To wean or not to wean? When and how to stop breastfeeding

Sept. 5, 2019
To wean or not to wean? When and how to stop breastfeeding

As a mom of four kids ranging in age from 6 to 23, Heather Seibert has had very different breastfeeding and weaning experiences each time.

Only 20 years old when she had her first daughter, the Winterville, North Carolina, mom was told at the time that breastfed babies only needed to eat every four to five hours. 

“My milk supply was going all wonky because she wanted to eat, and then she would be ravenous,” she recalls of early days with her daughter Ashlyn, now 23. “She would eat fast, and she ended up with reflux and dropped all of this weight.”

Without the proper guidance about breastfeeding (“I was so young, I didn't have a whole lot of help,” says Seibert), Ashlyn continued to lose weight. Coupled with a series of breast infections that landed Seibert on antibiotics, she finally stopped breastfeeding when her daughter was about 5 months old: “It was just bad. I was like, ‘I can't do this anymore.’” 

That stressful time led Seibert to exclusively formula feed her second daughter Tara, now 20. But years later, armed with more confidence and knowledge, she decided to give breastfeeding another go with her third daughter, now-11-year-old Helena, and son Silas, 6. 

“It was a totally different experience from pregnancy all the way through the breastfeeding journey that I had,” says Seibert. “[My daughter] self-weaned right at about 3 years old. She just didn't have time for it anymore. [My son] self-weaned, but he was nudged to self-wean because he was 4.” 

Seibert’s experience illustrates that there’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for a mother and child’s experience with breastfeeding, and that’s true for the duration of how long breastfeeding will last. It’s a highly personal journey.

How long should breastfeeding last?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life, followed by continuing breastfeeding in combination with gradually introducing solid foods until at least 12 months of age (or as long as it’s desired by the mother and child). These guidelines are based on the protective effect breastfeeding has against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases and allergies, including asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis. Additionally, the rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is reduced by over a third in breastfed babies, and there is a 15% to 30% reduction in adolescent and adult obesity in breastfed vs. non-breastfed infants. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and then continued breastfeeding with “nutritious complementary foods” up to the age of 2 years and beyond. 

“[The length of time you breastfeed should be] whatever's right for you and your child,” says Suzie Welsh, a certified breastfeeding and fertility nurse in Philadelphia, who’s also the founder and CEO of women’s health company BINTO. “You get to be in charge. There are women who may have target dates or goals in terms of age that they really would like to get to. Then there are cases where it's more natural to go past the 12-month mark.”

Various factors like going back to work after maternity leave, difficulty finding pumping accommodations or facing breastfeeding challenges might lead moms to stop breastfeeding sooner than they’d originally thought. Or, conversely, they may nurse well beyond their original planned time frame.

What is weaning?

“Weaning refers to starting to give anything other than breast milk,” says Danielle Tropea, an international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) in Newark, New Jersey. “So when a child is 6 months old and you want to start giving them solid food, you're beginning to wean them because they're not going to be fully breastfed anymore.” 

“It's kind of a natural progression, because [once] the baby starts on these foods, they're going to breastfeed less,” says Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, OB-GYN lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “That transition in and of itself will create a natural weaning process just because of appetite and satiety.” 

What’s the best way to wean from breastfeeding?

Ideally, weaning from breastfeeding should be a gradual process. 

“The slower, the better, because if you do it too quickly, then the mom will most likely get engorged and experience a lot of discomfort in her breasts and potential mastitis (an inflammation of the breast tissue), and mastitis can lead to, worst-case scenario, an abscess in the breast,” says Tropea. 

Cutting out one feeding per day every few days is the best way to ease into weaning, which can take weeks or even months. 

“Over time, that gives your body an opportunity to adjust,” Tropea says. 

The less you’re nursing (or pumping), the less you produce. 

“The breast is a self-regulating organ in terms of milk production,” says Ruiz.

Dana Shambora, a mom in Davie, Florida, exclusively breastfed her now-2-year-old daughter Caylee until she was 6 months old. She began weaning after she was 1 year old. 

“At around 14 or 15 months, I started slowly,” she says. During the day, Caylee would drink pumped breast milk “and I was only breastfeeding at night and in the morning.” 

Shambora’s nightly ritual of pumping at 2 a.m. (because that’s when she got the most milk) stopped one day when friends stayed in the guest room where she typically pumped. And because of her busy schedule as a retail store business owner, pumping became inconsistent. 

“I just kind of slowly stopped doing the nighttime feed,” Shambora says. “We would go to bed, and she didn't ask for it. Then it was down to one morning feed. But because I did it so slowly, I never got engorged. I never got uncomfortable.” 

During a hectic vacation when Caylee was 16 months old, the pair skipped breastfeeding for a couple days. 

“And when we got home, she didn't really push for it, so I just stopped,” Shambora says. “We both kind of knew it was time. I just kind of went with the flow, and that's what worked for me.”

What should you do if a younger baby suddenly stops breastfeeding?

For a baby under 12 months who no longer seems interested in breastfeeding, other factors can be at play that a mom might confuse for a loss of interest in nursing. 

“When people tell me that their baby didn't want their breast anymore when they were 5 months old or 10 months old, they were probably experiencing a nursing strike, which is a sudden refusal to nurse, or they developed some kind of aversion to [breastfeeding],” says Tropea. “Women may blame themselves, so they might say, ‘Oh, well, I did this wrong,’ or ‘My baby doesn't want my breast anymore,’ instead of saying, ‘Hmm, what's going on here? Let me try to find out.’”

It could be a change in your diet, baby’s sore gums from teething or stress that’s causing the nursing strike, so be sure to talk to your pediatrician or lactation consultant to rule out other factors before you decide that your baby is done breastfeeding. 

“I would say don't jump to conclusions,” says Tropea. “Once you stop breastfeeding, it's hard to start again. You want to figure out what's going on and get help.”

What if you’re ready to wean but your child isn’t?

If you’ve decided it’s time to stop breastfeeding but your older baby or child doesn’t seem ready, involving them in the weaning process can be helpful. 

“I think no matter what age your child is, even if they're 12 months old, you can still have a conversation,” says Welsh. “It’s still good to humanize it and talk about it. And then gradually start cutting back on feeds. Twice a day, one in the morning, one at night. Then you eventually just do the bedtime nursing, and then you slowly can dwindle that one out.”

In Seibert’s case, her son Silas was happily breastfeeding at 4 years old, but his nursing was at times the “sip and run,” where he’d nurse quickly and then take off to play. 

“I was like, ‘If you're going to nurse, then you have to sit here and nurse. Otherwise, mommy can't sit down every single time you want them,’” she says.

Eventually, Seibert, who’s a fifth-grade science teacher, had a conversation with her son about the difference between wanting to just cuddle the “me-mes” (or cuddle him close to her breasts) versus actually nursing. 

“I think that him knowing that he still had access to [behaviors] that made him comfortable without him actually having to nurse was good enough for him,” she says. “It was a lot like a security blanket. He knew me-mes made him feel safe, so he could still be close and cuddle but no nursing.”

What if you have to stop breastfeeding abruptly?

Sometimes there are medical reasons why moms have to quit breastfeeding quickly. 

“If you need to undergo some kind of procedure or take medication that is very toxic for a baby, you need to do that rapidly,” says Tropea.

I had to instantly stop breastfeeding my then-4-year-old son, Avan, because of an onset of sudden sensorineural hearing loss that required me to go on oral steroids for several weeks. Though I had been ready to stop breastfeeding for some time and was at a loss for how to do so because my son was so attached to nursing, it was a traumatic experience. We were both left reeling. He was sad and confused, and I felt guilty. There really was no closure because it happened without warning. 

Though a situation like mine is unusual, medically necessary weaning can happen. In those cases, Tropea recommends several things to speed up involution (where the mammary glands shrink in size and stop producing milk) and reduce discomfort of engorgement:

  • Wear a tight-fitting bra but don’t bind the breasts, as it can compress the milk ducts and cause blockage.

  • Put cold compresses on the breast (like packs of frozen peas).

  • Don’t use an electric pump, because when you express milk, it tells your body to make more.

  • Do hand-pump a little milk to relieve tension.

  • Put cold cabbage leaves in your bra until they wilt (“This is an old wives’ tale that actually works,” says Tropea.).

  • Try the oral use of products like teas that contain herbs like peppermint, parsley and sage, which have anti-galactagogue properties and can decrease milk production.

What if you have mixed emotions about weaning your child?

Whether you’ve nursed for two months or two years, reaching the end of the road with breastfeeding can be bittersweet. 

“I think more should be said about the emotional aspects of it,” says Tropea. “Because the longer you do it, the more you're going to miss it in a way even if you never loved doing it.”

If you’re deciding whether to wean, give yourself time to make sure you’re ready. 

“Maybe it's a couple of weeks, maybe it's a couple months,” says Welsh. “If you are in a place to not have to rush to end it, and your baby still wants to feed, then that's fine.” 

Tropea agrees: “It will be physically healthier for mom to take time to make the decision to wean because while it’s possible to relactate, weaning can be very emotionally difficult for Mom and baby. Make the decision when you’re not stressed out.” 

To make weaning easier for both of you, Tropea recommends cutting back on frequency, starting to nurse at home only, or choosing your baby or child’s favorite time to nurse. “My son wanted to continue nursing at bedtime so we nursed only then until he self-weaned,” she recalls.

And if attempts to cut back on feedings are becoming challenging, Tropea suggests alternatives that can help such as offering milk in a novel vessel like a cup or sippy cup, giving a snack instead or even bringing out an old toy to offer as a distraction. 

The breastfeeding journey is a unique one that only you and your child share. So do your best to treasure that time for however long it lasts. And when you do close that chapter, you can find other special ways to connect — whether it’s “rocking the baby at night, holding them and still carving out that special bonding time,” says Welsh, or giving lots of hugs and snuggling during nighttime reading with an older child. 

As Seibert observes, “If they're nursed and loved, then they're going to understand as they go forward that they still have that love that they felt.” 

Read next: Is drinking while breastfeeding always a bad idea?

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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