When is the right time to wean your baby, and how best to go about it? Read on now and get lots of practical tips on weaning.
Once your breastfeeding relationship has settled in, how long should you continue breastfeeding? Three months? Six months? One year? Or even several years?
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other health authorities recommend feeding babies exclusively breast milk for the first six months of life, and giving them breast milk alongside other foods-at least until they are two years old the so-called Beikost- continue to give mother’s milk. 1
Because breast milk is more than just food. Breast milk is a natural comforter when your baby is scared or tired, and also contains immune-boosting ingredients that surge when your baby is sick. 2
Anthropologists estimate that the natural weaning age for humans is even higher than two years of age. Looking at factors such as tooth development and body weight and comparing them to other primates and historical evidence, some researchers believe it could be two to four years, while others believe our ancestors may have breastfed as late as six or seven years of age. 3
Today, more than 60% of mothers in developed countries give their babies formula or complementary foods before six months of age, 4 even though the WHO advises against it.
When is the right time to wean my baby?
Breastfeeding describes the process when you stop feeding your baby breast milk. Ideally, the first step in weaning is to slowly introduce your baby to complementary foods alongside your breastmilk after about six months. The weaning process then continues until breast milk has been completely replaced with other foods and drinks.
"After six months, your baby needs greater amounts of certain nutrients – like iron, zinc, and vitamins B and D – that he can’t get from your breast milk or from his own reserves," explains UK health visitor and nurse Sarah Beeson.
"But solid foods can only supplement your baby’s milk meals at first, and only gradually replace them. Breast milk remains his or her main source of nutrients for many months to come."
A typical seven-month-old baby still gets 93% of his calories from milk. Even at 11 to 16 months of age, milk can still account for half of your daily calorie intake. 5
"Moms sometimes think breast milk is no longer important once their baby has started eating solids, but strictly speaking, there is no better milk for babies, no matter how old they are," Sarah explains.
In fact, the entire weaning process can take as long as mom and baby want it to: "When you want to stop breastfeeding is your decision," Sarah says. "Don’t feel pressured by what friends are doing or what family members or even strangers are saying. All that matters is that it feels right for you and your baby."
How to wean?
Regardless of when you decide to wean your baby, it’s best to do it gradually. Sudden weaning can cause swelling of the mammary glands, blocked milk ducts, or mastitis, as well as too abrupt a change for your baby’s digestive and immune systems. Also, it can be hard for both of you emotionally.
Do I have to stop breastfeeding?
Sometimes mothers mistakenly believe they have to stop breastfeeding- but this is not true. When you return to work, breastfeeding can be a great way to continue giving your baby lots of closeness during this big change in your lives. You can pump milk for your baby at work and continue to enjoy special breastfeeding moments with your baby in the morning and evening. If you have to travel without your baby, you can express breast milk and take it home or send it by mail.
If you get sick, it doesn’t always mean you have to stop breastfeeding either- Read our advice on breastfeeding when you are sick and always consult your doctor.
Weaning before six months
If you can’t continue breastfeeding until six months and want to start weaning on your own, replace one breastfeeding meal a day with a bottle of formula first.
„It is best to start breastfeeding around lunchtime. Babies are amazing and can smell their mother’s milk when she’s around. So ask your partner or a family member to give your baby a bottle while you are in another room.", Sarah explains.
„Make sure you have good hygiene when preparing food. Your baby may want to drink expressed breast milk less often per day than he or she would normally want to nurse at the breast. Don’t force it to drink more milk than it wants to.“
Your breasts are likely to feel fuller and more sensitive as your body adjusts to producing less milk. If this gets uncomfortable, try pumping out some breast milk- Just enough to ease your discomfort without stimulating your body to make more milk.
Once your body gets used to this new amount- usually after a few days-, you can skip one more breastfeeding a day. You keep doing this until you stop breastfeeding and your baby is fully weaned.
„I had complications after birth that caused me to lose a lot of weight very quickly, I also suffered from mastitis. My milk production was low, and after three months I had to stop.", says Jennifer, mother of two, from the UK. „I replaced one breastfeeding after the other, so it was not a big problem for me physically, but emotionally it was very hard for me.“
If you want to maintain the intimacy and health benefits of breastfeeding but are forced to breastfeed less, try partial weaning, replacing only some breastfeeding meals with formula.
Weaning after six months
Once your baby is on solids at about six months of age, you’ll notice that she will naturally drink at the breast less frequently over time. Within a year, it would probably like just a couple of breastfeeding meals a day, supplemented with meals and healthy snacks.
However, if you want to reduce it even further, do so gradually by eliminating only one breastfeeding meal at a time and giving your baby formula instead if he or she is younger than 12 months old. With cow’s milk you should wait until your baby is at least one year old.
„I was still breastfeeding my son three times a day, and he was getting three meals and snacks in between when I decided to wean him. I gradually replaced each breastfeeding meal with a bottle of formula- I waited until last to breastfeed in the evening when he was 11 months old" says Ruth, mother of one, from the UK. „Because I took my time, I didn’t have any problems. My breasts only felt a little fuller for a few days.“
There are several ways to distract your child from changing her feeding habits. Some moms offer a drink and snack instead that you can eat together to still create closeness. You could also change your routine, play that favorite game, or replace a meal with cuddle time with you or your partner. Some children take longer than others to cope with the change, but it gets easier over time. If you have trouble weaning, it’s always helpful to consult with your doctor.
Natural weaning over time
If you let your toddler decide when she wants to stop breastfeeding (so-called "baby-led weaning") or naturally ending breastfeeding), the weaning process is probably slow and happens only gradually. ÜFor several months, breastfeeding will probably be shorter and less frequent but there are also reports of mothers whose children simply lost interest one day.
„My daughter "self-weaned" at four years old, says Sarah, mother of one, from the UK. „She gradually drank less and less milk, hardly any at three and a half years old. Then she apparently forgot about it when we were on vacation. Now, six months later, she sometimes wants to go to the breast, white but that no more milk comes.“
Your body has enough time to adjust, so you probably won’t experience any unpleasant swelling of the mammary glands. Nevertheless, it will probably be emotionally difficult for you, so take enough time for extensive cuddling so that you both continue to feel a lot of closeness.
„Letting my baby decide was just right for me, since my son has never been given formula or a bottle. I didn’t want to suddenly stop and turn him away", says Kelly, mother of one, from the UK. „At two and a half years old, he has lost interest. This was the best possible process for us, although it was already very emotional for me.“
What if I need to wean quickly?
Although it’s best not to wean abruptly, sometimes it’s necessary for health reasons or because you and your baby can’t be together.
If your baby has been breastfed up to this point, you will most likely need to pump milk to avoid uncomfortable breast swelling. Some women find a breast pump most convenient for this, while others prefer to express by hand. Remember to pump only enough to alleviate any discomfort- You don’t want to stimulate your body to produce more milk.
Although your breasts may feel swollen and tender at first, they soon adjust. Your breasts contain a protein called Feedback Inhibitor of Lactation (FIL). When your baby stops nursing, FIL tells your body to stop producing, but it may take a few days or even weeks for your breasts to fully adjust.
Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help relieve the pain (although ibuprofen is contraindicated in asthma patients). Always follow the manufacturer’s and pharmacist’s instructions and always consult a doctor when taking medication.
„I had to stop breastfeeding suddenly when my daughter was eight months old because I had to take very strong pain medication", says Peggy, mother of one, from Switzerland. „This was very hard for me- she kept looking for my breast and crying. I held her comfortingly while I gave her the bottle. After a month it was okay for her.“
Can I continue breastfeeding if I want to get pregnant again?
Although breastfeeding is a natural contraceptive, it is not completely safe. Also, it’s probably not effective after six months, and not even if you’re not exclusively breastfeeding. This means you could get pregnant again, even if you are still breastfeeding your baby.
Pregnant breastfeeding mothers sometimes receive conflicting advice about weaning. So-called tandem breastfeeding of two children of different ages is entirely possible, and when your new baby is born, your body will make milk to meet both needs.
For some mothers, the older child naturally stops breastfeeding during pregnancy or skips certain meals. This may be because the composition of your breast milk changes during pregnancy, making it taste different and less sweet. 6 If your breastfed baby is younger than a year old when you wean, watch to see if he or she continues to gain weight.
If you have already had a preterm birth or miscarriage, or are experiencing bleeding, you should consult your doctor if you want to continue breastfeeding during pregnancy.
If you need medical assistance to get pregnant, doctors may not prescribe certain fertility medications or treatments if you are still breastfeeding. Weigh all options before making a decision to stop breastfeeding.
A final word about weaning
Regardless of where and how you wean, cut yourself and your baby some slack. It’s a big physical, hormonal and emotional adjustment for both of you, so perform it with care and consideration.
"Although my body was coping well with weaning, I was very emotional. It was something we had shared for so long, and now it was over," says Jane, a mother of two from the U.S. "I worked a lot, five days a week, and breastfeeding made me feel like I played a very important role in their lives. But when it was over, we soon found other ways to build up closeness."