How to stop breastfeeding
Weaning from the breast
Many breastfeeding mothers struggle in the early weeks with certain aspects of breastfeeding, but then can move forward, overcoming those hurdles, and begin to enjoy the breastfeeding relationship.
A large number of women breastfeed into toddlerhood or beyond, but then come to a point where they need to know how to stop breastfeeding!
So if you are wondering how to stop breastfeeding, you need to consider whether you have already started the process.
For many mothers, this began when you started giving solids around the six-month mark, and gradually introduced something other than breast milk, and perhaps started to offer some other fluids at a later stage too.
All of this contributes to a gradual weaning from the breast.
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and that means no water or solids or anything else, just your breast milk – but then to carry on with breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond.
There is great flexibility, and there isn’t a cut-off point, after the two-year mark.
So think about you and your toddler being on a journey where you have great flexibility. At the right time and in the right way, you can bring breastfeeding to a close.
Many myths are abounding, which suggests that breastfeeding doesn’t have any benefits when your baby reaches a certain age, but this is not true!
Your breastmilk still contributes to nutrition, even into toddlerhood, and continues to provide antibodies to help protect from illness.
As your baby becomes a toddler and feeds less frequently, there is a higher concentration of antibodies.
Breastmilk becomes more like colostrum again. It’s also essential to learn that little ones tend to wean at different ages.
It could be that your child is ready at eighteen months or two years or three years. Some have been ready at four years – and this is perfectly normal across the world.
If you take every mother and baby pair in developing countries, and in the west, the average age for weaning is about three to four years of age.
Because you and your little one are a unit, you have a very close connection.
If at all possible, try to wean gradually over a few weeks or months so that your milk supply can reduce very slowly, and it won’t be as stressful for you both.
You’ve probably already discovered that breastfeeding is an excellent mothering tool, and it also continues to provide comfort, reassurance and that incredible closeness that your little one needs.
Across cultures, this natural kind of weaning is seen as entirely normal, although not so much in the west. In the west, we tend to talk about partial weaning.
If you decide to wean your toddler from the breast partially, this will involve a bit of effort on your part, by substituting breastfeeding and distracting your little one, instead of feeding at the breast.
Gradually your body will reduce the amount of milk made, and this can happen over some time.
Gradual weaning is an excellent option as opposed to going ‘cold turkey’ and stopping breastfeeding abruptly.
So how can you start to implement partial weaning?
One of the most common, gentle approaches is not to proactively encourage feeding at the breast.
However, if your toddler comes to the breast, you don’t refuse.
It’s also crucial to be aware that as your supply starts to drop, you could potentially become engorged.
Blocked ducts can lead to mastitis, which can happen to women even at this late stage.
Another strategy you can try is to omit a feed and do this at the same time for maybe two to four days, to give your milk supply time to reduce.
You could also use the tactic of reducing the length of the feed – maybe just counting, or distracting your little one, or even postponing the feed.
Once you’ve got rid of one of those nursing sessions, and you’re confident that you’re not getting engorged in the process (which suggests that your milk supply has reduced), you can then cut out another nursing session.
Do that for a few days, and then another nursing session, and so on.
While you’re in the process of this gradual reduction you may need to offer a little snack for your little one, or some other distraction, e.g., going out to the park, reading a book or playing with a toy, anything that will cause your child to forget about coming to the breast.
These strategies may not work as well as hoped for, so it’s good to remain flexible, with lots of patience and understanding.
If your little one starts to get more distressed or gets an illness, for example, he is likely to want to come back to the breast again.
Flexibility is needed, and in some circumstances, it may be advantageous to delay the strategies for a little while longer.
When you start to drop specific feeds, know that your little one is likely to associate certain times of the day with a positive psychological feeling, the time he normally breastfeeds – often the feed that happens first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
These feeds are usually the hardest sessions to stop, so consider this.
Take things slowly – it may be that you keep those particular sessions right until the end, and then carry on for as long as you want with that final session.
You know your child better than anybody else, and so you can anticipate when he is likely to want to nurse, and pre-empt that.
Get that distraction ready, or a little snack, whatever is needed.
Your toddler is also likely to anticipate those feeds because perhaps, you always sit in a particular seat.
Consider altering some of those practical things.
If your child prefers to be feeding when he’s at home, and that has been a regular part of the ‘routine’, then during the weaning process it can be useful to go out more and distract him in that way.
It could, of course, work the other way round – your little one perhaps prefers to feed when he’s out and about, so in that situation, your strategy may involve staying at home more often.
Remain as flexible as possible while trying these strategies, and continue to reassess things regularly.
It may be that the strategy you’re trying to put in place right now is just not working well.
Sometimes, for either baby or mother, it may not be the right time. So stay flexible.
You may need to wait a few more weeks and retry those strategies when your toddler is a little bit older.
The vital thing to know is that there is flexibility.
If you decide to delay the weaning process, it may be necessary to look at the tactics that you’re using and set more specific limits on where you are going to feed.
Giving your little one a code word for feeding so that you can feed out and about and not be embarrassed (if that is an issue) can be useful.
Some women have carried on breastfeeding for much longer than they ever expected – which for some have meant feeding for weeks, months, or even years longer.
I think that the most important issue is to ensure that you learn as much as you can about breastfeeding, seek out support where needed, and make an informed choice on these matters.
Review dates, references & further resources
Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022
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