Weaning is when a baby transitions from breast milk to other sources of nourishment. When to wean is a personal decision. Moms may be influenced by a return to work, her health or the baby's, or simply a feeling that the time is right.
Weaning a baby is a gradual process that calls for patience and understanding from both you and your child.
Deciding When to Wean
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding babies only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. After that, the AAP recommends that a combination of solid foods and breast milk be given until a baby is at least 1 year old.
Some experts say that after the first birthday is the best time to begin weaning because kids are more adaptable to change at that age. (A 2-year-old toddler, for example, is likely to be much more attached to breastfeeding and less flexible about giving it up.) A 1-year-old baby is also eating more solid foods and so may naturally lose interest in nursing. Engorgement will also become less of a problem for moms around this time because as the demand for breast milk decreases, so does milk production.
Weaning does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Some women choose to wean during the day and breastfeed at night, depending on their work situation and their schedules. Some children wean themselves earlier than the mother had intended and some babies are resistant to weaning when the mother is ready.
Weaning is easier if a child has also taken milk from another source. So try giving an occasional bottle of breast milk to your little one once breastfeeding is well-established — even if you plan to continue breastfeeding, this can facilitate weaning later. This also allows other family members to feed the baby and also makes it possible to leave your child with a caregiver.
If you decide to wean before 1 year or find that you're not making enough milk, you will need to give your child an iron-fortified formula. Check with the doctor to see what formula is right for your child. If your child is near the first birthday, consider placing formula in a cup instead of a bottle.
Although some kids are content to nurse indefinitely and will wait for their mothers to initiate weaning, others will give clues that they're ready to wean. They may express indifference or crankiness when nursed or may nurse in shorter sessions than they did before. Some kids seem very distractible when nursing and feeds can sometimes seem to take forever.
Approaches to Weaning
To allow both mom and baby to adjust physically and emotionally to the change, weaning should be a gradual process.
One approach is to drop one feeding session a week until the child is taking all of the feeds from a bottle or cup. If you are planning to continue to give your child pumped breast milk, you will need to pump in order to keep up your milk supply. If you are weaning your child off breast milk, gradually dropping feeds can help avoid engorgement. You might want to start by eliminating the midday feeding because it's usually the smallest and most inconvenient — especially for working moms. Many mothers let go of the bedtime feeding last because it remains a special part of the bonding experience.
Another approach is to leave the decision of when to wean completely up to a child. Once they're eating three meals of solid food a day (plus snacks in between), kids often breastfeed less and less. In this situation, you may find that your milk will dry up from lack of demand, and pumping may be necessary if you want to keep the milk flowing.
If your child is breastfeeding less, make sure he or she is getting enough formula or milk. Check with the doctor about the amount your child should be having.
Many moms make the decision to wean with mixed emotions. On the one hand, weaning brings with it more freedom and flexibility, as well as the proud realization that her child is reaching a major milestone. On the other hand, nursing is an intimate activity that fosters a strong bond between mother and child — and some women find it difficult to let that go.
Expect a wide range of emotions, and understand that your child may have them, too. But also remember that there will be countless other ways to nurture your child in the days ahead.
Easing the Transition
To make the transition easier for both of you:
- Engage your child in a fun play activity or an outing during times when you would usually nurse.
- Avoid sitting in your usual nursing spots or wearing your usual nursing clothes.
- Delay weaning if your child is trying to adapt to some other change. Trying to wean when your little one is just beginning child care or during teething might not be a good idea.
- If your baby is younger than 1 year, try to introduce a bottle or cup when you would typically be nursing. For an older child, try a healthy snack, offering a cup, or maybe even just a cuddle.
- Try changing your daily routine so that you're otherwise engaged during breastfeeding times.
- Enlist your partner's help to provide a distraction at a typical nursing time.
- If your child begins to pick up a comforting habit such as thumb sucking or becomes attached to a security blanket, don't discourage it. Your child may be trying to adjust to the emotional changes of weaning.
How Long Is Too Long?
Some experts feel that there is nothing wrong with feeding a child breast milk until well into the toddler or even preschool years, as long as both the child and mother are comfortable with it. However, weaning can sometimes become difficult as kids get older, since they become even more attached to breastfeeding.
It's also important to remember that infants over 6 months should have solid foods as well as breast milk. After 1 year, breast milk alone does not provide all the nutrients a growing child needs; solid foods must become a regular part of the diet.
As you start to wean, remember that your child needs time to adjust to drinking from cups. So be patient as your little one begins exploring the world of food.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2011