How to stop breastfeeding: lactation experts tell all
Short on time? Then the key things to know are:
- You can breastfeed as long as you, your baby or child wish to! The World Health Organization and UNICEF encourage parents to breastfeed for two years and beyond
- Many parents wean before their baby is ready because of breastfeeding aversion, agitation, social and or societal pressure, misinformation about medications and breastfeeding
- Parent-led weaning approaches may include: reducing the number of feeds, reducing the times of feeding, children’s books on weaning, giving choices, boundaries, offering alternatives, night weaning, and talking about feelings
- If you are weaning AFTER 6 months bottles are not needed - the World Health Organisation also claims that follow-on formula is not needed
We all know there is plenty of information on how to start breastfeeding, but what about stopping?
Knowing the right time to wean from breastfeeding is often a difficult decision for some parents. So firstly… is there a “right time to wean”?
Weaning truly is a personal decision. Some parents choose to watch their child for signs to wean, known as child-led weaning. Many parents are more comfortable with natural term weaning, whilst others feel ready to wean before their baby or child. These parents are often in need of support in how to gently wean from breastfeeding. This article will provide information on gentle weaning.
We do know that sometimes sudden weaning is needed for parents who start treatment for a serious medical condition. Unfortunately, many parents are misinformed about medication and breastfeeding and feel forced to wean early. Check your medication here before making this error.
Benefits of breastfeeding beyond a year
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF encourage parents to breastfeed for two years and beyond. Experts agree that breastfeeding has many health benefits for both the child and parent.
Immunological factors in breast milk continue to help children fight infection and long-term breastfeeding lowers the risk of chronic diseases such as childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
It doesn’t just benefit the mother but also the parent. The longer the parent breastfeeds, the more they reduce their risk for breast cancer. A review of 47 studies from 30 countries found that the risk of breast cancer declines 4.3 percentage points for every 12 months of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding aversion can cause early weaning
According to research, 7% of parents wean due to breastfeeding aversion. Reasons given in anecdotal data ranged from ovulation and sleep deprivation to a lack of minerals, pregnancy, poor hydration or mood disorders.
Parents also often state they feel one or more of these feelings when experiencing breastfeeding agitation or aversion:
- an itchy crawling sensation
- discomfort or pain when child is feeding
- anger or rage when infant is latched
- feeling desperate and wanting to leave
- wanting to wean but simultaneously not wanting to wean
- feelings of guilt and or shame about feelings of aversion
What happens when you stop breastfeeding?
Involution is when breast milk secretion ceases or goes back to a resting state. This occurs, on average, about 40 days after the last removal of milk from the breast.
During this time the ducts of the mammary glands are closing and the glandular tissue is decreasing. Involution most often coincides with the period of self-weaning when the child has more new interests in their toddler or early childhood years.
Stopping breastfeeding side effects
When a parent decides to wean before the baby or their body may be ready, sometimes the parent may have additional problems such as clogged milk ducts, mastitis, breast abscess, and/or pain or discomfort in the mammary glands.
During and/or post-weaning, some parents may also experience general weakness and increased fatigue, increased irritability, mood swings, sore nipples, and sometimes weaning depression. These are usually lessened or non-existent with natural term child-led weaning but not always.
Sometimes the intense feelings are usually short term and should subside in a few days/weeks time. However, some parents do require treatment. If you are experiencing intense feelings that are affecting your quality of life, please be sure to seek perinatal mental wellness support.
How do you stop breastfeeding?
If you are choosing to use a parent-led weaning approach and are in need of support for gradual gentle weaning here are some helpful tips. Remember that gradual means this process may take your family a few months.
- Sometimes just cutting back on the number of times you feed will make breastfeeding feel less overwhelming.
- If choosing to night wean, start with removing one daytime weaning session where you can discuss weaning with your child - discussing in the day when they are less tired and more understanding will help with the night weaning process.
- Books, books, books! There are so many great books on day and night weaning. Some children really enjoy identifying with other children through stories. Have a look at your library for some weaning books and read them together.
- Reduce the number of times you breastfeed by giving choices. Giving choices empowers your child to play an active part in weaning. An example would be asking “would you like to nurse before nap or after a nap?”
- Choices with boundaries are sometimes a useful tool. Such as “we are nursing 3 times today. Please, tell me what 3 times of day you would like to nurse.”
- Sometimes providing alternatives helps. Such as offering a drink, water, snack, and playing outside. Maybe playing a game together, some one-on-one time, bonding, or snuggling if they are feeling the need to connect with you.
- Reducing the amount of time nursing might help. You may sing a favourite song and when it ends you are done nursing or a countdown. Such as a “10, 9….2,1 Blast off!” as a fun way to shorten a feed.
- Sometimes your child might be able to talk about their feelings when it comes to breastfeeding. Talk about it. Listen to their feelings, validate their feelings by repeating them back to them. Tell them how you feel about breastfeeding. Maybe you are feeling touched out. Explain your feelings and how maybe your body needs a rest. Try to do this without blame and make it about you and not them. But listen and repeat how they might be feeling. It can be a beautiful thing.
Do I need to bottle feed my child if I wean?
If you are weaning PRIOR to 6 months you will want to start transitioning to baby-led paced bottle feeding with your expressed, donor or formula milk.
If you are weaning AFTER 6 months bottles are not needed. Yup, you read that right. You do not need to transition to a bottle. Try offering your expressed milk, donor or formula milk through a cup with complementary solids.
What about ‘Follow On Formula’ after 6 months?
The WHO has made a statement that a follow-on formula is not needed. It is suggested that parents/carers who use infant formula use a whey-based infant formula through the first year, as infant formula is nutritionally closer to breastmilk than follow-on formula. The follow-on formula has no health-related advantages over breastmilk, donor milk or first infant formula.
A wonderful resource on infant milk can be found by visiting First Steps Nutrition Plus.
What age should you stop breastfeeding?
Remember you can breastfeed for as long as you and your child are happy to. Kathy Dettwyler, professor of anthropology found that the minimum predicted age for the natural age of humans weaning is 2.5 years up to a maximum of 7 years.
You don’t need to worry about the psychological effects of child-led weaning by a certain age. Gradually over time feedings drop, feeding times reduce and slowly feedings become replaced with activities, nighttime routines and other ways of connecting.
You can breastfeed as long as you wish. Breastmilk maintains incredible benefits including nutrition, immune support, favourable gut microbiome, comfort, emotional security, a wider palate, parental health benefits from the first drop down to the last drop.
Looking for support with breastfeeding? Book an appointment with our lactation experts at a time that suits you to get specialist advice with any concerns.
Arielle, Naytal Lactation Consultant
Arielle is an IBCLC registered Lactation Consultant and certified lactation counsellor, who has been providing clinical specialist management of infant feeding, and personalised care, to women for over 9 years.