One question I am often asked is how long are you supposed to breastfeed??? Well, the answer is simple. There is no right or wrong length of time to nurse your baby. There are expert recommendations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing to the age of 1 year and beyond. The World Health Organization recommends nursing until the age of 2 years and beyond! So, even our experts can't agree!
I happen to have my own opinion on the subject. I even made a video about it which you can check out below. The simple answer is- IT'S COMPLETELY UP TO YOU! Breastfeeding is a relationship, and it takes two for this relationship to work. So no matter who decides it's time to stop, mom or baby, then that is the right time for that specific dyad. There are many reasons a mother may want to wean, and for some, weaning when baby is still very young is the healthiest option for both involved. No matter when, or why, when you're ready to wean you'll need to know how! So, I have put this guide together for YOU momma. So when it's time for your breastfeeding journey to come to an end, you'll know how to get through it.
So, first things first, I need to say this. No matter where you are in your breastfeeding journey, weaning is a process, one that takes time. It's really important you are gentle with yourself, and your baby during this process too. It's bound to be emotional for both of you. Also you need to know that weaning can very much be two steps forward, one step back. So be patient with yourself and your little one.
I also want to say I do not recommend weaning abruptly. It will be very hard for your little one, and also hard on your body. If you find yourself in a situation where weaning abruptly is necessary, please reach out for expert lactation support to come up with a plan of action to get you through it!
#1. Take It Slow
Your body and your baby are going to need time to adjust to the physical, and hormonal changes of weaning. When you go slowly, these changes will be less drastic for you, and less traumatic for your baby. Going slowly will also prevent supply problems like engorgement, clogs, and mastitis. Your nursling, especially an older baby or toddler, will appreciate the extra time to process what's going on too. When mom is choosing to wean, your nursling is likely not ready yet. She will need time to mourn this loss, as nursing is likely still very important to her.
I recommend starting by eliminating one nursing session at a time, or pumping session if you are an EP mom. Wait a few days before eliminating a second session. Continue like this until you've eliminated all nursing sessions. If you're nursing the average 8-12 times a day, then it should take you roughly 3-5 weeks to completely wean. This may seem like a long time, but your body and baby will be better off for it!
#2. Be Emotionally Available
Some babies handle the process of weaning a little easier than others. An older infant or toddler may have an especially emotional time when weaning. They depend on it for comfort, and so when they are being told they can't nurse they likely will show some dissatisfaction in the form of melt downs or tantrums. Be there for them. Hug them through it. Let them know you are still there for them just as much, but comfort comes in the form of snuggles now. You can be firm when saying no to nursing, giving in will just be confusing for them, though it may seem like the easier option at the time. It will be very important to be patient with your nursling, and keep in mind that this is a rough transition on them. Letting them cry on their own may come off as a rejection from you, and this could be emotionally traumatic for them. Love them, hug them, and help them through it!
You can also talk about it with your nursling. Leading up to weaning, clue them in on what's going to happen. Use age appropriate explanations, and keep it simple. They may not fully understand, but it will give them an opportunity to realize something is going to change. My oldest son was weaned 3 months shy of his 3rd birthday. We talked about it for a week, and did a count down. The very last time he nursed, he knew it was the very last time. He had his opportunity to work through it, and he even got to say goodbye to his "boom booms", kissed them, hugged them, and then that was it. He, unlike his brother, was very easy to wean. (But that's a story for another day!)
#3. Not Now, Yes Later
When you are getting rid of nursing sessions, and taking away one at a time, you'll have the luxury of being able to use this phrase, "We are not going to nurse now, and YES we will nurse later.". If you can give your nursling a time reference like, after lunch, or when we get home, or after your bath. They won't understand time, but do understand their routine. Toddlers, and older infants too, are absolutely able to understand this concept. It will also be very helpful for them by turning your "no" or refusal to nurse during that time, into a "yes" for them. Instead of your nursling feeling rejected by not being allowed to nurse, they are instead just waiting. This doesn't mean it won't be met with resistance, they may still melt down, but after a couple days, they will trust that you mean what you say and it will get easier for both of you!
#4. All The Distractions!!!
When your little one is having a hard time after you've told them, "Not now, yes later.", it's important to let them feel it. Let them get out their emotions, and when they have settled down, distract them with something! This is especially great for an older infant or toddler. Do an activity together. Something that would take about the same time as your nursing session would have. Something that is connecting, bonding, and involves both of you. Read some books together, play with some toys, bake some cookies, a floor puzzle, anything that you want to do that you'll both enjoy! It will help your little one get their mind off of wanting to nurse, and still give them the connection they needed from you by nursing, without actually being at the breast.
Now, this step is optional, unless your baby is under 1 years old. Some mothers, myself included, have found it incredibly helpful to replace the time at the breast with some other physical object. This could be a bottle of milk, pacifier, lovey, or some other object your baby can attach to. When I night weaned my toddler, for example, I replaced his night time nursing sessions with bottles of milk. It took him several nights to adjust, but he did eventually adjust and it made the process much easier for us. Some people would choose not to replace nursing with another object or bottle, and that is fine too. If you find your child is really struggling with the transition, like mine was, you may want to consider it.
Soemthing REALLY important:
If your baby is under 1 years old and you are weaning, you MUST give a replacement to your breastmilk. Often this means formula, or donor breastmilk. An infant who is about 6 weeks old up to 1 year of age will need 24-30oz of milk every day, even after solids are introduced. Then, after a year old they will start to decrease how much milk they are drinking and eat more foods. The majority of their nutrition comes from milk during the first year. It will be very important to continue to give your infant milk. If you're not familiar with paced bottle feeding, check out my video below!
#6. Keep Your Breasts Comfy
Milk supply works on a process of supply and demand. Empty breasts make milk faster, full breasts make milk slower. If you're weaning slowly enough, you should (hopefully) avoid any discomfort in your breasts. However, sometimes you may find your breasts are a little uncomfortable, especially in the beginning. If this is the case DO NOT IGNORE IT! The BEST thing you can do is very minimal hand expression. You don't want to use your breast pump, as this will be very stimulating on your nipples, and the stimulation will further promote your body to make milk. So, rely on this form of hand expression in the video below, and you'll be able to move enough milk to keep your breasts comfortable without telling your body to produce more.
Sometimes you might need a little help to decrease your supply. Some women have a harder time than others with decreasing supply, especially when you're weaning a younger baby. There are some herbs and remedies you can try to help decrease your milk production. Peppermint is known for lowering milk supply. You can drink peppermint tea or use diluted peppermint essential oil, topically, on your breasts. Cabbage leaves are another popular suggestion for lowering milk supply. You can place clean cabbage leaves in your bra, and wear them, changing them every 12 hours, to decrease your supply. If you want to go the pharmaceutical route, Sudafed is a known milk supply killer. Taking some, as directed according to the package, can quickly help your supply decrease. Now of course, I have to say, talk with your health care provider before starting any of these methods to make sure it's appropriate for you.
#8. Know What to Expect After
When you are done with the process of weaning, or near the end, you may notice some discomfort, or weird twinging pains in your breasts. This is normal. When your supply is decreasing, your breasts are going through a process called Involution. Basically, your breasts are doing in reverse what they did to establish your milk supply in the first place. Everything is shrinking and disconnecting in your breasts, and those pains are there to prove it. Now, this shouldn't be truly painful, more mildly annoying than anything, and it will likely come and go. You may not even notice it, but if you do I want you to know it's normal and nothing to worry about!
I also want you to know that it's normal for your body to continue to produce little bits of milk for a long time after weaning. You could likely hand express a bit of milk for YEARS to come, especially when in the shower. Which, is pretty cool, actually.
Hopefully your journey through weaning is a smooth process, and one that doesn't cause too much disruption. Know that you are absolutely not alone in this journey, and we in the Successful Breastfeeding Community are here to support you. Weaning can be a sensitive subject for many, and some women feel judged by choosing to do so. I assure you, you'll not experience judgement in our community, only support and love! No matter when, or what your reasons are for weaning, we've got your back!!!
Kelly Maher, CLC, CLE