How and when to wean your baby

Just as it’s a personal decision about whether to breastfeed, deciding when to wean your baby or stop breastfeeding is also a personal decision. Here are some ideas to help you know how and when it's time to wean your baby.

How long should I breastfeed?

As for how long to breastfeed, the recommendations vary. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends women breastfeed their baby exclusively for the first six months and then continue breastfeeding until 12 months of age. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends babies breastfeed exclusively for six months, and then continue breastfeeding until age two years and beyond.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding has many benefits for babies and also for moms. The antibodies in breastmilk help protect babies from illness. Breastmilk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and protein to help your baby continue to grow. 

Breastfeeding is also a great benefit to the environment and society. Breastfeeding families are sick less often and parents miss less work. Breastfeeding does not require the use of energy for manufacturing or create waste. There is no risk of contamination and it is always at the right temperature and ready to feed. As long as you breastfeed, you and your baby will reap those benefits.

Some reasons you may want or need to wean your baby

Sometimes women may need to wean their baby or they may choose to wean their baby. Talk with a lactation consultant, and ask about what options you might consider. Some reasons moms may start to think about weaning might be:

  • Returning to work. Often you can still breastfeed after returning to work, by pumping milk when you’re away from your baby. Current U.S. laws (“Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law”) require employers to allow the time and a place for pumping milk.
  • Concern about taking medications that would transfer into breastmilk. Most medications are safe to take while breastfeeding. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the medication you’re taking is safe for your baby.
  • Traumatic circumstances may mean you need to stop breastfeeding, such as when you have a stillborn baby or a baby that dies as an infant. 
  • Medical concerns. If you or your baby needs to receive medical treatment and are concerned about if you can continue to breastfeed, talk to your doctor or a lactation consultant. If you have a baby in the Neonatal ICU, you can pump your milk. Breastmilk is especially beneficial for preemies. 

When to wean your baby

Sometimes your baby will lead the weaning. Or sometimes mom can lead the weaning. But the best way to wean is to do it gradually. Abrupt weaning is hard for baby and for mom. Here are some ways start weaning gradually.

Weaning before six months is harder than when your baby is older. If your baby is eating solid food, they will gradually become less interested in nursing.

Wean your baby gradually

There are different methods to wean your baby. The latest information on weaning states that a mom should wean gradually to help avoid trauma to the infant, avoid a breast infection (mastitis) and to make it more comfortable for the mom.

How to wean your baby

  • Baby lead weaning. Don’t offer to nurse your baby, but don’t refuse if your baby wants to nurse.
  • Drop one feeding at a time. Start with the feeding your baby will miss the least or their least favorite time for feeding. You can drop one more feeding per day about every 3-7 days. If you drop about one feeding per week, your milk supply will decrease gradually, which is more comfortable for you and then your baby can adjust gradually too.

Challenges with weaning your baby

Sometimes a baby is difficult to wean. You can use distraction, and do another favorite activity with your baby at the time you’d usually nurse.

  • Disrupt your routine. You might have to change locations or avoid the place where you usually nurse.
  • Plugged milk ducts or mastitis can occur if you don’t wean gradually. If you get a plugged milk duct or lump in your breast, massage it while you are feeding or pumping.  The shower is a great place to work out a plugged milk duct.  Mastitis is a breast infection. Symptoms include a fever, redness, swelling and pain in the breast. Treatment includes frequent milk removal, rest and lots of fluids. Some ways to prevent mastitis are to pump or hand express milk if your breasts are too full. Use a cold compress if you have mastitis or pain in your breasts. You can use a bag of frozen vegetables as a cold compress. Don’t place ice directly on the skin. Ibuprofen can help with pain or swelling. 
  • Emotions surrounding weaning. Some mothers feel a deep sadness when they wean because it means their baby is moving on to another stage of life. These feelings are normal. Make sure you give extra love, hugs, and attention to your baby as they wean. You can start new habits like playing or reading a book together. If you have to wean your baby and you’re not ready, you may feel anger and sadness. This is normal.

When you wean your baby you may also feel a little more freedom. Weaning means you’re free to leave your baby for longer periods of time if you have someone you trust who can watch your baby.