Weaning 101: When And How To Stop Breastfeeding

The breastfeeding months are a special time in both mama and baby’s life: in that amount of time baby needs to get all necessary nutrients for proper early development so they can be ready for different kinds of foods and complex food combinations. 

The time of breastfeeding can be tough on some mothers - the baby can have trouble latching, they can be continually fussy about their eating schedules or fall asleep every time during nursing (if you’re still in the midst of breastfeeding or are new to the experience, check out our introduction guide here. If you happen to have trouble with sore nipples, here you can find some tips and tricks on how to treat and prevent them in the future). 

So, having in mind all the challenges of breastfeeding, stopping it sounds like it shouldn’t be much of an issue. But, things are not so simple (if they were, you weren’t gonna be reading this right now!). Even though most of the time and process of stopping with the breastfeeding (or also called weaning) is more or less pretty straightforward, still it does take a certain amount of patience and time, and a couple of tricks up the sleeve, from both sides! That’s why in the following sections we’re going to look at the main parts of weaning, so you and your baby can process it as lightly and effortlessly as possible. 

Weaning: What Does the Term Actually Mean? 

Well, weaning might just be one of the most misunderstood post-pregnancy practices; this is, in large part, due to the duration and nature of the weaning itself. Weaning is not a one-time event; babies don’t usually stop breastfeeding all of a sudden - most of the time it happens gradually and over time. 

So, basically weaning entails the whole transitioning process that the baby has from the mother’s milk (or baby formula) to other types of nutrition that correspond with a particular time period of their lifes, and the lives of their mothers (we know that mothers can’t keep on breastfeeding forever, even if the baby still wants to feed). Weaning depends on both parties - mom and baby together decide (gradually) when they’re ready to stop breastfeeding. A slow and gradual introduction of solid foods and other types of liquids besides milk is recommended, as a more effortless transition from breastfeeding. This would also be a great time for building healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime (the earlier the better!). 

It’s perfectly normal that some mothers may think like a special type of early bonding moment is coming to an end and feel a bit apprehended at first, but there is nothing to be afraid of. Weaning doesn’t need to be considered as something that will necessarily mean an end to this special bond you have with your little one, which nursing has enabled. It just means that you will find other ways and practices of continuing those bonding moments, and trust us, there will be plenty of them, plenty of moments where you’ll get to nurture and nourish that little darling. When once you used to nurse your baby for more comfort, now you can do other stuff together like, for example, read a book, play or sing a song they like together. Even if your baby is fussy and reluctant at the beginning, don’t give up. These things take time and, as we said, require patience from both sides (but mostly from yours).

When Should You Start Weaning?

This is a common question that emerges when moms start breastfeeding. 

As we said earlier, the duration of the breastfeeding time depends on the mom’s and baby’s individual needs. Some moms do it for weeks, some for months, and some for a couple of years. It’s also very dependent on cultural factors (like, for example, women from Western countries usually start with weaning sooner than women from non-Western countries). On a global average, weaning starts at about ages 2-4, while in some places it even goes to 5-7 years of age. Some cultures see the emergence of the first baby-tooth, as well as the first taking of steps as a sign when to start weaning. 

But babies also sometimes lose interest on their own. Some of them do this when they’re 6 or above months of age, just the time when solid foods are allowed to get into the picture. Some babies are very curious in nature and once they begin to walk and explore the world on their own two feet, stop feeling the necessity of breastfeeding and are ready to pass onto solid food. 

There are instances where mom and baby are prevented from breastfeeding, as in case of illness, for example. This is a case when weaning is necessary to occur because there is no other alternative. 

Women who are eager to go back to school or to their workplace stop may also want to start weaning. Oftentimes the cultural and social pressures put on women make them start to wean prematurely, without being aware that they can sometimes continue breastfeeding while at school or at work. 

But, in the end, it’s best to stick to your own needs, as well as the baby’s, and the factor of your own life when deciding when is the right time to start weaning. 

If you want a more science and institution-based data, the WHO (World Health Organization), as well as the UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommend that breastfeeding should last from 1 to 2 years of age, while the introduction of other types of food should begin around month 6 of the baby’s life. In the West though, the usual time for breastfeeding is about a year, aka the first year of the baby’s life. 

How It’s Done

How to wean is another common question when the issue of breastfeeding comes on the table. Weaning goes pretty smoothly when both mom and baby are willing to do it at approximately the same time. However, this is often not the case - usually, one party is the one that is more eager with starting the weaning process, and the other follows through (agreeably or reluctantly). There are two types of weaning: mother-led one and child-led weaning. Oftentimes the case is that mothers choose to wean before the baby gives it up by themselves. With enough time, breastfeeding will eventually lead to child-led weaning, but sometimes it’s just impossible to wait. What’s important to remember in all of this, is that the whole process should be made gradual. If moms stop breastfeeding suddenly, they’re more likely to feel emotions of guilt and sadness, while also experiencing certain physical symptoms, such as breast pain, swelling, and leaking. 

That’s why in the following sections we’re going to go over some tips on how to do it gradually, but also, if you’re in a real hurry, how to do it more painlessly and effortlessly by doing it suddenly. 

How to Wean Gradually 

As we said, this is the preferred type of weaning and is used by most mothers in the world. It’s considered a better weaning option for the baby and mommy because it helps alleviate all the physical and emotional/psychological discomfort that comes with it. It also helps the milk supply in the mother’s breast to decrease at a rate that’s more natural to the body itself, which in turn also lowers the risk of breast infections and engorgement as well. 

Some tips on how to succeed in weaning gradually: 

It’s important to remember that even after days, weeks and also months after the weaning period ends, you may still be able to produce milk. Depending on the amount of milk produced, leaking may or may not occur (if it’s a small amount it’s very unlikely). If you do happen to have trouble with it, though, you can use breast pads for a while. Sometimes your breasts can also become lumpy and hard - if this happens, it’s recommended that you express an amount of milk that will help you relieve the breast hardness and also help in removing the lumps (and not more). It works as simple math: the less milk you intentionally remove from your breasts, the less milk the body will produce as time goes by. 

How to Wean Suddenly 

If you happen to find yourself in a situation where you’ll have to suddenly cut out breastfeeding, here you can find some tips on how to make this uncomfortable experience less painful and more successful: 

We hope that sharing some of these tricks will make weaning a tad less wearisome and protracted experience, which can certainly be at times. Just remember, it takes time and patience, just as in the beginning days and weeks of breastfeeding it also took time for both mama and baby to get used to the whole experience. We’re certain that you’ll manage to go through it with care and affection and be sure that you’ll baby will sense that and appreciate it as well.