One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about breastfeeding is that it's a relationship. Mother and child both need to be happy with the continuation of their nursing partnership, which means the decision to wean, whatever your reasons, also requires the balancing of your needs with your child's. Before you begin the weaning process, you should learn about the most pain-free ways to stop breastfeeding. Lactation consultants usually recommend a gradual approach, but sometimes sudden weaning is necessary. In both instances, there are steps you can take to maximize comfort for yourself and your baby.
Over the phone, Romper talks to Colette Acker, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Executive Director of the Breastfeeding Resource Center in Abington, Pennsylvania, about finding a painless way to stop breastfeeding. Overall, says Acker, there are three ways to approach weaning: gradual, sudden, or partial. The younger your baby is, the slower your approach should be. This gives your body time to adjust and ensures that your baby has a good transition to formula (no allergies or other adverse reactions) before your milk is completely gone. If you do need to wean abruptly, due to a medical issue or other urgent situation, Acker recommends switching to pumping "just to take the edge off." In other words, every time your breasts feel full, pump a little to relieve discomfort, but not to empty.
While physical pain may be your biggest concern when it comes to weaning, there are also emotional and psychological factors to consider. Some infants are very accepting of the switch from breast to bottle feeding, whereas others will put up a fight. A recent article on weaning in Medical News Today suggested setting yourself up for success by choosing a time to wean that doesn't overlap with other big changes or stressful events in your life. Also know that weaning triggers changes in your hormones, says Acker. Varied emotions are normal, as you may feel excited, sad, or some combination of things. You may gain weight, and your breasts may appear "flabby," but their usual fat deposits will be restored after a few menstrual cycles. It's typical for your breasts to continue to express a little milk for months after you wean.
Acker recommends dropping one feeding at a time, giving yourself a few days in between each one to let your breasts adjust and feel comfortable. Replace the nursing session with a bottle at the same time and try not to drop two feedings in a row. As for the overall time weaning can take, Acker provides an example of a woman who is partially weaning so she can return to work. If she usually has three nursing sessions during her work day, and leaves a three day space between each dropped feeding, it will take her about nine days overall.
If you do experience physical pain while weaning, Acker suggests "pumping to soften," but not to empty. She also notes that there is research to back the traditional remedy of placing cold cabbage leaves against your breasts. Ice packs can also help reduce swelling and you can ask your doctor to recommend a pain reliever. The most important thing is to be proactive in avoiding engorgement, plugged ducts, or mastitis, painful conditions that can result from sudden weaning. As for your baby, remember that breastfeeding also provides physical closeness and comfort to your child, so make sure you're still holding and cuddling your baby during bottle feedings and other moments.
When it comes to weaning older babies and toddlers, you may not experience as much physical discomfort, but it can be harder for your child to give up a beloved habit. Acker says that an older baby, such as a 9-month-old, may actually be easier to wean if they are already used to taking a bottle. On the other hand, toddlers become attached to nursing as part of their daily routine and will often fight your efforts to wean. Therefore, distraction is key, says Acker, who recommends making a list of your child's favorite activities, such as blowing bubbles, so you can suggest that instead when your toddler asks to nurse.
Distraction can work well during the day, but nighttime nursing is often a different story. If your child is old enough to understand, says Acker, just keep talking about it — you may find it helpful to establish rules such as "we only nurse when the sun is out" or "we don't nurse when you're wearing pajamas." Eventually "you'll put your foot down and just say no."
This reminds me of a conversation I had once with a zookeeper outside a gorilla exhibit at a zoo in Boston. I asked how long gorilla mothers nurse their babies and how they decide to stop. The zookeeper said gorillas usually breastfeed until the age of 2.5 to 3 years. The mother is the one to break off the breastfeeding relationship and usually does it suddenly, as in she's had enough and then she's done. Gorilla toddlers scream in protest just like their human counterparts. So know that you're not alone if you're having a hard time with weaning, but it doesn't have to be painful.
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