Weaning your baby

Baby sitting in front of cake

Are you ready to wean? Do you think your child is ready to wean? Often, weaning happens gradually and without any conscious effort or action. But you may need to wean before your child would have naturally stopped nursing or receiving your milk. If you need or want to actively wean before it happens on its own, it is best for you and your child to go slowly. Weaning suddenly can be physically painful for you and emotionally hard on you and your baby.

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What is weaning?

From the first time you feed your baby something other than your milk, the process of weaning begins. Weaning is the journey for a child between being fully breastfed (or breastmilk-fed, if you feed pumped milk) and when the child stops nursing for comfort and nutrition.

When should I wean my baby?

In cultures where there is no social pressure to wean, children usually stop breastfeeding or receiving their mother's milk between 2½ and 7 years old.1

In families that let it happen on its own, weaning happens very gradually, often without any fuss, process, or effort.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following schedule as a guide:

  • Breastfeed exclusively (no other foods or drinks) for the first 6 months of your baby's life
  • After 6 months of age, continue to breastfeed and begin to add solid foods (this is when weaning begins)
  • After your baby's first birthday, continue to breastfeed for as long as both you and your baby are comfortable. Some mothers and babies continue to nurse into the toddler years and beyond. Breastfeeding is good for mother and child at any age, and no evidence has been found of developmental harm from breastfeeding an older child.

What are some signs that my child is ready to wean?

Children who wean themselves rarely do so suddenly and without warning. The process is generally slow and gradual, even for babies who wean from the breast earlier than is normal due to separation from their mothers, pacifier use, or bottle-feeding.

If your baby suddenly rejects your breast, it is more likely a nursing strike, not a readiness to wean. Read more about nursing strikes in our "Challenge: Nursing strikes" section.

You can watch for these signs, but they may be so gradual you may not notice:

  • Nursing sessions happen less often. As children age, they naturally become more occupied with playing, exploring, and using their new skills, such as walking, talking, and eating interesting foods. Nursing sessions get further apart, even to the point of happening once a day or, as time goes on, once every few days or a few times a month.
  • He or she loses interest in nursing. Young children (under 1 year old) who seem to lose interest in breastfeeding may do so because they get the comfort they need from sucking on pacifiers or their thumbs. These comforting behaviors may be more familiar to them than nursing. For these babies, weaning from the breast may not be difficult, but they still need your nurturing and feeding.

When should I not wean my baby?

If you need or want to wean before your child begins to wean, taking it slowly is best.

Consider delaying weaning if:

  • Your child is teething or sick. Your baby will need extra comfort during these times. Also, the disease-fighting cells (called antibodies) in your breastmilk help your baby fight off illness and germs.
  • Your family is going through a major change, such as moving, or if you recently went back to work and your baby is now in child care. It can be very tiring to work a full day and then breastfeed your baby at night, but know that it won't last forever.
  • Your baby is struggling. If your baby is resisting all your attempts to wean, it may just not be the right time. If you can, wait and try again in another month or two.

If you have been advised to stop breastfeeding because you need surgery or you take a certain medicine, be sure to get to a second opinion. There are very few reasons for complete weaning is absolutely necessary. You may still be able to breastfeed after surgery, and many medicines are safe for both baby and mother.

Talk to a lactation consultant who can help you decide whether you truly need to wean or just need some help getting you and your baby through a difficult time. You also can call the Office on Women's Health Helpline at 800-994-9662, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET to talk to a peer counselor in English or Spanish for free.

Also, try not to make the decision to wean on a day when breastfeeding is difficult.

How long does it take to wean?

The time it takes to wean depends on several factors, including:

  • Your baby's age
  • The number of times each day you usually breastfeed. This may be different from day to day, since you may nurse your child for comfort on some days and not on others.
  • Whether your child is ready to wean

Especially during the first year, when breastfeeding is your baby's main source of nutrition, weaning works best if you take it slowly. Eliminate one nursing session at a time over several days. For example, if you drop a feeding every three days and you usually nurse about eight times a day, it could take four weeks to fully wean your baby.

Will my baby need formula when I wean?

It depends on the age of your child.

If your baby is younger than 1 year:

Your baby will need formula to replace the nutrition that he or she gets at your breast. Because your breastmilk changes to meet your baby's needs as he or she gets older, he or she gets the nutrition he or she needs from the same amount of breastmilk at 9 months as at 3 months old. A 3-ounce feeding, for example, has the right amount of calories, nutrients, and immune factors to meet your baby's needs.

This is not true of formula. A breastmilk-fed baby who is weaned to formula may need more ounces of formula than breastmilk.

Because formula tastes different from breastmilk and being bottle-fed feels different from being breastfed, your baby may need your patience with the move to formula.

Talk to your child's doctor to find out how much formula your baby needs and how to recognize signs that your baby's stomach is tolerating the formula well.

If your baby is older than 1 year:

You can offer a meal or snack, or a drink of water or cow's milk (if tolerated) at the time you would normally feed your child.

If your child resists or seems not interested, remember that breastfeeding is also a time for your baby to be close to you. Sometimes a cuddle or getting to sit on your lap while having the snack helps to ease the transition away from the breast. Your pediatrician can advise you about good choices of foods for your toddler.

How do I wean my baby?

Weaning works best when it happens slowly, in its own time. But there are some reasons why you might have to stop breastfeeding before your baby is ready and even perhaps before you planned to stop breastfeeding.

Weaning your child suddenly — going "cold turkey" — may cause your breasts to become painfully engorged.

  • If your baby is still very young, you may need to express some milk from your breasts or pump a tiny amount if your breasts become uncomfortable. Do not express or pump the amount you normally would for a feeding. When you pump or nurse, your breasts make more milk in response. Removing less milk than normal means your breasts will make less milk. Contact an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) if you have overly full breasts while weaning. Find an IBCLC in your area.
  • You will need to substitute your milk with formula if your baby is younger than 1 year old. If your baby is older than 1 year, you can stop offering the breast and drop one feeding a time, over several weeks.
  • Start by taking away his or her least favorite feeding first. Nursing sessions that come before falling asleep or after waking are often the last ones to go. Wait a few days to drop another feeding.
  • Do not sit in a special nursing chair, but do offer extra cuddles or babywearing during this transition so your child can still enjoy being close to you.
  • Distract your child with an activity or outing during the times when you would normally nurse.
  • If your baby likes to nurse to sleep, let your partner do the bedtime routine.
  • Remember, even if you and your child are ready to wean, it can be hard emotionally on both of you. Give your baby lots of extra love and attention during this time.
  • Talk to your child about weaning. Even young children can understand what you are saying and offer their opinions and ideas for how best to stop breastfeeding.

Even when you wean slowly and gradually, it may still be uncomfortable for you. Try these tips to help ease discomfort.

Does weaning hurt?

If you wean slowly and gradually, you should not have a lot of discomfort or pain. Weaning suddenly can cause your breasts to become painfully engorged. If your baby is still very young, you are breastfeeding or expressing milk often, and you try to wean cold turkey, weaning can be uncomfortable or painful.

Try these tips to lessen discomfort.

  • Hand-express or pump just enough milk to take the pressure off.
  • Do not bind your breasts. Doing so can cause plugged ducts or a breast infection.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen, might be helpful.

Can I use cabbage leaves or other natural remedies to help with pain while weaning?

Maybe. Some women report relief from pain with cabbage leaves or other herbs or medicines. Always talk to your doctor before trying any herbal remedies or alternative therapies to make sure they are safe for you and your baby.

  • Cold cabbage leaves may feel good on engorged breasts. (Talk to your doctor before using cabbage leaves if you are allergic to cabbage or sulfa). Chill the cabbage leaves and wash before using. Crunch each leaf in your hand to break the veins. Then place the leaves in your bra over your breasts and under your arms if needed. Leave the cabbage leaves on until they wilt. Apply new leaves as often as needed for comfort.
  • Sage tea has natural estrogen (a female hormone) that can reduce your milk supply. Other herbs that may help with weaning include peppermint, parsley, and jasmine. Yarrow can also help with weaning, but it may also cause miscarriage if used early in a pregnancy. Make sure you are not pregnant before using yarrow. Antihistamines or hormonal birth control may also help reduce milk supply.

Did we answer your question about weaning your baby?

For more information about weaning, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:

Sources

  1. Dettwyler, K. A., Stuart-Macadam, P. (1995). Breastfeeding: biocultural perspectives. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction.