Weaning is a big deal! And much like pregnancy, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Learn when to start weaning, plus how to keep everyone happy and healthy.
When you first start breastfeeding your little one—especially once you overcome the initial hurdles—it’s hard to imagine how the whole thing will ever end. But, eventually weaning is inevitable, though the process will look different for every mother and child.
In this post, we’ll cover:
What Is Weaning?
Weaning is when a baby stops receiving breastmilk.
This usually occurs when baby is receiving all of his/her nutrition from solid foods and is old enough to drink cow’s milk, though sometimes weaning occurs much before that. If baby is too young to rely on solids, weaning may mean substituting breastmilk with formula.
Note: Sometimes weaning refers to babies who stop drinking from a bottle or using a pacifier, but it usually refers to the end of breastfeeding.
When Do Babies Normally Wean?
- The Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, and breastfeed along with solids for at least one year or more “while mutually desired by mother and baby. ”
- The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends breastfeeding exclusively for six months and then “up to 2 years of age or beyond.”
Most children will gradually start to nurse less as they begin to eat solid foods. But it’s important to remember breastfeeding is more than just milk: it’s bonding, comfort, and love.
While many children are able to wean from a nutritional standpoint at 12-18 months or so, most children aren’t ready to emotionally separate from breastfeeding until somewhere between 2-4 years old, with some children nursing happily till 5 or even longer!
When a child is ready to wean, you may notice he/she is:
- Pulling away from the breast
- Nursing for shorter periods of time
- Never initiating nursing
Why weaning may happen earlier…
- Some mothers have medical conditions (insufficient glandular tissue, retained placenta, hypothyroidism, previous breast surgery) that make breastfeeding more difficult
- Other moms are never able to overcome initial breastfeeding challenges (non-latching baby, painful breastfeeding, milk supply concerns)
- And some moms need to wean for personal reasons, such as job circumstances (for example, if they are deployed) or emotionally they just feel done
Whether you wean “early” or choose to breastfeed well past the age of two, it’s your decision to make based on what’s right for you and your baby.
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How to Wean Baby
If you need to wean baby for whatever reason, here are a few ideas to help:
- Don’t offer, don’t refuse: This is exactly as it sounds. Breastfeed when your child asks for it, but if they don’t initiate, don’t offer
- Drop one feeding at a time: Again, gradual is preferred, so drop one feeding at time. Wait a few days or a week to see how your child and your body (boobs) adjusts, and then drop another feeding.
- Start by night weaning: Once babies are 1 year old, most don’t need food during the night. Start with weaning this sleepy nursing session and go from there. Dad may have to help out when/if child wakes up wanting to nurse.
- Find a comforting substitute for a nursing session: Remember that nursing is your child’s comfort, so it’s important to find substitutes for that comfort. A special toy, cozy pillow, blanket, lovey, or book are great alternatives to introduce. And don’t forget a million extra hugs.
- Change your schedule or routine: If your child always nurses at 2pm, try to be out of the house then. Or schedule bath time or a walk for that time as a substitute bonding time.
- Abbreviate or postpone feedings: If you aren’t ready to drop a session fully, you can either postpone (“We’ll nurse after one more book”) or stop the session earlier than usual (“We’ll stop nursing after I sing the ABC’s three times”).
- Have your partner handle the nighttime routine: Children also love their before bed nursing session. Having a partner or trusted caregiver take over at bedtime can help you drop that feeding.
Most importantly, you’ll need to fully commit to make this happen—this includes your partner too. You will definitely need extra support throughout the process, as well as some space from your child at times, so that you can both adjust to the change.
How to Wean an Older Toddler or Child
Trying to wean a toddler is a whole different ballgame. It ain’t easy! But I’ve got some tips and tricks for weaning a toddler in this post. I used these strategies with my first child at 2 1/2. And guess what? It was surprisingly drama-free!
How to Comfort Your Child While Weaning
Weaning is a big emotional change for your child, and they need all the extra TLC they can get.
Here are some ways to show your child a little extra love during the process:
- Offer as much snuggle time as possible
- Get a special lovey that can be a comfort during the process
- Offer a warm bottle of milk in bottle at nighttime. Have partner feed.
- Be extra present with your child
For older kids, you can:
- Plan special outings together
- Make it a point to do their favorite activities at home
- Let older toddlers and children participate in this process—tell them to pick out a special gift that they’ll receive once weaning is complete to commemorate the occasion
How to Stay Comfortable While Weaning
To avoid engorgement and plugged ducts, pay attention to how your body is handling the weaning process and see a lactation consultant for help, if you need to.
If you’re showing signs of engorgement, try:
- Expressing just enough breastmilk to provide relief, either by hand or with a pump. Only express a small amount—fully emptying the breast will tell your body to continue producing more milk
- Take warm showers and massage your breast for comfort.
- Or, try cold compresses. Cold cabbage leaves (keep in fridge for a few hours) are very soothing for engorgement. Find what work for you.
- Drink sage or peppermint tea. Many mamas say these herbs act as anti-galactagogues and dry up milk. You can also suck on peppermint lozenges for similar effects.
- Special herbs. Certain herbs can also reduce or dry out milk supply including black walnut, chickweed, herb robert, lemon balm, oregano, and parsley. (source)
How Long Does Weaning Take?
- Some children will surprisingly wean—almost on their own—in a matter of days.
- For others, weaning draws out much longer than expected (taking many weeks or months), with lots of stops along the way.
The process of weaning is extremely individualized, so there is no one timeframe that is normal. Don’t be surprised if your child is taking a long time to fully wean.
In fact, in many cases, a longer weaning process is best, not just for your child, but for you too.
Abrupt weaning can cause:
- Engorgement, which can lead to plugged ducts or mastitis.
- Hormonal imbalances that can be distressing for both moms and children.
When Will My Milk Dry Up Completely?
Once you are completely done breastfeeding, you usually stop leaking milk by 2-3 weeks, however mothers who have breastfed for long durations find that they can still express milk for months or even years after weaning, as incredible as that sounds! (source)
If you have any questions about how long weaning is taking, or want to make sure you employ the gentlest methods, contact a lactation consultant.
Signs Your Child Isn’t Ready to Wean
Sometimes you will start the weaning process, thinking your child is ready to begin, only to find that they clearly are not.
Some signs may include:
- Increased tantrums,
- More night waking,
- Regressive behavior like pretending to be a baby, potty accidents, etc.
- Increased anxiety
Illness, teething, or a growth spurt can also interfere with weaning, so it’s best to start the process after these pass.
If your child is showing signs that weaning is happening too quickly, it’s best to wait—chances are your child just needs a little more time to comfortably wean.
You Got This, Mama!
Weaning is never easy, no matter when it happens. Remember: Whenever possible, slow and steady wins the race. Get help from a lactation consultant, a La Leche League meeting, your partner… whoever can offer support. And give yourself and baby a little grace while you adjust to your new routine—there’s bound to be some ups and downs, but you’ll get through it.
How About You?
What did weaning look like for you and your child? What fears did you have as you began the weaning process? Is there any advice you would give to other moms?