastfeeding Limits.
At the start of weaning, explain to your child that there will be new times for nursing from now on.
Explain any changes you’re making that revolve around breastfeeding, then stick with the new rules.
However, you don’t have to make this a big deal—try to say it casually, so your child will be more likely to roll with the changes.
For instance, you might say, “I’m so proud of how much you’re growing! Since you’re such a big kid now, I’m going to give you a sippy cup of milk for snack time from now on!”
If you’ll be making any other changes to help wean easier, like not breastfeeding when you’re out of the house or only breastfeeding in a particular area, explain that too. Limiting your nursing sessions to specific times or places may help ease the transition.
Reduce the Number of Nursing Sessions One at a Time.
Think about all the times that your toddler nurses during the day. Then, choose one feeding at a time to eliminate.
Find something to do to occupy your toddler when they would typically be nursing, and wait about a week for them to adjust to the change. Then, cut out another daily feeding at a time until you’ve weaned your toddler completely.
For instance, if your baby nurses typically first thing in the morning, after lunch, in the early evening, and before bed, you might skip the feeding after lunch.
A slow and gradual cessation is better for both you and your baby.
Abruptly ceasing all nursing sessions can be upsetting, and it can even make you more susceptible to developing a clogged breast duct, inflammation, or the painful breast infection mastitis.
Shorten Each Breastfeeding Session by a Few Minutes at a Time.
As you gradually cut down on your nursing sessions each day, you can also shorten the remaining sessions.
Pay attention to how long your child typically nurses. Then, keep an eye on the clock and cut 1-2 minutes off of each feeding. Wait a few days, then cut another 1-2 minutes off.
This will make weaning easier on your body since you’re gradually reducing your milk supply. It may also help your toddler wean more efficiently since they’ll learn that they won’t get full at each feeding.
Provide Emotional Comfort.
Breastfed babies love close physical contact with their mothers, so it’s essential to provide comfort in other ways when you’re weaning.
For example, you can spend quality one-on-one time with activities that keep them emotionally stimulated-cuddling together while reading a book or singing a lullaby, romping around together at the playground, or massaging their back.
Consider Letting Your Little One Lead.
Some babies excel at weaning when they’re in control. If you’re OK with letting your baby call the shots, rely on the tried-and-true “don’t offer, don’t refuse” method.
In a nutshell, you nurse when your child expresses interest, but you don’t initiate it. It’s not the quickest weaning strategy, but it ensures your baby’s needs are met.
Switch up Your Feeding Routine.
If your baby resists a bottle from you, see if they’ll accept it from someone else while you’re in another room-maybe Dad, Grandma, or the babysitter.
Or, if you’re the one serving the bottle, change up your routine-if you nurse in your bedroom; for example, try nursing in the living room and holding them in another position.
If changing the routine doesn’t work, revert to your old ways, then try again in a few weeks.
Expect Resistance When You Stop Breastfeeding.
It’s normal for babies to resist weaning.
Just know that, after a day or two of mourning the loss of the breast, most little ones will begin eating solid foods and drinking liquids from a sippy cup without problems.
Healthy babies generally eat when they’re hungry enough, no matter how badly they’d like to nurse.
Learn How to Prevent-Or Soothe-Engorgement.
Another reason to take it slow: You can experience engorgement in your breasts after nursing ends quickly.
Why? Your milk ducts miss the memo that they need to reduce milk production, and all that milk has nowhere to go.
If you’re engorged, soothe the pain with cool ice packs or acetaminophen. Or reach for your trusty breast pump; you can serve the pumped milk in a bottle or mix it with your baby’s cereal.
Understand Your Own Emotions.
Your baby isn’t the only one who has to adjust to weaning. In addition, you must deal with a whirlwind of emotions; for example, some moms want their bodies back, while others feel rejected when their baby passes up the breast.
Though you may be pleased to end nursing once and for all, it’s natural to feel pangs of nostalgia about your baby getting older.
Your best bet? Embrace their independence, know that weaning is an emotional experience, and talk to other breastfeeding mothers who can relate.
Avoid feeling guilty for weaning your baby. When your baby pleads with you to nurse, you might struggle with feeling heartbroken, frustrated, or even selfish.
However, keep in mind that your toddler will adjust to the new feeding schedule soon, and congratulate yourself that you were able to keep nursing into toddlerhood!
If you’re overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, sadness, anxiety, or depression, it could be depression due to the hormonal changes in your body. Talk to your doctor about what you’re feeling.
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