Weaning 101: How to stop breastfeeding (when Mom and baby are both ready!)

March 29, 2013 at 4:54 PM ET

How To Wean: Everything You Need To Know About Weaning Baby
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images /
How To Wean: Everything You Need To Know About Weaning Baby

Mastering the art of breastfeeding your baby is usually the hard part, so giving it up should be a piece of cake, right? For the most part, weaning can be very straightforward, but it takes a bit of time and patience. Here's what you need to know about how to wean your baby:

What is weaning? To wean is to gradually stop breastfeeding. You're discouraging your child—gradually—from physically nursing and leading her in a whole new direction—to a bottle, a sippy cup, or regular cup.

When should I wean? Choosing when to wean is a personal choice for moms and their babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then continuing, along with solid foods until at least a year (or longer if you both enjoy it), but many moms choose to wean sooner—especially if they're heading back to work and won't be able to use a breast pump regularly. Some choose the 12-month mark as a good time to make the switch to cow's milk. And if you're pregnant again, you'll probably want to wean your firstborn in order to free up your breasts (unless you plan to tandem nurse).

How should I wean my baby? Whenever you choose to wean, cold turkey is not the way to go. "Weaning should be gradual, because it's the kindest way for your baby," says Allison Walsh, past president of Lamaze and a certified lactation consultant. Suddenly withholding your breast can be traumatic for your babe or tot. "A slow wean is also safest when it comes to breast health because it will help prevent engorgement, clogged ducts and mastitis," she says.

To begin weaning your baby, drop the least productive nursing session (this may be a middle-of-the-night feeding or a shorter session during the day). After dropping it, wait several days to a week for your breasts to adjust before eliminating the next feeding. For babies under a year, you'll need to switch your breast milk feedings to formula ones. Ask your pediatrician how much formula and what kind your baby should be drinking (it depends upon her age, weight and how much solid food she's eating).

If you're weaning a slightly older baby (6 to 12 months), you'll be starting solid foods and can use this activity to distract a bit from breastfeeding. Still, the solid foods—especially early on, when you're just introducing a little—should complement the formula, not replace it.

Should I start with night weaning? For babies 4 to 6 months of age, dropping the middle-of-the-night feeding often makes sense. At this point, your baby is likely getting enough calories from her day feeds to stretch through most of the night. You can try shortening the session, little by little, and replacing the time with extra comfort and pats on the back. Or try to drop the night feeding by 'tanking up'—nursing her a bit more—in the evening. If she's weaned off the nighttime feeding, but continues to wake up and fuss to be nursed, have your partner go to her (your smell could make her want to breastfeed).

How do I wean a toddler? If your baby is into toddlerhood (and is no longer night feeding), drop the session that seems least important and replace it with cow's milk or a small snack. For most tots, the mid-morning feeding is ideal; the next might be one in the later afternoon, while the last ones to go are the first of the morning and the one that sends her off to sleep each night. As with a younger baby, wait several days to a week between each dropped feeding before dropping the next feeding to allow your breasts (and your tot!) to adjust.

Should I wean to a bottle, sippy cup or regular cup? A few moms prefer not to use a bottle at all, though most of the time babies under a year will be switched over to one. Moms with older tots (12 to 24 months) should try a sippy or regular cup. "One advantage to introducing a sippy cup is that it fosters a baby's hand-mouth coordination," says Walsh. The AAP recommends weaning from a bottle before 18 months to avoid the possibility of tooth decay. Start gradually, after the first birthday, and make the switch to a regular cup or sippy cup.

What if my baby won't wean? Alas, a change in routine can be very hard on some babies. Keep in mind that weaning may cause tears—or a tantrum in a toddler—and that both are very normal. Here, tips for making the process a little easier:

  • Don't wean during a time of transition, like a move to a new house, before you go on vacation, or just as you're heading back to work. If one of these events is on the horizon, build in some extra time so the weaning won't seem connected to the fact that you may be less available.
  • You may have to slow down or stop weaning if your child becomes sick (babies and toddlers will want to nurse more when they're ill).
  • Change up her routine at night to drive home the point that nursing has ended. For example, move the rocking chair to a different spot, reschedule her bath time, and have your spouse take over some (or all) of bedtime.
  • Distract your tot with play, stories, songs, or an outing if she gets a little teary when you would normally be breastfeeding. You can handle a toddler in the same way or you might also offer a drink of juice mixed with water and a small snack. Take your toddler to the store to let her pick out a special snack and sippy cup and let her to pour the milk or juice (with a little help from you).
  • Weaning means less closeness for your child, so plan to spend more time cuddling, reading, or playing.
  • Prepare for a tantrum or two from your older child. If she's verbal enough, you can explain it in simple terms: "Big girls drink from a cup." Ignoring it is usually the best course, rather than trying to reason too much with her (it'll blow over soon enough).

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.