Weaning 101: Everything You Need To Know Before You Stop Breastfeeding

Ready to stop breastfeeding? Take back your boobs and wean baby the healthy way.

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The first time we tried breastfeeding—when my kid was only minutes old—he chomped down on my boob like he’d been doing it for months. A few hours later, the lactation consultant proclaimed that he was the best nurser she’d ever seen in labor and delivery. Literally hours after the LC lavished this praise upon us, things unraveled in the breastfeeding department. After only a couple minutes of nursing, my son would fall fast asleep, and none of the tricks they teach you to wake them up—like tickling their feet—worked. My child snoozed right through every nursing attempt. From then on, nursing was a struggle. I tried everything. I took fenugreek tablets. I ate oatmeal. I pumped every two hours like clockwork no matter when I nursed. And still, breastfeeding was hard. My baby was in the bottom 10th percentile for weight at his 2-month check-up, which made me cry. And then I cried again when he got his shots (it was a hard day). I started supplementing with formula after that appointment. Like magic, my kid started guzzling down bottles and putting on weight. When my period came back at five months postpartum, my already lagging milk supply plummeted. I decided to go ahead and stop breastfeeding my son even though I had really wanted to breastfeed until he was much, much older. We’ve all heard “Breast is best,” but sometimes medical conditions, early breastfeeding mistakes, stress, and other factors can make breastfeeding a huge burden rather than the joyful bonding experience it’s meant to be. And even if you didn’t experience any issues but you’re just ready to stop breastfeeding, that’s okay too! If you’re ready to stop breastfeeding, welcome to the judgment-free zone. This weaning guide is full of nothing but positive information and helpful tips to stop breastfeeding, so that baby and mom can get on with living their best lives with as little stress as possible. Ready to take back your boobs? Here’s everything you need to know to stop breastfeeding.

Stop breastfeeding…and stop feeling guilty!

One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make was to stop breastfeeding. I felt bombarded with judgment: from other breastfeeding moms, from my pediatrician, and worst of all, from myself. Now, three months later, I still feel guilty about stopping breastfeeding “early,” even though my kid is happy and healthy. “The whole ‘Breast is best’ saying takes this [feeling of guilt] to a whole other level where moms can start to feel like it’s all or nothing, thinking that they need to breastfeed exclusively and perfectly for the whole first year (and beyond if they so choose) or else they are a bad mom and their child is doomed,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed therapist in Flower Mound, Texas, who specializes in women’s issues. She says, “This mentality doesn’t leave room for moms who may need to stop breastfeeding before they are ready because of an illness or work or a myriad of other issues, or simply because they don’t like breastfeeding and are ready to stop for personal reasons.” So what can you do to leave the guilt behind when you decide to stop breastfeeding? There are several things you can do to protect your own mental health when you decide to stop breastfeeding, McBain tells HealthyWay. “Surround yourself with supportive, positive people, especially other mothers who have been in your shoes,” says McBain. “Also, let yourself feel how you are feeling and don’t just stuff these feelings down because they are hard and uncomfortable.” For me, that was one of the hardest parts of weaning, especially because we stopped breastfeeding sooner than we expected to. I only knew other moms who seemed to be breezing along in the breastfeeding department, and it made me feel like a total failure. But several weeks later, a friend reached out to me because she was also struggling to breastfeed, and it felt wonderful to finally know someone else understood what I was going through. One of the most important things you can do when you’re trying to stop breastfeeding is take time each day for your own self-care. Lately, before my kid wakes up, I’ve been doing a 15-minute morning routine of dry brushing and a short yoga flow to center myself and get ready for the day. It’s a small act of self-care, and it really does set the tone for the rest of the day. Sometimes though, self-care isn’t enough to get you through rough patches as a new mom. If you’re struggling with feelings of guilt, grief, or hopelessness during weaning, know that you’re not alone. “Postpartum mood disorders—depression, anxiety, OCD, et cetera—are more common than most people realize, so any time mom is just not feeling like herself and feels like something is off or just isn’t right—depressed mood, excessive worry, intrusive thoughts, et cetera—she needs to reach out for support as soon as possible, starting with her doctor or a maternal mental health specialist,” says McBain. Together, you and your healthcare provider can work to address the underlying issues that may be affecting your mental health as you try to stop breastfeeding. Because you know what’s really best? A happy, healthy mom.

A Guilt-Free Guide to Stop Breastfeeding

I hope you brought your freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils, ladies, because you’ve just entered Weaning 101 (no expensive textbook required). “Weaning means changing the relationship a mother has with her child,” says Amanda Ogden, RN, BSN, an international board-certified lactation consultant and co-founder and director of lactation services and education at the mama ’hood. “Once the mother has decided the time is right, and really because the work of breastfeeding is solely the mother’s work, the decision to wean is hers to make.” Well, it’s hers to make most of the time.

There are actually two kinds of weaning: mama-led and baby-led weaning.

My decision to stop breastfeeding was definitely mama-led. My little one was only 5 months old, but my milk supply had always been low, and we supplemented with formula early on, so he really didn’t even notice the transition. But if a baby is exclusively breastfed for a longer period of time, it may be a bit tougher to stop breastfeeding if baby hasn’t given cues that he’s ready. Still, it can be done, and baby will be just fine if mom has to stop breastfeeding before age 1. “If a mother is leading the weaning, she should do this slowly and replace nursing sessions with a bottle feeding or cup feeding if baby is older,” says DeeDee Frank, a certified lactation consultant at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “A slower approach actually helps the mother and baby slowly adjust to the decrease nursing sessions.” Mama-led weaning, if done slowly, can be a gentle way to decrease your milk supply, meaning less engorgement for you and more time to adjust to weaning for baby. Before you stop breastfeeding, Ogden suggests you take a few minutes to answer these questions (see, I told you the pencil would come in handy!):

  • Will weaning make your life harder or easier?
  • Do you feel sad when you think about stopping breastfeeding?
  • Is your child showing signs that he/she is ready to stop breastfeeding?

If you can answer these questions in a way that makes you feel good about your decision to stop breastfeeding, then you should go ahead and begin the weaning process. Baby-led weaning, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. If you have an older baby, this may be an ideal way to stop breastfeeding. As baby gets older, he or she may be less interested in the breast and more interested in yummy solids or drinking from a big-kid cup. (If your little one isn’t quite a year old yet, see our tips below for weaning safely before 1.) If you’re totally over it but your baby still loves to nurse, try night weaning to gently encourage your little one to stop breastfeeding on their own. Skipping those nighttime feedings may result in a couple of sleepless nights as baby adjusts, but pretty soon he’ll be sleeping soundly through the night and may begin to show less interest in nursing during the daytime as a result.

Stop breastfeeding gradually.

The key to successful weaning is a gradual reduction of breastfeeding, says Ogden. “If there is a situation where a mother must wean abruptly for medical reasons, then she should continue to pump or hand express enough to keep her breasts comfortable but not enough to empty the breasts. …It is easiest on the mother’s body and mood to slowly decrease the number of times per day she is breastfeeding. Weaning too rapidly can cause a rapid shift in the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which can lead to depression.” Start the weaning process by only nursing when your baby or toddler initiates breastfeeding. If you breastfeed for comfort during nap or bedtime, or when baby is just fussy, try using other comfort methods to soothe your fussy tot. “When I weaned my boys, I missed my instant soother too, and I had to find new ways to soothe them,” says Nicole Johnson, founder of The Baby Sleep Site. “Cuddling and reading on the couch (we started reading at 4 months old), hugs, kisses, laying down in the bed while not nursing, and lots of touch can help. …By retraining our own behavior, we can change expectations, so nursing isn’t the only thing your baby looks to you for!”

Routine is key when you stop breastfeeding.

Once you figure out what comfort measures work in place of breastfeeding, use those as part of a regular routine so that your child understands nursing is no longer an option. This can be especially hard when baby wakes up in the middle of the night expecting his 3 a.m. feeding (see night weaning, above). But there is good news! For starters, breastfeeding is something only mama can do. But now that you’re weaning, if there’s another caregiver in the picture, they can get in on the middle-of-the-night soothing action too (and you might be able to catch up on some much needed ZZZs). If you’re comfortable with co-sleeping, you might also decide to snuggle baby in bed with you when he wakes for a nighttime feeding. The safety baby feels while lying close to you may be enough to soothe him back to sleep. However, if you’re not comfortable with bedsharing, there are other comfort measures you can try to get baby back to sleep. “We also recommend using a replacement object, also known as a lovey, which could help soothe baby back to sleep,” says Johnson. A lovey could be anything: a soft square of blanket, one of mom’s old shirts, or a small stuffed toy. Just make sure it’s something you can replace easily. Lovies are notoriously easy to lose, and heaven help the parent who can’t find it at bedtime! There are different ways to introduce a lovey, but basically your baby will begin to associate bedtime with the lovey instead of nursing and use the lovey to self-soothe when they wake. Lovies can also be wonderful during stressful situations, like baby’s first flying experience or long car trips. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s part of a regular routine so that baby comes to expect the new routine rather than a nursing session when you stop breastfeeding.

Avoid engorged breasts when you stop breastfeeding.

Remember when your milk came in, and like the Grinch’s heart, your breasts also grew three sizes that day? That was engorgement. Your breasts were probably really swollen, hard, and downright painful. And in those first days, you probably only felt sweet relief when baby nursed. When you stop breastfeeding, you can expect your breasts to engorge again because, just like your baby is waiting to nurse, your breasts expect to be emptied at the same times each day. To minimize engorgement, wean slowly. You may still need to pump a bit even if you’re not nursing, but only pump to relieve the pressure, not to drain the breast as you would during a normal nursing or pumping session. If your breasts do become engorged when you stop breastfeeding, there are a few remedies out there that can help suffering mamas. If you’re into natural remedies, stuffing cold cabbage leaves into your bra really does help with engorgement. Plus, you’ll have a healthy snack for later! When my breasts became engorged, I used Lansinoh Thera°Pearl 3-in-1 Breast pads, and they were a lifesaver! I loved that you could just pop them in the freezer, and they really helped with the soreness.

Successfully switch to formula when you stop breastfeeding before age 1.

It seems like there are about a thousand different kinds of formula out there, so it can be overwhelming to try to find the formula that’s right for your baby if you stop breastfeeding before age 1. It’s also extremely important to note that before age 1, baby should only be drinking formula or breast milk, not cow’s milk. If baby is less than a year old, formula or breast milk is the only nutrition baby really needs, even after they start solids, typically around 6 months old (hence the phrase “Food before one is just for fun”). Successfully transitioning your baby to formula may take a bit of trial and error as you see which formula your baby prefers. For example, my baby only likes the powdered kind of of his favorite formula. We tried the ready-to-drink kind of the same exact formula, and he would not have it. Sigh. Such are the whims of a 6-month-old. As you experiment, try mixing formula with a bit of breast milk so your baby isn’t totally shocked by the new taste and texture. Gradually reduce the amount of breast milk until your baby is only drinking formula. Spoiler alert: Formula ain’t cheap. If the sticker shock of buying large amounts of formula each week makes you want to weep, take to social media and ask friends to send you their free samples [linkbuilder id=”4268″ text=”and formula”] coupons.

Can I nurse my baby again if I stop breastfeeding?

“If a mom changes her mind and wants to go back to breastfeeding, it will depend on how long she has been dropping breastfeeding sessions and the age of the baby whether she can recover her milk supply and the baby will want to nurse,” says Franke. “It is possible to return to breastfeeding, but it may take some work, especially if mom has also dropped her milk supply.” A return to breastfeeding will depend on a couple of factors: How long has it been since baby weaned? Does baby even seem interested in breastfeeding? According to an article by Anne Smith, international board-certified lactation consultant, re-lactation is easiest with a baby younger than 3 months old. Older babies may enjoy drinking from a bottle or cup and may be unwilling to return to the breast. Still, in most cases, re-lactation can be accomplished with the help of a certified lactation consultant. If you’re interested in breastfeeding again after weaning, contact your local La Leche League chapter for guidance from certified lactation consultants and moms who have been there. Okay, mamas, put those pencils away. Weaning 101 has concluded, and there’s no test. You all passed with flying colors. So go on, moms, take back your boobs (and don’t feel guilty about it, either). Because we all deserve bite-mark free breasts, nipples that aren’t chafed, and to stop breastfeeding guilt-free—if that’s our choice.

Weaning 101: Everything You Need To Know Before You Stop Breastfeeding

Katie Martin
Katie Raye Martin is a freelance writer, navy wife, new mom, and chocoholic. In addition to HealthyWay, she has contributed to NextGenMilSpouse, a blog for the millennial military spouse, and Pregnant Chicken, a pregnancy blog. Since welcoming her first son a few months ago, Katie has become a pregnancy expert and cloth diapering connoisseur. When she’s not writing (or changing diapers) Katie is training for her first half-marathon.

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