How Do I Wean My Baby?
Are you feeling ready to wean completely? Sometimes just cutting back on the amount of times you breastfeed will make you feel better, breastfeeding can sometimes be overwhelming. Breastfeeding is a two-way street. If you resent it when you sit down to breastfeed, your child will pick up on this. If your baby is under a year (or older, sometimes), you will have to substitute a bottle feeding for a missed breastfeeding. An older baby may accept a drink from a cup, a nutritious snack, or just a distraction in the form of a game, a toy, or change of scene. Remember, the first supplemental feed, from a bottle, or of solid food, is the beginning of weaning. Weaning does not need to be all or nothing.
If weaning is your decision, it’s best for you and your baby to do it gradually, and with love. If you wean “cold turkey,” your breasts will likely become painfully engorged, and you might develop a breast infection. Your baby will probably fight the switch from your warm, soft breast to a plastic substitute. He might mourn the loss of “his” breasts.
If you must wean suddenly, see our Weaning: For Medial Reasons article for more information and helpful ideas.
Weaning a Baby Under One Year
Try first to substitute his least favorite feeding first. If the baby won’t accept the bottle from you, (he knows the breast is right around here somewhere) see if a support person can succeed. It may also be helpful to have you not in the room/home so baby cannot smell you. Let the baby have a few days (or weeks, if possible) between each time you substitute a breastfeeding session with a bottle. Express a little milk from your breasts, to your own comfort, if you become engorged. Don’t express a whole feeding’s worth of milk; just enough to take the pressure off. Your body will get the signal to make less milk over time, slowly. For help with the weaning process contact a La Leche League Leader.
Weaning an Older Child
To quote Dr. William Sears, “There is no set number of years you should nurse your baby.” If you and your child enjoy breastfeeding, there is no reason you need to stop. Both of you will continue to benefit from breastfeeding as long as you like. Many mothers choose to wean naturally, allowing the child to outgrow the need gradually, in his own time.
Breastfeeding an older toddler or child is different from breastfeeding an infant. Most mothers naturally begin to place some restrictions on nursing as their child grows. Sometimes, the mother of an older nursling may become frustrated by other parenting challenges, and think that breastfeeding is causing the difficulty. In fact, raising children is hard work, and the “problem” may be the result of the child’s developmental stage.
In that case, it’s very helpful to learn more about typical childhood behavior and needs. A good place to start is by attending La Leche League meetings. There you will meet mothers who have nursed their children including extended nursing mothers and are happy to share information and ideas with you. Find a group near you.
It is possible to wean during the day but only nurse at night as the nighttime feeding is usually the last to go. Or wean at night but still allow nursing during the day. It does not need to be all or nothing.
Tips for Daytime Weaning
Generally, these strategies work best for daytime nursing.
- Breastfeed the child when he asks, and don’t offer when he doesn’t. This simple technique known as “don’t offer, don’t refuse” may help accelerate the weaning process when used with other methods.
- Change daily routines. Instead of heading home after picking him up from daycare, head to the grocery store or elsewhere instead. Try to avoid the “nursing chair” or other usual “nursing station” in your home as much as possible at the times when he usually would ask to nurse. Stand up as much as possible!
- If possible, get help from other family and household members. If he usually nurses upon waking, try getting up before him and have your partner or someone else do all the morning routine.
- Anticipate nursing sessions and offer substitutions and distractions. Try offering a snack or drink at that time. Take him to his favorite place at the usual nursing time. Other distractions: reading, bike rides, visits from friends, a new toy, walking/singing to the child.
- Shorten the length of nursings or see if he accepts a postponed nursing. Telling him he will be done when you are finishing singing a certain song, or counting to 20 may help with the transition. If he doesn’t understand the concept of waiting or of time, this may not be helpful.
Tips for Sleep Time Weaning
The nap and bedtime nursings are often the last to go and can be more difficult. La Leche League does not advocate for any sleep-training techniques that includes children being left to cry for long periods of time. Staying close to your little one to allow for quick attention before they are fully awake can also help with the overnight times.
- If the child is sleeping with you, you might consider moving him into his own bed or into bed with an older sibling. However, if the child resists the move, he might increase breastfeeding in order to preserve his feeling of closeness with you.
- Allowing another family members to help by taking over sleep-time routines.
- Offering a drink of water or snack if the child seems hungry or thirsty.
- Offering cuddles, hugs and music to replace nursing at night or for naptime.
If you decide to wean the nighttime feeding, make a bedtime routine not centered around breastfeeding. A good book or two will eventually become more important than a long session at the breast. Your child may agree to rest his head on your breast instead of feeding. Talk to your child about what’s going on ahead of time if you can as he may understand more than you expect.
When a Child Isn’t Ready to Wean
If weaning is going too quickly for the child, he’ll usually let you know by his behavior. Increased tantrums, regressive behaviors, anxiety, increase in night waking, new fear of separation, and clinginess are all possible signs that weaning is going too quickly for your child. Illness and teething can also interfere with weaning and it might be necessary to take a break.
Your child may be old enough for you to simply explain to him that you feel it is time to wean. Many children his age or older can understand the concept of stopping nursing. Some mothers let the child pick a date, or choose one themselves, and call that the “weaning day” after which he will no longer nurse. Some mothers will then give the child a “weaning party” with supportive family and understanding friends to help celebrate the milestone. Perhaps the child will receive a special “weaning present.”
Some mothers allow the child to choose a coveted toy and buy it after weaning, or buy it before weaning and wrap it up on to be put on a shelf for when the weaning day or weaning party comes.
Obviously, these techniques will not work if the child is extremely resistant to weaning, but many mothers have used them with success. Remember that he will have a continued, perhaps even deepened, need for closeness with you. You can anticipate the child’s need for closeness and spend as much of her day as possible having “special time” with the child.
Weaning can be a difficult time both for mother and child. Mother’s often have many feelings including sadness, anxiety and despair. A La Leche League Leader or group can help you to feel less alone as you go through this big step. To learn more about weaning you can attend a local group or reach out to leader.