How to Start Weaning Your Baby From Breastfeeding
When the time comes to transition your baby from breastfeeding to another way of feeding, you’ll probably have many questions about when and how to wean your baby.
As we’ll explain in more detail, when to wean your little one is a very personal choice. You might like to wait until your little one seems ready, or wean by a certain time for personal reasons like returning to work.
You also have several options for how to wean your baby, and to help you navigate these we’ve listed weaning methods as well as some dos and don’ts. Read on to discover all this and more.
The Definition of Weaning
When it comes to babies, there are several different “definitions” of weaning. It can mean switching your little one from feeding at your breast to feeding from anything else, such as a bottle or a cup, or it can mean the transition from bottle to sippy cup.
Most often, weaning refers to the final transition away from breastfeeding to other forms of feeding, such as bottle feeding with expressed breast milk or formula, or giving solids. In this context, the process of weaning typically involves nursing your baby less and less frequently until your child no longer breastfeeds at all.
It might help to think of weaning as a gradual transition, and not necessarily something that happens from one day to the next. As an example, one way to accomplish weaning might be with fewer feeds from the breast during the day but continuing with breastfeeding at night, and then gradually phasing out nighttime nursing as well.
When to Start Weaning
Experts recommend giving breast milk through your baby’s first year, exclusively in the first six months and then alongside solids. Many moms in the United States wean their babies around the time their child turns 1 year old. Some decide to wean earlier or later than this, and others wait until they see signs from the baby that she is ready to be weaned.
When to start weaning is a personal choice, but it can sometimes be led by factors like returning to work. In some cases, weaning may be prompted by a condition like finding breastfeeding painful or having sore nipples.
As you think about when to start weaning, it may be worth noting that, for some children, it can be more difficult to wean later into toddlerhood. For example, weaning your 2-year-old toddler can be more difficult than weaning your baby as your toddler may be more set in her ways.
Although it’s easier said than done, try not to compare your particular circumstances to any other mother’s or be influenced by pressure to wean at a certain time. Instead, think about what feels right for you and your little one, and ask your own healthcare provider or your baby’s provider for personalized advice.
Remember that even if you wean your child off breastfeeding, you can still give her all the nutrition she needs via pumped breast milk (in a cup or bottle), formula, or — if she’s old enough — solids. Or, a combination of all of these!
How to Start Weaning Your Baby
There are two basic approaches to begin weaning your baby. One is to let your baby take the lead by following his cues that he’s ready to be weaned. The other is to decide on when you would like to stop breastfeeding and gradually work towards that date. We describe both ideas in detail below. Go with the method that feels right for both you and your baby.
A relatively simple way to wean your child is to let her “grow out of” breastfeeding at her own pace. This method is sometimes called natural weaning, baby-led weaning, or child-led weaning.
Here's how this could play out. When you introduce solid foods at about 6 months, you might start seeing a change in your baby’s breastfeeding patterns. Then, by 1 year of age, your baby might be much more interested in eating solids and drinking from a cup.
Your baby may continue to want to nurse some of the time well into toddlerhood (and perhaps beyond), often initiating the end of breastfeeding once she can no longer sit still long enough to breastfeed.
Although this method isn’t that common nowadays — most moms prefer to control when the weaning process will start — it might be the method you prefer. Just keep in mind that it may be some time before your little one’s completely weaned, so you’ll have to be patient.
Weaning Gradually or to a Deadline
Although the weaning process may sometimes be easier if you let your child decide when to start, this open-ended approach may not be the right path for you.
Weaning your little one off breastfeeding over time involves replacing more and more nursing sessions with feeds from a bottle or cup and eventually with solid foods. It also includes reducing how long each session is. Over time, feeding from the breast will slowly peter out.
You might decide to work toward a hard deadline, slowly eliminating breastfeeding until you completely stop on a given date.
If you can, you might like to wait until you can see your child is losing interest in breastfeeding (see the section on signs your child is ready to be weaned), as weaning at this time may be easier. Of course, it may not be possible or practical for you to wait until your child reaches this stage.
If your child is old enough, he might be able to understand the concept of weaning. You can try to explain that it’s time for him to give up nursing and that you’ll be going through this process together.
Some Dos and Don’ts for Weaning Your Baby
wean your baby to a bottle and then a cup or wean your older baby directly to a cup, like a sippy cup, or a cup with a straw. You can use expressed breast milk or formula, or cow's milk if your baby is at least 1 year old.
bottle feed when your little one is in a good mood and not too hungry yet. This way, she may be more receptive to the bottle. Just keep in mind that if your baby is under 1 year of age, bottle feed with expressed breast milk or formula. If your baby is older than 1 year old, you can introduce cow’s milk.
use a slow-flow bottle nipple at first so she can get the hang of bottle feeding.
have someone else in your household feed your baby. For example, your partner or a family member could step in. This can help your little one associate feeds with someone other than you, making the break from breastfeeding a little easier.
distract your baby during your usual nursing time by giving her a snack, or taking her to the playground, visiting with friends, reading to her, or taking her for a walk. The change in routine might help break the association between mealtimes and breastfeeding.
shorten the length of your breastfeeding sessions.
drop more and more breastfeeding sessions until you’ve replaced them entirely with a mix of bottle or cup feedings and possibly solid foods as well if your little one is old enough.
Keep in mind that if you’ve started the weaning process between 6 months and 1 year, you should still continue supplementing solids with expressed breast milk or formula through your baby’s first year, after which you can switch entirely to solid foods and to cow's milk.
If possible, don’t
wean “cold turkey,” which means quitting breastfeeding from one moment to the next. Instead, wean gradually, breastfeeding only at night, for example. Aim to slowly taper off your breastfeeding sessions over the course of days, weeks, or months.
sit in your nursing chair or wear your nursing clothes as this can send mixed signals to your little one.
refuse to breastfeed if your child insists on nursing, as doing so can make her fixate on breastfeeding even more.
discourage your child from picking up thumb-sucking, clutching a blanket, or any other comforting habit. This may be his way of emotionally handling the change, and it’s OK. If you’re unsure about your little one’s self-comforting, ask her pediatrician for guidance.
Signs Your Child Is Ready to Be Weaned
If you’re happy to go with the flow (and don’t have a set end date in mind), you might look for these signs that your baby is ready to start weaning:
He seems uninterested and/or puts up a fuss when nursing.
His nursing sessions get shorter; for example, he slides off your lap before finishing.
He pulls on your nipple, or bites it.
Instead of nursing, he mouths at your nipple without sucking.
If you notice these signs, you may be in the middle of baby-led weaning, or you might like to start slowly weaning your little one.
If your child is not ready to be weaned, it may be best to delay weaning until a later time when she might be showing signs she is ready. If waiting isn’t practical for you, aim to wean your baby gradually. It might also help to speak to your baby’s pediatrician as he can give you personalized advice to suit your situation.
Times to Avoid Weaning
You might like to hold off on weaning for a little bit if
you think your child might be allergic to certain foods. If you or your partner are prone to allergies, you may want to wean after your child turns 1 year old. Exposing your child to potential allergens while you’re breastfeeding can help decrease the chance of him developing food allergies. But it’s best to speak to your child’s healthcare provider if you have these concerns.
your child has fallen ill.
you have fallen ill and don’t feel up to focusing on weaning.
your child is going through a difficult time during the teething process.
your child is going through a major change. For example, your family has just moved, or your child care circumstances have changed.
Taking Care of Yourself When Weaning
The weaning process itself can have physical and emotional effects on you as well.
It can cause your breasts to become engorged, which can be painful, or lead to an infection. To prevent this, it’s a good idea to wean your little one gradually. It might also help to express a small quantity of milk for the first few days of weaning to release any painful tension. Your body will eventually pick up on the signals and stop producing breast milk.
You may also experience mixed emotions, including sadness and anxiety. This can be a very emotionally trying time as your little one adjusts; in addition, you might also miss some of the quiet time together and bonding that nursing afforded.
Setting aside quality one-on-one time with your child that isn’t centered on nursing can help establish a new type of closeness.
If you are having difficulties with either the physical or emotional aspects of the weaning process, turn to your healthcare provider for support.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
The weaning process can sometimes be quite trying for both you and your little one. But with patience and flexibility, you can persevere and help your little one transition away from breastfeeding toward eating and drinking more like the little person she is growing into.
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