Weaning from Breastfeeding: How to Do It at Every Age

Just when you finally get the hang of nursing, it's time to wean your baby. Here's how to wean from breastfeeding, ensuring the transition from breast to bottle is a surefire success.

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Photo: Uv Group/Shutterstock

At some point, every lactating parent asks themselves the same question: "When should I wean?" The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding exclusively until your baby is 6 months old, then serving a combination of solids and breast milk until they turn 1. Newest updates to these guidelines recommend offering support for parents who want to provide human milk until the child is 2. But weaning is ultimately a personal decision that should be based on what's best for your family. Indeed, going back to work, physical challenges, or simply wanting their bodies back prompts many lactating parents to wean sooner than the AAP recommends—and that's totally OK.

Your weaning timeline also depends on your baby's temperament and reaction. 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. "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," says Lerner. "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 to learn how to wean from breastfeeding at every age.

How to Wean: 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 they're 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.

Here are some more tips for weaning a baby who's less than 6 months old:

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 feeling uncomfortably full, try expressing your milk, but 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 Diane Bengson, author of How Weaning Happens (La Leche League International) and longtime Ohio La Leche League leader, 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 for weaning from breastfeeding after 6 months.

Consider skipping the bottle. If your baby is older than 9 months, it's best to wean straight to a sippy cup and solid food. This lets you avoid putting your child through another transition from bottle to cup just a few months later (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 they have 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 expressed milk or formula so they get used to the idea that all their beverages can come from a cup.

Amp up attention. The intimacy that goes with nursing is what lactating parents 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 your partner put the baby to sleep and wake them 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 kid starts hankering for the breast, lure them into a block-building bonanza, an engrossing game of make-believe, or a finger-painting frenzy.

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