Your Age-by-Age Guide to Weaning
Even though there's no universal approach to weaning, there are a few golden rules that can help the transition go smoothly for you and baby. We've rounded up lactation consultants, developmental experts, and real moms to help you know when to stop breastfeeding, and get both mind and body ready for weaning.
Do It Gradually
When it comes to helping your kiddie kick the milk habit, the rule of thumb is to go slowly. This will protect your breasts from engorgement and ease your baby's anxiety. Freda Rosenfeld, former president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association, says you can never go too slowly, but be sure to drop only one feeding every three or four days so that it takes about two weeks for the entire process. Drop the least preferred feedings first, which likely means the morning and bedtime feedings will be the last to go.
Amp Up Attention
The intimacy that goes with breastfeeding is what moms and babies miss most when nursing ends. So be sure to lavish your baby with lots of extra attention during the weaning process. "You'll want to substitute nursing with something that feels emotionally equivalent, like snuggling together to read or even horseplay on the floor," counsels Diane Bengson, author of How Weaning Happens (La Leche League International) and longtime Ohio La Leche League leader. And don't forget how helpful your partner can be. Having Daddy put the baby to sleep and wake her up in the morning can soften the blow of not nursing during these times.
When to Stop Breastfeeding
There's no real right or wrong time to wean your child from your breast; it has more to do with your lifestyle. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that moms breastfeed for the first year, but only about 15 percent of moms actually do this, since going back to work, physical challenges, or simply wanting their bodies back prompts many women to wean sooner.
It's impossible to predict exactly how your child will react to weaning, but there are certain ages and developmental periods when change in general is tricky. Claire Lerner, LCSW, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C., advises against weaning during a time when your child is undergoing another significant change, such as moving homes, starting daycare, or even learning to walk.
But, Lerner adds, figuring out exactly when to stop breastfeeding depends on your child's temperament: "If you have a go-with-the-flow kind of child who handles transitions well, then something like a vacation might be a good time to wean, but otherwise it's best to wean when things are pretty stable in their lives."
Weaning 0-6 Months
Bottles are the bottom line when you're weaning a baby under 6 months old; for every nursing session you drop, you'll substitute a bottle feeding. Sounds simple, but convincing your baby to accept that tasty bottle may not be so easy, especially if he's more than 3 months old. "Infants become more aware of what's going on around them between 3 and 4 months," says Lerner. "So you may encounter more resistance at this point."
She recommends integrating a few bottles of breast milk into your feeding schedule early on, at about 6 weeks, so that your baby will be comfortable with both ways of feeding. But if your thirsty baby refuses to take the bottle anyway, the key to success is patience and experimentation. Try having someone else offer the bottle, feeding in a different location, or holding your baby in a new position. And, above all, keep calm. "Babies pick up on our tension and become more tense themselves," Lerner says.
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"In the first few months, your breasts will be very full," says Rosenfeld, "and if you're not careful, you can end up with engorgement." Your breasts will be uncomfortably hard and heavy, maybe even red and hot to the touch. This can lead to plugged ducts, which can lead to mastitis, so it's important to treat symptoms early.
The slower you wean, the less likely you'll suffer from engorgement, says Rosenfeld, but if you do end up with uncomfortably full breasts, ice them for about five minutes whenever they feel painful. If this doesn't do the trick, you can pump for relief, but be sure to limit it to three minutes or so, just enough to feel some comfort.
Alleviating your body's aches and pains is relatively simple, but finding comfort for the emotional woes of weaning may be more of a challenge. For Kari Bennett, of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, breastfeeding was an uphill battle from the start, and after a bout of mastitis and losing her milk supply in one breast, she decided to wean daughter Jorja at 6 weeks. "I cried for a while, but I knew it was what I needed to do," she reflects. "Once I stopped pumping and nursing, I was so relieved, and I had more time to spend with my daughter."
Jane Machin, of Blacksburg, Virginia, was ambushed when her 6-month-old decided he was through with nursing, well ahead of her schedule. "I was a mess," she recalls. "It felt like Jordy was rejecting me personally. If he could take a bottle from anyone, then what use was I?"
New York City mom Lyss Stern, on the other hand, knew from the get-go that she'd wean at 3 months since her job as a teacher made it tough to pump. Being prepared, both physically and emotionally, made her weaning relatively pain free: "I loved our breastfeeding bond, so I did feel a little disconnected from my son at first," she admits, "but we quickly discovered other ways to be close."
Weaning 6-12 Months
From first foods to first steps, the second half of baby's first year is jam-packed with milestones. For many babies, weaning is yet another leap forward on this path of independence. Kari Poucher, of Orange County, California, had her heart set on nursing for a full year, so she was surprised when her son opted out at only 9 months. "I was sad that our breastfeeding relationship was ending sooner than I expected," says Poucher, "but ultimately I wanted him to have the freedom to choose, and that's what he did."
According to Bengson, babies often seem to lose interest in nursing between 8 and 10 months. "It's a time when they're taking in a lot of sensory information," she explains, "and this often leads to babies constantly pulling off the breast to look around." So if you're thinking of weaning, it might happen more easily during this window.
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Of course, while some older babies are determined to break the nursing ties that bind, many tots want that physical connection more than ever. "Separation anxiety tends to show up at about 9 months," says Lerner. "If you notice that your baby's really clingy, wait to wean until he's weathered this anxiety a little bit."
"Clingy" doesn't begin to describe Laura Ada Garafalo, says mom Jennifer, of Staten Island, New York. "No matter what we did, she'd never take a bottle, so I couldn't be away from her for more than two or three hours," Garafalo recalls. "After a year of this, I started to hate breastfeeding."
Garafalo tried to cut down on nursing sessions gradually, but Laura's frantic sobbing always crumbled her resolve. So, right after Laura's first birthday, this exhausted mom decided to wean cold turkey. "It was really terrible," she remembers. "Laura screamed nonstop for a week, and my breasts were lumpy and leaking all over the place. But I had no choice -- I had started to feel like a slave."
"I want my body back!" is a sentiment echoed by many nursing moms of older babies. Whether it's a matter of wanting to conceive another child, being pregnant again, or just being weary of breasts that wax and wane, moms often wean to free their body of a physical drain.
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Whatever the reason, whenever you wean—and whoever gets the process started—only one thing's for certain: you're bound to run into some surprises. "Just like every other aspect of motherhood, weaning very rarely happens the way we think it's going to," says Bengson.
Perhaps the most important part of getting ready is preparing yourself to be a little unprepared. It'll all turn out all right in the end, though, no matter how rough it may seem in the thick of things. "Weaning can feel really monumental," says Bengson, "but it's just one part of a loving and lifelong relationship with your child."
An important thing to note: If your baby is older than nine months, it's best to wean straight to a sippy cup and solid food to avoid putting your child through another transition from bottle to cup just a few months later (since all children should be off the bottle by their first birthday). It's a good idea to introduce your child to the cup about one month before you start the weaning process, so she has time to get comfortable holding and drinking from it. Pick a plastic spill-proof cup with a spout, which most closely mimics a nipple. At first, you should just offer water in the sippy cup during meals of solid foods. Then as your child gets more comfortable, start filling the cup with breast milk or formula so she gets used to the idea that all her beverages can come from a cup.
All-or-nothing isn't your only option. Many working moms prefer partial weaning, where a caregiver bottlefeeds during the day and Mom nurses when she's home. There are two strategies:
- Combo moms nurse when they're with the baby but have their caregiver feed formula. This may mean nursing right before you leave for work and as soon as you're home to prevent engorgement. On weekends, if your milk is low, you may want to supplement with formula. Kate Kelly, of Pelham, New York, took this tack with her son, Matthew. "I was engorged and leaking the first week back to work, then my body figured it out," she says. "But by 7 months, Matt lost interest. I wasn't nursing enough to keep up my milk supply. But it was nice while it lasted."
- Other moms pump at work so their caregiver can put breast milk in the bottle. You pump as often as your child would nurse, maybe about three 15-minute sessions in a day. Phillipa Wilson, of Orlando, says pumping got easier with each of her three kids: "I found ways to de-stress and got used to the fact that nothing's perfect but you do your best. Whatever happens, the baby will be okay, and you will too."
Wondering how and when to stop breastfeeding a child who can not only grab for the breast but gab for it too?
Ohio La Leche League leader Diane Bengson says that the key to avoiding meltdowns is to take your tot's mind off nursing. When your toddler starts hankering for the breast, lure her into a block-building bonanza, an engrossing game of make-believe, or a finger-painting frenzy.
Distraction was crucial for Megana Hosein, of San Jose, who started weaning her 15-month-old when she became pregnant again. It was important to Hosein that her daughter lead the weaning, but she found plenty of ways to help her along. "I literally buttoned up so that she never saw cleavage, and I avoided lying down with her," Hosein explains. "Basically, I didn't give her any reason to think about breastfeeding."