Women choose to begin the process of weaning their babies away from the breast, gradually replacing breast milk with other sorts of nutrition, at different stages and in different ways. Here are a few things to know:
- When to begin: Weaning can begin at the initiative of the child or the mother – or it may be a mutual decision. Some women set a goal of nursing their baby until the child is six months or a year old and then gradually wean them off the breast. Some women happily breastfeed their children for months or years longer than that. And some children younger than a year may opt to stop nursing on their own, regardless of their mother’s anticipated weaning timetable. Other children clearly wish to continue to breastfeed much longer.
- Duration: The duration of the weaning process can also differ widely depending on the child and the mother. Some children will wean themselves somewhat abruptly; others take months to wean completely.
The emotional aspect of weaning
- Sadness: Your baby is making a transition that marks the end of a particularly close time between mother and child. You and your baby will no longer be connected in quite the same way. And as wonderful as seeing your child develop and gain independence can be (not to mention the benefits of getting your own independence back), you may be surprised to find yourself feeling sad. But remember: Though your child may no longer rely on your body as a source of food, he or she will still turn to you for comfort and nourishment in other ways. In fact, your child may be experiencing some of the same feelings and may need more attention and contact with you as you wean yourselves away from breastfeeding.
- Guilt: Some women also develop intense feelings of guilt as they wean. Could you have, should you have, might you have breastfed your child longer? Are you somehow failing to provide for them? Whatever has prompted you to begin the weaning process – and at whatever point you have begun – try not to beat yourself up about it. Although it is normal to feel guilty (ah, motherhood), know that the time you have breastfed your child has already done wonders for his or her health and wellbeing and will stand your child in good stead as time goes on. Do your best to replace those feelings of guilt with a feeling of pride in what you have accomplished.
- Getting started: Some women wean their infants by gradually eliminating a nursing session every two to five days. Some prefer to gradually shorten breastfeeding sessions or stretch out the intervals between sessions.
- Strategy: Some mothers prefer to wean their child away from breastfeeding during the daytime so they can continue to work at night – a pragmatic option for working mothers who find it difficult either to nurse or pump breast milk during the day but who do not yet wish to stop breastfeeding entirely. One way to accomplish this is to eliminate the midday feedings and keep going with the morning and bedtime nurse, which babies often are least interested in giving up. The last feeding before bedtime and nighttime nursings are typically the last ones breastfeeding mothers – and their babies – eliminate.
- Go slow: It’s not a good idea to try to stop breastfeeding all at once because you increase your risk of engorgement, pain and breast infection, or mastitis. If for some reason you do need to stop breastfeeding suddenly, try to pump or hand express milk a few times a day until your breasts feel comfortable, but don’t try to empty the breast completely. And try to express the milk before your breasts are engorged or in pain. You’re trying to slow milk production, which should happen over a few days. If your breasts are tender, painful or red while you are weaning, it may indicate that you have plugged ducts or mastitis.
- Bottle vs. cup: In general, children who are weaned before they are six months old are weaned to a bottle, children who are older than 12 months old are weaned to a cup, and children who are between six and 12 months old may use either a cup or a bottle, as is preferred. If weaning a younger child to a cup, a sippy cup – with a lid, a spout and handles – is a good introductory option. Some babies are reluctant to take a bottle from their mothers, so you may want to have your partner or another caregiver introduce the bottle as you wean. And try not to wait until your child is flustered and hungry when offering the bottle, as that may make bottle-feeding more difficult. Initially, you may want to ease your child into using a bottle or cup by filling it with expressed breast milk, rather than either formula (if your child is less than a year old) or cow’s milk (if your child is older than 12 months).
- Once you’ve finished weaning your child, your breasts will begin to feel less full as they stop producing milk. Your breasts may get smaller, though they may still remain a bit larger than they were before you began breastfeeding. Initially, you may see a few stretchmarks on your breasts. Those will often fade over time.
- Be prepared to cut back on your caloric intake to maintain your body weight once you stop producing breast milk. Since you are no longer eating for two, it’s probably a little hard to justify that second bowl of ice cream every night.