How to stop breastfeeding

Gradual phase-out? Cold ­turkey? Some babies lose interest, while others want to nurse for years. When you’re ready, here’s how to wean.

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Photo: Tay Simmons (@taiahjanay)

Just before my daughter’s first birthday, I returned to my full-time job. I wasn’t ready to stop breastfeeding, so I decided to cut out the day feeds and keep nursing in the morning and evening. My daughter didn’t have a problem with this (she drank water from a sippy cup instead), but the abrupt change to our nursing schedule didn’t work out so well for me. Just a few days after getting back to work, I came down with a fever: a sign of infection. I’d developed mastitis, a painful breast infection most common in the early postpartum weeks. (Other symptoms can include breast engorgement and malaise.) On my first weekend as a working mom, I wanted to be spending time with my family. Instead, I was in bed on antibiotics.

The decision of when to wean a baby is a personal one, says Shannon McLennon, a lactation consultant in Hamilton, Ont. “It needs to be determined within the family.” Unless a mother has to wean her baby suddenly for medical reasons (if she’s starting or resuming a medication, for example), weaning is best done “gradually, and with love,” McLennon continues. “It’s not just physical. It’s an emotional adjustment, too.” (Some women report experiencing mood swings and depression during and immediately after weaning. If symptoms become serious, talk to a doctor.)

It’s a wonder of the human body that as feedings are slowly phased out, we tend to produce less milk—but some breast tenderness or fullness can occur. Kirsten Nesbitt, who lives in Wainwright, Alta., weaned her daughter Merryl at 15 months over a period of two weeks but still felt uncomfortable a few days after their last nursing session. So she tried an old trick: cold cabbage leaves in her bra. Although the smell of cabbage can be a turnoff, Nesbitt says, “It felt amazing.” She also used warm showers and breast massage. McLennon recommends hand-expressing milk from the breast—just enough to feel comfortable. Don’t express or pump a full feeding. The goal is to gradually reduce supply by decreasing demand.

A bottle can be swapped in for the missed nursing session. (Babies older than 12 months can take cow’s milk, and at this age experts recommend switching to a cup or cup with a straw.) Sometimes it’s best for mom to get out of the house and let dad, grandma or another caregiver do the bottle-feed. That way, the baby knows nursing isn’t an option and is more likely to accept a bottle. You can also help ease the transition by substituting a snack, a comforting toy or a snuggling session. To avoid confusion, don’t sit in a favourite nursing chair together, and consider having someone else handle the bedtime routine for a few nights.

If possible, take it slowly. Start by skipping one feed per day, and give your baby a few days or even a few weeks before dropping another. “Typically, morning and night feeds are the last to go,” McLennon says.

There may be tantrums and some sleepless nights along the way. But you could be surprised by how quickly your little one adapts. At first, Nesbitt remembers, Merryl would tug at her shirt and ask to nurse, but she soon adjusted. “It was almost more sad for me,” Nesbitt says.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue with the title, “How to stop breastfeeding,” on p. 61.

Read more:
How to prevent and treat mastitis
10 tips for breastfeeding after returning to work

Would you breastfeed a child past age two?
Weaning your toddler

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