Step 1: Look at your calendar.
You'll need about a month to complete the process. It may sound like a long time, but the gradual approach is vital for both you and your child. Babies don't take change lightly, and a bottle -- or a cup, if you're weaning a child over 9 months of age -- no matter how well-designed it happens to be, does not feel like a breast.
Another thing to consider is your own breast health. When I weaned, a well-meaning but old-fashioned doctor told me to stop nursing cold turkey, bind up my breasts, and wait. I obliged, and a few days later, my left breast turned red, hot, and painful, and I spiked a fever of 102 degrees.
The reason? "All of that milk had nowhere to go," says Freda Rosenfeld, a board-certified lactation consultant and nutritionist in Brooklyn, New York. "Then your milk ducts get clogged and painful."
If there's any bacteria in there, you wind up, like I did, with a breast infection called mastitis. Over-the-counter pain relief, warm compresses, and antibiotics can clear it up, but you feel pretty miserable. The best strategy is to wean slowly. If your breasts are full and it's not time for baby to feed, pump enough to relieve discomfort, which will help prevent clogged ducts but won't encourage milk production.
Step 2: Talk to your pediatrician about your child's diet.
For babies younger than 1, he'll recommend starting your child on a cow's milk-based formula. If you're weaning a child 1 year of age or older, he'll recommend that you go straight to whole cow's milk.
There are formulas on the market designed for toddlers. You can try them if you want, "but there's no real benefit to using these formulas over whole milk," says Daniel Neuspiel, MD, associate director of pediatrics at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City. And because parents usually serve formula in bottles, "using formula may encourage bottle use in children 1 and over, which may lead to dental and orthodontic problems down the road," says Dr. Neuspiel.
It's important to remember that for kids older than 6 months of age, solid food plays a role in weaning. "Your child has been getting vital nutrients -- protein and calcium -- from breast milk," says Rosenfeld.
"You need to make sure his diet is rich enough in these nutrients, which means adequate intake of healthy solids." Dr. Neuspiel suggests yogurt and cheese to provide much-needed calcium. Iron may be an additional concern; finely chopped dried fruit and enriched pasta can up baby's iron intake.
Step 3: Consider your child's age.
"Weaning a 3-month-old is different from weaning a 6-month-old," says Lebbing. "There are different issues to consider, depending upon what's going on developmentally."
Around the 3- to 4-month mark, many parents start sleep training their baby, "so don't substitute a bottle at bedtime," says Lebbing. Weaning and adjusting to a new sleep routine all at once are stressful for a little baby. The same goes for introducing a 5- or 6-month-old to solids; keep using the breast at times nearest to these stressful events.
With toddlers, time weaning well before or after big changes, such as the arrival of a new caregiver. And if your toddler has never used a bottle before, go right to the cup so you won't have to break him of the bottle habit later.
Step 4: Get going.
Begin weaning by replacing one feeding a day with a bottle or cup for one week. "Feedings that have a strong emotional or comfort component should be eliminated last," says Lebbing.
"Typically, those are first thing in the morning and before bed." The next week, eliminate two feedings a day. As each week passes, eliminate an additional feeding.
But if you want to hang on to the before-bed feeding or any other feeding that makes you feel close, "go ahead," says Rosenfeld. "You don't have to eliminate everything unless you really want to."