I’m a little ashamed that I haven’t written this post sooner, as an OT, I have shared lots of baby and toddler milestone tutorials, including How to Wean from a Bottle. But, I haven’t addressed stopping breastfeeding, and how to get it done safely and appropriately, even though I have done it three times with my children that were exclusively breast-fed. My oldest, NEVER took a bottle, which was really stressful, and my third would only do if he had to.
Of course, I’m fully aware that this can be a bit of a controversial topic, which is probably why its taken me this long to write it. So, let me say, right now, very clearly, that this post IS NOT about when a mother should stop nursing, although I will share some general info on the topic. This post is about How to stop breastfeeding when a mother and child are ready. Women have many different reasons for wanting to wean at various ages. I completely welcome constructive and helpful comments, but let’s be supportive of each other’s very personal decisions.
When to Stop Breastfeeding
I know I’m leading with the when, even though I just said it is a personal decision, and it is. But, I know many of you aren’t sure when you want to wean, so let me give you some objective information. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for one year, and most American doctors would support that. At one year, a baby’s nutritional needs change and they no longer *physically* need breast milk, not that it couldn’t still be beneficial. The World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend until 2 years of age.
This conflicting advice leaves some moms unsure of what to do. I will tell you this, around 15 months of age, children enter a new cognitive phase and begin to make strong associations or attachments. Nursing to this point could make it more difficult to wean with some of the strategies I’ll discuss here, but certainly not impossible. I don’t say that to persuade you towards weaning earlier, but want you to be aware of all the information. While I also fully support mothers that decide to nurse longer, I will caution you to be aware of those feedings affecting consumption at meals. Some toddlers can handle having “nursings” throughout the day as they please and still sit down to eat their meals, but others fill up on milk and subsequently don’t transition to eating more food. That can be a slippery slope, as I’ve seen many times. If toddlers don’t get the practice and exposure to eating foods, sometimes they can become very picky eaters throughout childhood. If you continue to nurse, I would encourage you to treat meals as a priority as well and be aware of how recently they have nursed.
For a variety of reasons, I did decide to wean my own children around one year old. They were 14, 12, and 13 months, respectively. It was a gentle process that was not traumatic for my children in any way. I did not transition them to a bottle, because at those ages, they didn’t require one. And, if you are weaning over 12 months, I would recommend phasing out those feedings totally and not substituting with formula or milk in bottle or sippy cup at those times.
If you are weaning before 12 months old, you will need to replace with formula in a bottle or possibly a sippy cup. Check out my complete how-to guide for getting a nursing baby to take a bottle.
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How to Stop Breastfeeding
So how to do you actually start to end breastfeeding? Well, it is a transition, so there may be a little bit of dancing back and forth on this as you make sure both you and your baby are comfortable. If your baby is 8 months old or older, I would first recommend getting them onto a loose schedule, if they aren’t already. I’m not really concerned with specific times, but intervals or around routines. For instance, with my third, I always nursed him when he woke up from his naps, the time changed but that routine didn’t. That allowed me to plan our meals in a structured way as well, which gave him exposure to foods and helped him develop an appetite for food, too. (You’ll find links for sample schedules at the end of this section)
Once your baby or toddler is nursing at regular intervals and not on demand, you will choose one of those times to take away. This should be the easiest time of day, usually one of the nursings in the middle of the day. Typically bedtime and morning feeds are more difficult to phase out.
The first few days that you take away those feedings you will want to change the routine a little bit and have food and a drink in a cup ready to go. For instance, when I was taking away those after nap nursings. I would go into his room, pull open the blinds right away and start talking to him real silly to get him distracted. I’d pick him up playfully and take him downstairs (he typically nursed in his dim lit room quietly before going downstairs). All the while, I’d be saying, “It’s time for snack! I have your drink, too!” There were a few times where he whined and pointed to the chair he normally nursed in. I would try once more to distract him and if that didn’t work, then I’d nurse him. That is part of the transition. If another adult were here, I would have them get him out of his crib as well, which helped change things up.
Once I eliminated that first feeding, I would wait 3-7 days before I took away another feeding, depending on how slow I wanted that to go. Then, I would follow the same procedure. I would do that all the way until I was left with morning and night time nursings. Morning was always easier to get rid of, so I would make sure I had breakfast completely ready, so he could eat right away.
Personally, I always decided to leave the bedtime nursing for another month or so, but you don’t need to do that. That was more for me, weaning each of my children was a very emotional time, and I knew I needed to not rush it. Keeping that bedtime feeding gave me time to really take in those last days of our special connection. After about a month or so, I would make sure they had a really good dinner (serve a favorite food) or a late snack and then I would let Dad do the bedtime routine. In all cases, my kids just let my husband put them to bed, as if they had never been nursed, while I sobbed in another room. My children were fine, and I knew, for me, for us, it was time.
To sum up what we’ve just talked about, and fill in some blanks, when you’re ready to wean, you’ll want to:
- Take away one feeding at a time
- Eliminate the easiest feedings first
- Offer a meal instead of nursing. All kids should eat every 2.5 – 3 hours, count from the start of one meal to the start of the next
- Give a cup at each meal, and place either breast milk or cow’s milk in the cup. I prefer a straw cup (see how to teach your baby to drink from a straw). From an OT and mom friendly perspective, I love these cups in particular: Playtex Sipsters, Munchkin Flex Straw, and Advent Straw Cup
- The first time you give cow’s milk, mix it with a 25-50% blend of breast milk. This will help them adjust digestively and to the taste. After a day or two of successful consumption, you can continue to add less and less breast milk until it is straight cow’s milk or toddler formula, if you choose.
- Prior to weaning, give your baby water at each meal, which will help them get used to having a drink. Have water available throughout the day in a cup that they have access to once you start serving milk with their meals. Some babies will want to have both at a meal, which is fine for a short transition period.
If you are looking for more specifics on feeding schedules, click on the ages you need: 6-7 months, 8-10 months, and 11 months plus for samples. These, too, are just a guideline, but should give you some direction. Adapt them as needed.
Troubleshooting Common Breast Weaning Roadblocks
Although stopping breastfeeding can be as easy as I just made it sound, sometime parents hit some roadblocks. I’m going to run through some common ones to help you troubleshoot. With all of the suggestions below, know that it’s important to stay consistent and keep trying. All of my boys ended up loving cow’s milk, but it took a month or so before they were drinking it really well, usually by the time they were completely weaned from the breast. Keep in mind that once a baby turns 1, they only require 16 ounces of a milk source.
- Refuses a cup of any type:
- Try and try again – every day, at every meal, put the milk in the cup and don’t pressure them. Offer it and even demonstrate, but don’t force. You can experiment with serving cold and warm if you like. If your toddler spits it out, that’s okay, it’s all part of the process.
- Try pumped milk – if you are willing and able, pump and offer that milk in the cup. It will seem foreign and some will likely be wasted, but some babies do better with the familiar taste.
- Focus on 2-3 different types of cups – cycle through a few different kinds of cups, maybe some with bright colors or a silly character on it.
- Water in a cup during the day – always have the water in a cup throughout the day. Give it to them in the car, in the bath, outside, wherever.
- Nursing to sleep:
- Change up the routine (as described in the previous section)
- Transitional object – if your child doesn’t already have a special object like a stuffed animal or blanket, start encouraging one. Give it to them every time you are nursing, put it in their arms when you lie them down. Every time.
- Well-fed – I don’t want you to overly worry about this, so many parents do naturally, but it will give you peace of mind in knowing that their tummy is full. Serve a later dinner that is a favorite or a bedtime snack, where you can give milk in a cup. Knowing their well-fed will help you feel better if they protest a little and they will be less likely to request nursing.
- Distract – while I urge you to not push your baby too fast, some will protest a little. This is when you’ll want to change gears and do something really exciting. I remember with my oldest, I always used to feed him on the couch in the middle of the day and I’d rearrange the pillows to support my arm. In the process of weaning, I started to do that just to straighten up and he saw me and thought it was time to nurse. He didn’t cry, but I quickly grabbed him and stood up, saying, “Oh my goodness, did you just hear that car go by?” We went over to the window to have a look and he forgot about it in a second.
- Offer another drink – without making to big of a deal about it, provide a drink instead, “Oh, here’s your water.” Notice, I didn’t ask, I just made a statement.
- Cuddles – give lots of these at other times, so they feel that connection with you still.
Tips for success
- Don’t feel rushed, watch for your child’s acceptance and adjustment.
- You may be emotional, this is normal. Make sure you are feeling comfortable with your decision.
- Don’t listen to other people’s opinions.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments, I’ll be happy to answer. And if you’ve been through this before, share your tips, it will be helpful to everyone that stops here.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
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