Deciding how you're going to feed your baby is a highly personal decision. The choice can be easy or hard, and the learning curve can be either a gentle slope or steep crag. And for those who do breastfeed, deciding when to stop can be just as complicated. There are a few differences between weaning after extended breastfeeding versus weaning after only a few months, and those differences are worth exploring when you're considering if, and for how long, you're going to nurse your baby.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for "about" 6 months, and continued breastfeeding complementary to table foods for 12, many breastfeeding parents wean far earlier (and some far later) than guidelines suggest. As a result, not every breastfeeding mom's weaning experience is going to look the same. Romper spoke to Molly Petersen, Certified Lactation Counselor at Lanisoh, to find out what to expect when you're weaning, whenever that may be.
In general, the process of weaning — transitioning your baby away from breast milk and/or breastfeeding — is mostly going to be the same whenever you do it, whether at 2 months or 22 months. But there are some key differences if you do so before 12 months or after 12 months (at which point it's defined as "extended breast feeding").
The reason? Formula. After 12 months, you don't need to worry about it anymore. But until your baby is 1, they're going to need either breast milk or a high-quality formula to support their nutritional needs. And finding the right supplement — one your baby will accept and that works well with their little digestive tract — might take some experimentation. Petersen says one way to set your little one up for success is by introducing this new food source in combination with expressed breast milk if you can. "Start out with the majority of expressed breast milk and adding a little bit of her supplement and then sliding the scale to where she gets to more supplement and less breast milk until she's just doing the supplement feedings," she tells Romper via phone. "That way it allows the baby to adjust gradually rather than it being all at once."
Petersen also suggests taking it slow, both for baby's benefit and your own. If your child is under that one year threshold, start by replacing one breastfeeding session a day with a bottle of formula or combination formula/breast milk. Replace the breast with a bottle for a new session every few days. No matter when you're weaning, Peterson endorses a gradual approach.
"That's going be the best way for baby to get used to the [change]," she says. "And the best way for mom's body to get used to the decrease demand on her breastfeeding supply."
Perhaps the biggest difference between weaning before and after 12 months, however, is how societal pressure will encourage breastfeeding parents to view their own experience.
Weaning after 12 months? While breast milk never stops being beneficial to a child, after a year your child can get their nutritional needs met exclusively through table foods. If dairy is part of your family's diet, you can give them cow's milk as a "substitute" for breast milk.
But what about the breastfeeding person in question? Is there a difference in what to expect weaning at four months versus after a year? Generally, Petersen says, the effects of weaning will be more similar than different. Breastfeeding parents may experience engorgement, in which case cold compresses, chilled cabbage leaves down the bra, and an non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Motrin), can help alleviate discomfort. This is more common when weaning before 12 months and/or suddenly stopping as opposed to gradually over a longer period. (Though if someone is weaning because of supply issues, engorgement is less likely to be an issue, Petersen says.) Sometimes weaning can also result in a noticeable shift in mood.
"A 'hormone crash' definitely can happen for some women," Petersen says, and points to lowered levels of oxytocin, which are elevated in nursing parents, as the culprit. She suggests continuing with skin-to-skin contact with your child (which also boosts oxytocin) to counteract the drop, perhaps by letting baby snuggle on your bare chest while they're just in a diaper.
But even without physiological reasons behind it, many parents, regardless of when they wean, can get emotional about the process. Petersen acknowledges their feelings, noting that some moms feel like they've "lost a connection" with their child after they stop breastfeeding. "It's important to establish new routines that still allow you to feel connected and bonded with baby," she says, and suggests cuddles before bed, reading together, and other new rituals that can help counterbalance the feeling of loss.
Congratulate yourself on being able to do this amazing thing for whatever amount of time you were able to do.
Perhaps the biggest difference between weaning before and after 12 months, however, is how societal pressure will encourage breastfeeding parents to view their own experience. Those who chose extended breastfeeding may find they hear a lot of people saying "Finally!", since only about a third of American babies are still breastfed at 12 months. For those who weaned earlier than 12 months, Petersen says she often sees sadness or guilt.
"They will feel like they haven't done as good of a job or they've somehow let their baby down because they weren't able to make it to a year," she says, and a growing body of research does indeed suggest that mounting pressure to breastfeed is harming new moms. Petersen wants to re-frame the conversation about breastfeeding to alleviate that pressure.
"Every time you breastfeed you're giving your baby something great... whatever amount of breast milk you're able to provide to them is something that can't be replaced. ... Congratulate yourself on being able to do this amazing thing for whatever amount of time you were able to do."