What Is Weaning?
Weaning is when a baby moves from breastfeeding to other sources of nourishment. Weaning your baby is a process that takes patience and understanding from both you and your child.
When Is the Right Time to Wean?
When to wean is a personal decision. A mom might be influenced by a return to work, her health or the baby's, or simply a feeling that the time is right.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding babies only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. After that, they recommend a combination of solid foods and breast milk until a baby is at least 1 year old. Then, babies may begin drinking whole cow's milk.
Most experts agree that breastfeeding should continue for as long as it suits mother and baby. Many women choose to wean after their baby's first birthday. At this age, babies are starting to walk, talk, and eat more solid foods. So they may naturally lose interest in nursing.
Other moms breastfeed longer than a year (called extended breastfeeding). Extended breastfeeding is a healthy and reasonable option for mothers and children who aren't ready to wean. It also supports a baby's immune system. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for the first 2 years of a child's life.
Weaning does not have to be all-or-nothing. Some women choose to wean during the day and breastfeed at night, depending on their work situation and their schedules.
Whenever you decide to wean, your child may have another time in mind. Some children wean themselves earlier than the mother intended and others resist weaning when mom is ready. Those who wean later in life tend to be more resistant. For example, a 2-year-old toddler may be more attached and less flexible about giving up breastfeeding than a 12-month-old baby. At times like these, it's important to take it slow and be sensitive to each other's needs.
What Are the Signs That a Baby Is Ready to Wean?
Some children are content to nurse indefinitely. But others will give moms clues that they're ready to begin the process of weaning, such as:
- seeming disinterested or fussy when nursing
- nursing in shorter sessions than before
- being easily distracted while nursing
- "playing" at the breast, like constantly pulling on and off or biting. Babies who bite during nursing should be taken off the breast right away and told, calmly but firmly, "No biting. Biting hurts."
- nursing for comfort (sucking at the breast but not drawing out the milk)
Approaches to Weaning
To let both mom and baby adjust physically and emotionally to the change, weaning should be done over time.
One approach is to drop 1 feeding session a week until your child takes all the feeds from a bottle or cup. If you want to give your child pumped breast milk, you'll need to pump to keep up your milk supply. If you are weaning your child off breast milk, slowly dropping feeds can help avoid breast engorgement.
You might begin by stopping the midday feeding because it's usually the smallest and most inconvenient — especially for working moms. Many mothers let go of the bedtime feeding last because it's still a special part of bonding.
Some moms leave the decision of when to wean up to their child. Children who are eating 3 meals of solid food a day (plus snacks) often breastfeed less and less. In that case, a mom's milk will dry up from lack of demand and she'll need to pump to keep the milk flowing. If your child breastfeeds less, make they get enough iron-fortified formula or milk. Check with the doctor about how much your child should get.
If your baby weans before 1 year of age, or you find that you're not making enough milk, you will need to give your baby formula. Check with the doctor to see what formula is right for your little one.
How Can I Make Weaning Easier?
Weaning is easier if a child has also taken milk from another source. So after breastfeeding is well-established, try giving an occasional bottle of breast milk to your little one. Even if you continue breastfeeding, this can ease weaning later. It also lets other family members feed the baby and makes it possible to leave your child with a caregiver.
Remember that infants over 6 months should have solid foods as well as breast milk. After 1 year, breast milk alone does not provide all the nutrients a growing child needs. So solid foods must become a regular part of the diet.
As you start to wean, remember that your child needs time to adjust to drinking from cups. Be patient as your little one begins exploring the world of food.
Here are some more ways to make this change easier:
- Engage your child in a fun play activity or an outing during times when you would usually nurse.
- Avoid sitting in your usual nursing spots or wearing your usual nursing clothes.
- Delay weaning if your child is trying to adapt to some other change. Trying to wean when your little one is just beginning childcare or during teething might not be a good idea.
- If your baby is younger than 1 year, try to introduce a bottle or cup when you would typically be nursing. For an older child, try a healthy snack, offering a cup, or maybe a cuddle.
- Try changing your daily routine so that you're otherwise engaged during breastfeeding times.
- Enlist your partner's help to provide a distraction at a typical nursing time.
- If your child picks up a comforting habit (such as thumbsucking) or becomes attached to a security blanket, don't discourage it. Your child might be trying to adjust to the emotional changes of weaning.
What Else Should I Know?
Many moms make the decision to wean with mixed emotions. Weaning brings more freedom and flexibility, and the proud realization that a child is reaching a milestone. But nursing is an intimate activity that fosters a strong bond between mother and child — and some women find it hard to let that go.
So expect a wide range of emotions, and understand that your child may have them too. Also remember that there will be countless other ways to nurture your child in the days ahead.