Mothers often wonder when they should wean their breastfeeding babies. The answer is simple: it’s different for everyone, and you should do what feels right for you and your baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding your baby with solely breastmilk for the first six months, and then using both solid foods and breastmilk for the remaining year. However, the AAP makes it clear that this is only a minimum. You get to choose when to start and what kinds of techniques you want to use.
You might be tempted to wean suddenly, but this can have negative consequences for both you and your baby. Your breasts could become painfully engorged, leading to breast infection or abscess. Depression could develop as a result of the rapidly changing hormones associated with abrupt weaning. It could also hurt the baby emotionally to suddenly lose this source of stability and comfort.
Dropping one feeding at a time is a nice, gentle way to gradually wean. To start, simply decide what feeding you feel is least important to your baby. Start by shortening the length of this feeding over the course of about three to seven days until you eliminate it all together. Once it’s eliminated, you can offer your baby snacks or a sippy cup in its place to provide distraction while he adjusts to one less feeding. While you work on dropping one feeding, continue to feed at all other regular times.
Of course, being done by seven days is just a guideline. Your baby might communicate to you that she isn’t ready by acting fussy and adamant about not wanting to give up the feeding, or your breasts may still be full and uncomfortable at the seven day mark. Listen to these cues, and relax, knowing that when you’re both ready, it’ll happen.
The “don’t offer, don’t refuse” technique refers to offering your breast to your baby less frequently, however, when your baby indicates interest in nursing, you never turn him away. This takes the longest amount of time, but it gives your baby the most control and allows for an extremely natural path.
You can also employ the distraction or routine techniques. The distraction technique is pretty self-explanatory; you simply prepare a plan to distract your baby at a time that he usually feeds. This works best when you introduce the distraction right before your baby would normally nurse. You can substitute the feeding with something your child enjoys, like a favorite book or toy.
This works well in conjunction with the technique of changing your routine during a normal feeding time. Try to be somewhere that doesn’t remind your baby of nursing. For example, if she usually likes the comfort of nursing when you are out running errands, try to stay home or in a comforting environment to keep her from needing this extra comfort.
A very simple trick that works with many breastfeeding toddlers is to say, “not now, but later” when they ask to nurse. Much of the time, they accept the comfort of knowing they can feed later but become so engrossed in a distraction or change of routine that they forget about the skipped feeding altogether.
It’s common to encounter a few challenges while weaning, so don’t worry if you experience setbacks. Engorgement is your body telling you that you need to slow down. Try reducing the feedings in a slower manner and in the meantime, pump the milk to offer to your baby in a bottle or even to mix with some of his cereal. Use acetaminophen or ice packs to ease the pain, and feel comfortable knowing that many women encounter this challenge.
Another common obstacle is when your baby gets sick. In this case, put weaning on the backburner and allow your little one to nurse as frequently as she wants. This will give her the amazing nutrition that her body needs as well as lots of physical closeness with you, which will have her healthy in no time. Once your baby heals, you can return to the weaning process.
You may also feel mixed emotions. You’re excited to help your baby move on to a more independent stage in her life, but you may miss the special bonding time and may feel hurt when she starts wanting to nurse less often. This is a common feeling, so remind yourself that it’s normal to be sentimental. There are a lot of other moms who feel the same way, so find other breastfeeding moms to share these feelings with.
The bottom line is that weaning is very personal and each mother and child pair does it differently. Like other developmental milestones, each child is ready to wean at different times, so don’t worry about comparing your experience with that of other moms.
Go slow, enjoy lots of cuddle time with your child, and have fun making this transition together.