There’s no universal approach to weaning, but a few golden rules can make the transition go smoothly. We've rounded up advice from lactation consultants and developmental experts for how to wean off breastfeeding.

By Nicole Caccavo Kear
Updated March 17, 2020
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Credit: Uv Group/Shutterstock

There's no ideal time to wean your child from your breast; it has more to do with your lifestyle. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, then supplemental breastfeeding until Baby turns one. But only about one-third of moms actually do this—going back to work, physical challenges, or simply wanting their bodies back prompts many women to wean sooner.

What’s more, it's impossible to predict exactly how your child will react to weaning. 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."

So when you decide to cut down on breastfeeding, how should you handle the transition? We spoke with lactation consultants and developmental experts for weaning tips. 

How to Wean: 0-6 Months

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  Diane Bengson, author of How Weaning Happens (La Leche League International) and longtime Ohio La Leche League leader. That said, here are some tips for how to wean off breastfeeding before your little one turns 6 months old.

Rely on bottles.

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.

Prevent engorgement.

"In the first few months, your breasts will be very full," says Freda Rosenfeld, former president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association. “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.

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.

Go slowly.

When it comes to helping your little one 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. Rosenfeld 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.

How to Wean: 6-12 Months

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.

Of course, while some older babies are determined to break nursing ties, 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." Here are some more tips.

Consider skipping the bottle.

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.

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 little one 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 Bengson. 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.

Use distractions.

For older babies and toddlers, Bengson says that the key is distraction. When your kids starts hankering for the breast, lure her into a block-building bonanza, an engrossing game of make-believe, or a finger-painting frenzy.

What About Partial Weaning?

All-or-nothing isn't your only option. Many working moms prefer partial weaning, where a caregiver bottle feeds during the day and Mom nurses when she's home. There are two strategies:

Nursing and formula-feeding: Combination 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

Nursing and pumping: 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.