One of the most controversial subjects surrounding breastfeeding is when to stop breastfeeding. This can be everything from never do it at all to moms who nurse eight year olds. We gathered expert recommendations on when and how to wean an infant, toddler or older child and how to decide (or let your child decide for you both.) That way you can get the facts and determine for yourself how and when that will be best.
Breastfeeding comes with a lot of special moments that allow you to bond with your baby and take a break from the action of your day, but all good things eventually come to an end. While some mothers breastfeed until their babies have grown into toddlers, others bring it to an end much earlier due to the circumstances of their lives.
How long you wait to transition into the weaning phase and what strategy you use to accomplish the goal will depend on your unique circumstances. You have to consider the needs of your body, your lifestyle, your baby and your family when making this decision, but this guide will walk you through it step by step.
How Long Should You Breastfeed?
Timing is everything when it comes from transitioning away from breastfeeding. Once your breasts start producing less milk due to less demand, it’s not always easy or possible to backtrack and start breastfeeding again. Your baby may also resist going back to the breast once they’re introduced to bottle feeding or baby foods. It’s better to spend some extra time breastfeeding while making this decision than to jump to a snap decision and then regret it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that babies need nothing more than breast milk for the first six months of life. You should then start adding solid baby food into your little one’s diet while continuing to breastfeed if possible. The WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all mothers breastfeed for at least two years.
The WHO provides further recommendations, stressing that exclusive breastfeeding is highly recommended for the first six months. This means that you don’t supplement with formula, juice or other food during that period. This ensures that your baby receives the colostrum and milk needed to thrive in the early days of growth.
All mothers should strive to breastfeed at least for that six months. The colostrum and milk delivered during this time contains protective nutrients that will keep your baby healthy for years to come. Once you start supplementing with baby food after that period, you should consider breastfeeding at least until the two-year mark if possible.
This will give your baby the protective nutrients needed to thrive not only as a baby but also as a toddler and growing child. Modern research is showing that breastfed babies enjoy a variety of health benefits even as adults. They are more likely to avoid everything from obesity to bad teeth due to their early breastfeeding days.
Are YOU Ready to Stop Breastfeeding?
Understanding the professional recommendations for the duration of your breastfeeding experience is one thing. Making the personal decision to stop breastfeeding is something else entirely. Some mothers enjoy breastfeeding and have limited obstacles in their lifestyle, so they easily reach their child’s second (or third and fourth!) birthday before they even start thinking about weaning.
If that isn’t your experience, you should never feel guilty. There are many legitimate reasons that some mothers and babies aren’t willing or able to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months or continue to breastfeed for the full two years. We don’t judge here!
While breastfeeding for two years is what’s best for your baby, it just doesn’t happen for every mother and child. If you’re thinking about weaning your baby entirely or perhaps trying to supplement with bottles while breastfeeding part-time, there are some questions that you should answer.
These questions will help you determine whether it’s the right time to stop breastfeeding. If you’re uncertain about the timing once these questions are honestly answered, you should continue breastfeeding until you’re certain. It’s always easier to breastfeed a bit longer than it is to attempt breastfeeding after the weaning process has begun.
- What are the obstacles that make continuing to breastfeed difficult?
- What are the possible solutions to each of those obstacles? Include all options for reaching out to others for help.
- Are you willing to try those solutions before you stop breastfeeding? Why or why not?
- What are your motivations for breastfeeding? List all the reasons that you want to continue.
- What are your reservations about continuing to breastfeed? List all of the reasons you think it may be time to wean.
- Is breastfeeding a health risk for you or the baby?
- Is breastfeeding interfering with your care of other children or dependents?
- Would quality of life increase, stay the same or decrease for you and your family if you stopped breastfeeding? Why? Think about your emotional, spiritual and physical needs as well as all aspects of your life for a full picture of your quality of life.
- When do you plan on returning to work, and are you able and willing to pump breast milk in order to continue breastfeeding part-time?
If some of these questions are difficult to answer, spend some time thinking about them. Maybe discuss them with your partner to see if you’re ready to stop breastfeeding as a family unit. The needs of the family, the baby and the mother are important because everyone is impacted.
Baby Led Weaning – Is Your Baby Ready to Stop Breastfeeding?
Sometimes you decide to let your CHILD decide when to wean and you don’t dictate it at all. If you’re able to continue breastfeeding until your baby is ready to self-wean, you may find that it happens naturally without much thought. Your baby my simply stop demanding feedings with his or her usual frequency, especially if you’re supplementing with solid foods after the six-month mark.
Some babies stop feeding abruptly for unknown reasons, which puts the mother in the position of drying up her breasts unexpectedly. Wet cabbage leaves applied directly over the nipples can help.
Look out for these signs that your baby is preparing to wean:
- Less frequent demands for feeding
- Refusing to breastfeed – loss of interest
- Crying, spitting out nipple, other signs of distress or dissatisfaction during breastfeeding
- Failure to thrive while breastfeeding
Don’t assume that you must immediately wean when you notice one or more of these signs that your baby is losing interest in breastfeeding. Think about changes to the environment or feeding times to see if you can get baby back on board before deciding that it’s time to wean.
Is Another Baby on the Way?
If you get pregnant again while still breastfeeding, you DO NOT NEED TO WEAN! You will need to do so if your pregnancy is high risk, you’re carrying twins or your doctor asks you to stop breastfeeding for other medical issues. However, usually there is no reason to stop breastfeeding while pregnant unless you want to.
Related Article: > Breastfeeding While Pregnant
Note: You also do not always have to stop breastfeeding in order to conceive a baby. Click here to learn more about trying to get pregnant while still breastfeeding.
While oxytocin is released in small amounts when you breastfeed, many healthy mothers with low-risk pregnancies are able to breastfeed without it presenting a risk to their unborn babies. This is something to discuss with your doctor once you learn that you’re pregnant. If you don’t want to take the risk and decide to wean your baby, keep reading for strategies to do that depending on your child’s current age.
Most women will notice their milk supply slowing toward the middle of their pregnancy, which can present an obstacle if you’re breastfeeding. Building up a freezer stash before you get to the point and supplement with breast milk bottles can help you and your baby get through that period without distress. You may also choose to start weaning around that time so that you’re not breastfeeding two babies after the new family addition is born.
Finally, think about whether you want to add breastfeeding to your pregnancy experience. It may contribute to fatigue, and many women don’t fell well during some phases of pregnancy. If breastfeeding is too much emotionally or physically, you may decide to wean.
Because some women value child-directed weaning, they find themselves in a situation of nursing two children at the same time. This is called tandem breastfeeding.
Related Article> Is Tandem Breastfeeding Right for You?
How to Stop Breastfeeding an Infant
If your baby is less than a year old but you want to stop breastfeeding, start by introducing the bottle. You may also start using a pacifier if you haven’t already, giving the baby more opportunities to adjust to a fake nipple. You may feed a small bottle just before or after breastfeeding until your baby is comfortable with that method of feeding.
Once your baby is taking the bottle without complaint, pick one daily feeding to drop the breast entirely. During that feeding, you will give your baby a full bottle. You can continue replacing your breast with the bottle one feeding at a time until your baby is entirely bottle fed.
Some babies catch onto the bottle faster than others. You may not need to continue the gradual weaning if your baby naturally starts refusing the breast in favor of the bottle. On the other hand, you may need to stretch out the weaning process because your baby is more resistant. Have patience if it’s possible.
How to Stop Breastfeeding a Toddler
If your child is between the age of one and two, they may not understand conversations about why you need to stop breastfeeding. At this age, it’s better to take the gradual weaning approach just as you would with an infant. The difference is that you’re now replacing breastfeeding sessions with solid food meals, juice, water and snacks.
Some families start by introducing family dinners at the kitchen table. This gives your child a positive alternative to the breast, and many children won’t even miss that feeding. Others may still try to breastfeed after or right before dinner, but you should stand firm and insist that they fill up on food rather than breast milk. How difficult this is will depend on your child and their level of dependence on the breast for enjoyment and emotional fulfillment.
Continue replacing breastfeeding sessions with other sources of nourishment until your toddler has fully weaned from the breast. This can take a year with some children while others seem to naturally pull away without resistance. You can adjust your rate of weaning to your child’s response, making this an individual process with each child you bring into the family.
When to Stop Breastfeeding an Older Child (and How!)
If your baby reaches or exceeds the age of two or older before you stop breastfeeding, most children will understand when you tell them that it’s time to stop breastfeeding. You don’t necessarily need to gradually wean at this age because you can have open discussions about the importance of eating a healthy diet with a lot of new foods.
The big boy or girl days have begun, and most children will ask questions or express their own opinions about not breastfeeding. If your child is expressive, take the time to address their concerns and help them understand that this is an exciting development in their life. They’re now ready to explore new foods, and it’s going to be so much fun.
One winning strategy is to replace breastfeeding with something else. Maybe it’s family mealtime or reading books and playing together. Some children also enjoy learning to grocery shop and exploring new foods that they help pick out and prepare. When new adventures are introduced, the lack of breastfeeding may not feel so much like a loss or deprivation.
When to Stop Breastfeeding Cold Turkey?
Life happens. Sometimes, due to circumstances, some mommies must stop breastfeeding cold turkey. Although this is definitely not a preferred method, some moms find themselves in a situation where this is their only option.
Unless you are no longer breastfeeding often when you stop…this is also the most painful option. You will want to wear a tight fitting bra and may need to ice your breasts and take some pain relievers for discomfort. It will take a little time for your body to stop making milk, so be patient…you will get through it.
Tips for Managing the Emotional/Mental Side of Weaning
- If obstacles in your lifestyle or personal relationship are making it more difficult to breastfeed, consider discussing the issues with your partner. They may need to tell them directly if you need them to make changes or help you in some way. With their cooperation, you may be able to continue breastfeeding for at least a little longer.
- Think of most professional guidelines and other breastfeeding advice as options rather than laws that you must obey. Breastfeeding is more successful and easier to sustain if you personalize the process to the unique demands of your lifestyle and your baby’s needs. The way you breastfeed may be different than how others breastfeed, but that doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you’re struggling with breastfeeding. Many women just give up because they don’t want to ask for help, but there are often easy solutions to the problem for those willing to reach out to a loved one, a doctor, a lactation consultant, a doula or another professional with breastfeeding expertise. Don’t quit before you get someone else to suggest possible solutions that you haven’t tried yet.
- It’s common for some women to start resenting their duty to breastfeed. Don’t feel guilty if you start to have those feelings or other thoughts of dissatisfaction. Know that you aren’t alone and this is common. Go through the questions listed on the checklist above to determine your true reasons for feeling dissatisfied or resentful. Perhaps it’s time to wean for your own mental health or to resume time-consuming activities that you have put to the side in order to breastfeed. Your emotions and needs are just as important as the baby’s needs.
- Exclusive breastfeeding and no breastfeeding aren’t your only options. There are middle grounds, and you can breastfeed part-time while pumping to keep your milk supply up or even to get donor milk. It’s better for your baby to receive a little breast milk each day than to receive none, so look for compromises that fit your unique household and lifestyle.
It’s an individual choice! It can even be different from one of your children to the next. Don’t let anyone tell you different!
- Is Tandem Breastfeeding Right for You?
- Breastfeeding While Pregnant
- Benefits of Breastfeeding an Older Child