Breastfeeding: When to start weaning

Think you're ready to phase out breastfeeding? Here's how to start weaning your little one.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“I was really nervous about weaning,” says Toronto mom Molly Crealock. “But it was kind of OK.” Her son Charlie was 13 months old and headed to daycare when she decided to cut out his daytime feeds. Her main tactic was to distract Charlie with activities whenever he would typically nurse. It took about a year for him to be fully weaned. This gradual process is exactly what Oakville, Ont., lactation consultant Ashley Pickett would recommend, if you’re able to do so. “For example, if a baby is 12 months old and a mom knows that by 18 months she wants to have weaned her baby, then developing a plan over those six months and doing it gradually is going to be healthier for the child and for the mom,” she says. Sometimes, moms want to wean because they feel they need more space and that’s OK, says Pickett. But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Setting up boundaries around nursing — like only breastfeeding at bedtime — is a great way to start.

I night-weaned my son, Leo, cold turkey when he was two and a half. I was ready, and I thought he was, too. We co-sleep, and when he wanted to nurse in the middle of the night, I just held him and explained that nursing was just for daytime now. (It may seem funny, but I told him that my breasts go to bed at night, too, just like he does.) He was upset at first — as was I — but after a couple rough nights, I tried to remain calm, and things worked out.

Pickett says it takes up to a week for a woman’s body to adjust to changes like removing one of the daily feedings. She suggests waiting about two to three weeks, or longer, before eliminating a second feeding. When there’s enough time for the milk supply to decrease, there’s less chance of discomfort and blocked ducts. To cope with pain or engorgement, Pickett suggests moms hand-express a bit of milk at the normal feeding time (but do not pump, because that encourages more milk production). Cold compresses or ibuprofen may also help.

Another reason to take your time is to avoid potential mood swings and depression — the hormones related to breastfeeding and weaning can cause emotional changes. You may feel a sense of loss or grief after weaning. For many women, breastfeeding is a strong way to connect with their baby, and it can be surprisingly sad when that stage comes to an end.

“Breastfeeding is way more than just milk,” says Pickett. “When you take away the act of nursing, replace it with other forms of bonding like songs, stories, cuddles or napping together.” (This is why the last feedings to go, according to Pickett, are usually the early morning and bedtime ones.)

It may be easiest to eliminate feedings that are associated with meals, when you can substitute with healthy snacks instead. You can also put some expressed milk in a sippy cup and read her a story when she would normally nurse, then transition to something other than breastmilk.

If you have to wean on a tight timeline, perhaps due to health reasons, break out your day planner. “If your baby is feeding eight times a day, and you have to wean in two weeks, you’d want to take away one of those breastfeeds every two days,” Pickett explains. It may also be worthwhile to ask your doctor to research medications that are safe for breastfeeding women.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Weaning your toddler,” p. 66.

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