Weaning the Breastfed Baby

by Star Rodriguez, IBCLC for The Leaky Boob
this post made possible by the generous support of Fairhaven Health.

breastfeeding latch

In my practice, I do prenatal consults.  During these, almost 100% of the time, people ask me, “So, how long am I supposed to do this, anyway?”  I typically tell pregnant moms and their families that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you exclusively nurse for 6 months, continuing until at least a year once complimentary foods are introduced.  The World Health Organization recommends nursing until two years of age.  However, I always caution my families that breastfeeding is a very personal thing between a mother and baby dyad and that people typically have an idea of when they are done nursing.  This may vary from what you thought it would be while pregnant, or what it was during other breastfeeding relationships.

There are two different types of weaning.  Baby initiated weaning and mother initiated weaning.  Baby initiated weaning is probably the easiest way to do it.  The baby generally gradually starts nursing less and less until baby just eventually stops.  It’s easy for baby and easy for mom.  Well, mostly.  With either baby initiated weaning or mother initiated, there can be some sad feelings when the breastfeeding relationship ends.  Check out the post on weaning ceremonies to find ways to celebrate the nursing relationship.

A word of caution: some babies exhibit behaviors that we call nursing strikes.  Nursing strikes are not cues to wean.  They are when a baby who is normally fine with breastfeeding, or happy at the breast, will suddenly refuse it and become fussy, often in the first year.  This is typically not a baby signaling intent to wean.  It is usually linked to something like illness, teething, an increase in social behavior, or something like that.  True baby initiated weaning is not usually accompanied by an unhappy baby.

With mother initiated weaning the mother decides, for some reason, to cease breastfeeding.  This is a little harder on most babies, because typical breastfed babies like to nurse.  It is not, however, as hard as some people make it out to be.  I have had patients tell me that they cannot possibly nurse their babies because it will be a very difficult endeavor to wean them.  Trust that if you decide you are done breastfeeding, at any age you can stop, and you will probably not have to spend millions in therapy because of it.

I rarely recommend weaning cold turkey (where you just stop weaning, with no gradual step down.)    There are a few reasons why this is a bad plan in most circumstances.  First, babies don’t often take well to this.  If you suddenly stop breastfeeding and give babies just bottles, most of them will be a little confused and a lot upset.  Secondly, it’s not great for Mom, either.  Moms that wean suddenly often experience engorgement (again!) and can experience plugged ducts and infections.  It’s just not a lot of fun.

There are, however, some medical reasons that you may need to wean cold turkey.  First, make sure that this isn’t something that will only interrupt breastfeeding short term.  If it is, you may be able to pump and dump during that time and resume nursing after if you would like.  If it is a long term thing, though, try not to feel guilty or upset.  Many of these reasons for needing to wean are serious emergencies to one’s mental or physical health, and in those circumstances, do not worry about the short term effects to your baby.  No, it is not ideal.  But your baby will not benefit as much from gradual diminishment of breastfeeding as they will from a healthy parent.  If you are in pain from sudden weaning, you can express a little milk when you are uncomfortable until your milk begins to dry up.  You may be able to use other things to help your milk dry up faster, but if you have weaned for a medical reason, you should always check with your medical provider first.

In lieu of needing to wean immediately, most in the breastfeeding community favor the gradual approach.  In this, you replace one feeding, beginning with the least favorite, with something else.  For a baby that is nursing as a form of primary nourishment, such as those that are under a year, you will have to replace that feeding with an equal source of nourishment.  For most babies, this will be formula or expressed breastmilk.  Hopefully, your baby will accept another method of feeding already, but, if not, be sure to keep an open mind.  You may offer the new type of feeding; someone else may offer it; and you can think of various different ways to give your baby nourishment (bottle, cup, sippy cup, syringe, etc., depending on age.)  If you have an older child who is receiving her primary nourishment from other foods, like most nursing toddlers, you can offer things like water (or another liquid) from a cup, a snack, or some kind of redirection.  You can also explain to your child – “We aren’t going to nurse right now, so we’re going to do (whatever) instead.”  Older children may not ask for it, and, if that happens, it is probably better to just not say anything at all.

After you have taken out that first, least important feeding, wait a few days or weeks (base this on the comfort of you and your baby – if your breasts are feeling overfull, or your child is not handling the transition well, you should wait a little longer until you adjust) and remove the next feeding.  That should be the new least important one.  (When I discuss the least important feedings, I mean the one the baby is the least attached to.  For example, often, the most important feeding is right before bedtime, and the least is during the day at some point.  Your mileage may vary, though.)  Again, wait until your breasts and baby have adjusted, and then repeat as needed.  You may find that partial weaning, where you remove some feedings while still allowing others, may be an option, too, if you are weaning for non-medical reasons.

During the time that you are weaning your baby, remember to be gentle on them – and you!  As I stated before, weaning can be an emotional experience for everyone, and the emotions may vary, a lot.  Some people feel happy and disappointed all at once.  Whatever you feel is ok.  Give your child lots of cuddles and kisses during this time.  You will both benefit from this and it will ease the transition.  When it is time to wean, whenever that is for you and your child, many moms discover that the relationship they have with their child changes some and while it is normal to miss what you had, new ways of bonding and sharing time together will emerge for you both to enjoy.

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How old was your baby when you weaned?  How did you feel?

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Comments

  1. My first weaned just after 3, after 8 months of tandem nursing because I was ready. We had talked about it in theory for a long time. I started saying the nanas were all done, would he like a snuggle, we were both sad, but it was time for me.

    My second weaned at 19 months because I had trouble getting pregnant. She was down to ineffectively nursing to nap and in the morning. I said we were all done, and she more or less said Ok, and was happy to just snuggle in our usually nursing time and place. Of course I found out two days later that #3 is coming in August. A little sad it is over, but she took it so well that I feel much more peace about it. And I am not done forever.

  2. My first weaned at 9 months. I had a lot of health issues and my family dr thought nursing her was taking to much so we cut down to just night time nursing and from there she slowly stopped and had her last milkie at 9 months. Shortly after her first birthday I was diagnosed with lupus and now just sigh of 4 years later I am nursing baby #2 going on 5 months and won’t even consider weaning til 1 year at this point and pleased to say my lupus has been in remission for 2 years.

  3. My oldest weaned fairly easily at 25 mo. He was only nursing once a day (for about 2 seconds) right before bedtime. We talked about it for a month (reminders every week that there were x days left). The last day was sad for mommy, but he was ok with it. He asked for it once or twice after that, but was fairly easily redirected. My current nursling is 26 months and *does not* want to stop!! I am trying the same method as before, but she is adamant that she needs “nursies’ at bedtime / in the morning and on weekends before her nap. Sigh. I’m a bit frustrated since I’m ready to end the nursing (although I love the snuggling). I’m hesitant to ‘force’ it though since she’s also potty training, and generally going through the two-year-old struggle of how to have any sort of control or autonomy when one is a virtual midget. Any thoughts?

  4. My first weaned at 5 months, more from my lack of experience. I gave her a lot of bottles when out instead of nursing and she found it was easier to look around while feeding from a bottle.

    My second weaned at 10 months, he would never take a bottle up to this point, I was away for a weekend, he took the bottle and when I got back, he refused to nurse at all. I tried for over a week to get him to re-establish any of his feeds but to no avail.

    I am currently nursing my third, he is 9 months, but I think he is starting to self wean. He prefers to sit and eat during the day instead of nurse. I also find that certain days he prefers the bottle to the breast, again so that he can look around and see what’s happening.

    I am still hoping to meet my goal of one year in some fashion, even if it is only night time feeds.

    Thank you for this article, as it was very timely for me.

  5. Jessica gee says:

    I’m thinking my son will nurse forever. He’s just now 3yrs old. Thank God I love nursing because I’m also nursing his 9 month old sister. I feel like these kinds of tips are great but they’re targeted to 12-18 months and under. Especially after 24 months I feel like they’re real lack of support/ideas/suggestions. *sigh*

    • Hi Jessica,

      Are you wanting to wean your son? If so, these are the same suggestions offered, particularly for mother led weaning. The difference is essentially in language capabilities but starting with setting some boundaries on when you will nurse is usually how most go. I know that’s what I did with my older one when I led the weaning. But if you’re ok continuing and doing child led weaning then you’re doing great. If you’re ready to be done though then picking a feeding and putting those boundaries in place is a good place to start. It’s entirely up to you. Sometimes it is harder for the older ones, or rather they can be more forceful and articulate in expressing their displeasure about it if they are resistant. Distraction and replacement (i.e. reading/cuddling) are usually key though I did have one that really required me to not be available to nurse during the feedings we were cutting out at the time. ~Jessica

  6. My first born nursed until he was 19 months, and I was about 5 months pregnant. My milk began to dry up and although he would still try he would get upset and tug and sometimes bite because nothing was coming out. I felt a bit sad that he was not ready {really, neither was I} but he was fine in the end. My second nursed until he was 32 months, which surprised me in a sense because I never really set intentions to nurse that long. It was something that worked well for us, and was soothing for him. I initiated him weaning, as I felt it was time to change some sleep habits etc. he really only nursed 1-2 times a day for a good 4 months, so it went relatively smoothly. He did ask me a few weeks ago to nurse- after not nursing for about 1.5 months. I said we could cuddle
    Instead and he was happy with that. I truly am so thankful to have had a smooth go of nursing and look forward to any babies in the future 🙂

  7. I felt so lucky with my first – She self weaned somewhere around 2.5 years old. I can’t tell you the exact age because it was SOOOO gradual that one day I realized that she hadn’t nursed in several days. There was no pain, no tears (ok, so I MAY have shed a few when I realized we were done). All in all, we had a beautiful experience.
    Now, with my 2nd, he is 2 years and 7 months and would nurse ALLLL day long if he had his way! I have been redirecting him for months, at least during the day. It gets to the point where my nipples are sore and he can be rather demanding at the most inconvenient times. Nursing a toddler is fine with me, I do it all the time, at home and in public. However, I am no longer an All You Can Eat, Vegas Buffet, open 24 hours. I know that may sound harsh, but he is a very very active, stubborn, willful, amazing little boy who knows what he wants and does not take NO for an answer! My husband jokes that he will take me with him on his first date and tell the waitress he doesn’t need a drink because Mom is here!!

  8. My first, I pumped for 9 months. We gradually had to add more formula because my body wasn’t producing enough to pump effectively, and despite my best efforts my son had refused me. He weaned from nursing because we had a horrible yeast infection when he was just a couple weeks old. It was so painful to nurse that I gave up on that and started pumping until the infection was gone (still trying to nurse him at least once a day). He preferred the bottle after that, and was always frustrated at the breast.

    My second is 1 year old today, yay! This article has been great for me, as I am debating if we should step down on the nursing. So far, he has never had formula, and he has derived the majority of his nutrition from my milk. Usually, I pump once a day before I go to bed. The pumping is my least favorite part of breastfeeding, and I think I am going to drop that from my routine, but continue nursing him throughout the day and before he goes to sleep. If we run out of frozen milk, I think I am ok with him having whole milk when he is away from me.

  9. Melissa G. says:

    Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. My son will be a year old on the 14th. He hasn’t had many bottles, but takes them well. I am trying to wean off the midnight pumping session, then from there I am going to try to gradually wean breastfeeding. I have a whole stock pile of milk in the freezer, I plan to have him on breast milk until 2 years. I know I am ready to wean (gradually), but sometimes it is difficult to think about. Bittersweet. Thank you again for your words of wisdom and encouragement!

  10. Rachel Araiza says:

    My son is six months old. I am a full-time working mom. I pump every day on my lunch hour. Ever since my son has started sleeping more at night my supply has taken a nose dive. I usually nurse 100% on the weekends and in the evenings / early morning hours. I used to pump two 6oz bottles at lunch and now I am lucky if I can pump two 4 oz bottles. I used to get really full breast and now they always seem ½ empty. Just last night when I was nursing my son before bed he nursed from both sides and was still hungry. I had my husband warm him a 4 oz bottle and he drank every last drop on top of what he had already nursed from me! I am feeling very sad that our breastfeeding may soon be coming to an end and I am feeling inadequate that my body can no longer provide the nourishment he needs. :'( Suggestions?

  11. My daughter is almost 17 months and still going strong. I tried weaning her at 12 months but it just wasn’t the right time. She strongly resisted. I would like to start weaning again at 18 months. The problem is that ever since I tried weaning her the first time she is a boob addict. She is using me to pacify herself at night. She has to sleep right next to me of basically on top of me and be connected to my boob at all times. I could get away with not nursing during the day. She’ll cry a little then get over it. I just know weaning her at night will be a nightmare. I just need my bed back and my back to stop hurting. If I could get her in her bed and only nursing right before bed I would continue as long as she wanted…. Any advice??

    • I’m having the same issue! Mine in 17 mo and goes to bed around eight. She usually wakes up about 1 or 2 and wants to be in bed with me and any time she rustles she immediately wants to nurse. I’ve considered reintroducing the binky just so she has something else to help her sleep. She weaned herself off the binky when she started teething, which I thought was great, but I’m tired of being a mommy flavored pacifier!

  12. My son is 18 months old and still nursing. I may have to wean him in the next couple months because of medical reasons but I am keeping my fingers crossed that’s not the case. I would love to make it at least to his second birthday.

  13. DS is 14 months and we are slowly starting the weaning process since we are pregnant with #2 and I, personally, have no desire to tandem nurse. My goal is to have him weaned by summer, at 18-19 months, shortly before the baby arrives. DH and I had originally planned for me to continue pumping and giving him breastmilk in his cup through to 2 years, that way he’s still getting those nutrients and antibodies from me, but unfortunately I can’t reach let-down with my pump. I tandem pumped while he nursed when he was smaller and happily donated over 1,000 oz, but I can’t seem to get any milk unless he gets it flowing!

  14. I am so torn about this. I am currently bfing my fifth baby, but she is the only one I have succeeded with. My goal was 18 months and she will be 2 in April, so we are well past that. My personal cutoff age is 3. My problem is, she still wakes every night to nurse and I’m so tired of not having a full night’s sleep! Because of sleeping arrangements with her sisters I can’t just let her cry. We tried over Christmas break, having the girls sleep in the boys’ room, but she came down with an ear infection.

    I’m not at all eager to end this relationship. She is my last baby. She loves nursing so I know it will have to be me leading the weaning, whenever that ends up being.

    I just don’t know what to do!

  15. I am currently nursing my first baby, to be honest I wasn’t thinking about breastfeeding at all. I had this picture of me holding my child with a bottle, and him sleeping in his crib in the room next to mine. I always thought about the hospital birth, and how magical it was. Something in me awoke when I was pregnant that I ended up throwing all my dreams out the window. I co-sleep, I had a home birth, and at two years old I am still breastfeeding.

    There are times when I become a bit irritated, but I worked so hard to build up this nursing relationship I can’t really stop until completely sure. I went through a lot of pain the first three months, so I feel so accomplished. I don’t know how much longer it will last, my kiddo seems to be nursing less and less. I wonder when it will come to an end sometimes.

  16. I lasted about 16 months with my first and my second just turned 8 months and we are still going strong. I was much more anxious for it to end with my son. We did a lot of tapering off for a long time. But with my daughter, I don’t want it to ever end! Except the pumping part! I am counting down the days until I can throw that puppy out the window!

  17. I initiated weaning when my son was 2.5 and I was 9 weeks pregnant. I dried up completely at about 6 weeks and I found nursing dry to be painful and immensely irritating. I loved nursing for so long and never thought I could hate it as much as I did at the end. I came to dread the flood of rage I would feel every time he latched on. I thought it better for our relationship to wean. We were down to four times a day and I gave him a few days warning that we would be stopping the morning nursing session. When the day came he was furious! The next day he was sad and the third day snuggled happily instead, but then in protest he refused the naptime and middle of the night nursing. I was happy about it at the time and thought it meant he was ready, but the more I know my son the more I think it was a sad thing. He was rejecting me before I could reject him. He nursed before bed for about another week and each day I would ask him a little but sooner every day “is there any milk?” He would answer no and stop nursing. I didn’t fully realize the emotional toll it took on him until I expressed some milk for his baby brother. I offered my now 3 year old some in a cup and he was excited at first but after a few sips my sensitive son got really upset. At first he didn’t want to talk about it but then told me he was feeling sad because he was remembering drinking mama milk and that he had to stop. Sometimes I feel guilty for initiating weaning when I know he wasn’t ready, but I know it was the best choice at the time based on my own emotional and physical tolerance.

  18. Ok…posting again. I got a bad case of the flu last week, and along with feeling miserable, it totally dehydrated me. So i basically had to abruptly wean our 27mo old. She was just nursing before bedtime, and mostly for comfort, but Oh my she is soooo upset and cried for nursies. When i told her they were broken and didnt work, she sobbed that i should get new ones. Tonighht she was still sad, but more easily consoled. I’m sad too.. She’s my last baby, and I don’t want to make her feel so bereft. 🙁

  19. My LO is about to be 1 year in a few weeks and we want to get pregnant again. When I began this BFing journey I wanted to do it a year and although we have had many trials and tribulations along the way; mastitis, plugged ducts, and weight issues we have persevered and almost made it to that year mark. Part of me is ready to be done and move on but the other part of me is not willing to give up that bond that I have with my little guy. I am also at a loss as to where he will get his nourishment from if he’s not BFing? I have a huge supply of milk in my freezer that I will use and he eats 3 meals a day with us, but will that be enough? I do not want to do cow’s milk, we drink almond milk. I don’t want to breast feed while pregnant either. In the beginning I never thought this day would come and its just round the corner. Just looking for some advice as to how other mothers weaned their LO’s by their choice.

  20. My little one is 12 months old and with how hard nursing was up front (especially with a newborn!) I thought I would rejoice the moment she turned a year old so that we could stop immediately. However, now it is something I almost can’t imagine giving up! The time to snuggle and bond with her is amazing and I will be absolutely torn if she starts to self wean anytime soon. (Talk about a total 360!)

    I just wrote a blog on this topic (http://theduggans2011.blogspot.com/2013/02/overly-emotional.html) expressing my reluctance to end our BFing relationship and welcome any/all advice from leakies who have been there/done that!