Breastfeeding can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding experiences of early motherhood, while also being one of the most challenging. It’s normal to love the bonding and closeness you have with your baby, while also possibly feeling like your body still doesn’t belong to you long after pregnancy. For many moms, they’re more than ready to have their bodies back. And when you’re ready, you’re ready, so it’s understandable you’re looking for tips on how to stop breastfeeding and how to wean — whether that’s weaning a toddler, weaning a baby, or weaning from comfort nursing. There are plenty of tips and tricks from experts, and solid advice to help this process go as smoothly as possible for both you and your child.
When To Wean Your Child
When it comes to when, don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule. “If there is no clinical reason or physical separation happening, then either the child will simply show less and less interest in nursing or will just stop one day, or the parent will often feel a slow-growing or suddenly overwhelming sense of not wanting to nurse anymore,” says lactation counselor and maternal health expert Jada Shapiro.
According to certified lactation educator Katie Clark, knowing the perfect time to wean for you and your child is different for every family. “For some, they need to wean for medical reasons — they need to take a medication that isn't compatible with breastfeeding,” she tells Romper. But it's also important to note that most medications can be safely taken, and Infant Risk is a great resource for this if you’re unsure. (Don’t think just because you need medication for something, you can’t breastfeed.) Additional reasons for weaning include wanting to conceive another child and not wanting to breastfeed while pregnant, for their own mental health, or just feeling touched out.
“For others, they may have a low milk supply or a baby who isn't gaining weight. While these aren't reasons in and of themselves to wean, some find the emotional toll to be too much and weaning feels like a relief to them,” she says. “And sometimes, you just know. It slowly starts to happen, and one day, you realize you’re done or your baby decides they are done!”
Shapiro adds that it’s time to wean whenever the parent is ready, when the child is ready, or if there’s a forced separation between the parent or child that requires nursing to suddenly end.
So you think you’re ready for this? Because now’s the time to figure out how to wean, if there are specific steps to take, and how long the weaning process is.
Let’s start with that last one, because one of the most important things to consider is that weaning needs to be a very slow process. Clark says to remember that slow and steady wins the race when it comes to weaning.
How To Wean Your Baby From Breastfeeding
“Ideally weaning is a gradual process to avoid engorgement or mastitis. If you have the luxury of time, dropping one feeding session per day for several days to a week is a great way to start,” says Shapiro. “After those days pass, you can drop a second feed and do that again for several days, until you are ready to drop the third feed and so on.”
Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC and La Leche League leader, agrees that weaning needs to be a slow process. “If one weans quickly, the breasts can fill with milk and create engorgement and possibly mastitis, a breast infection, or worse, an abscess. Additionally, lactation is connected to hormones, and because of this, a fast wean may dip a person into depression or anxiety.”
“Ideally, it will be a slow process to ensure you are as comfortable as possible and your baby easily transitions. If you are pumping, you need to go about that slowly as well. It may take the baby a little bit of time adjust, but they usually will,” Clark says.
“In general, I recommend shortening feeds or pumps by a few minutes at a time, lengthening the time between feeds, and offering a bottle at every feed,” she says. “Mixing formula and breast milk until baby gets all the way to formula can help as well.”
If your baby suddenly stops and won’t nurse anymore, or you are forced to wean suddenly due to medication or separation, it’s important to pump or hand express your milk when they would have been nursing in order to minimize engorgement, plugged ducts, or mastitis, Shapiro says.
But if your baby is less than a year old, it can be a bit different, says Clark. “You will need to wean to either formula, pumped milk that you’ve saved, or donor milk,” she says. “If they are older than 6 months and refusing a bottle, you could try an open cup, sippy cup, or even a straw.”
For those mamas who chose to do extended breastfeeding, there’s a bit more involved in how to wean a toddler.
How To Wean A Toddler
Clark says in her experience, the older the child is, the harder weaning can be because it’s become part of their day-to-day routine. Shapiro says that there needs to be a lot of communication involved. “Tell your toddler about the changes that are coming. Pick a good time and don’t begin weaning during times of stress or illness. You can start by dropping minutes from nursing sessions,” Shapiro says.
Clark adds, “With my own children and with clients, I usually recommend a ‘don’t ask, don’t refuse’ approach if you are OK with a slower process. Daytime feeds are usually the easiest to wean from since your toddler is distracted by food and other activities. Distractions can help a lot!”
Shapiro also suggests not offering the breast — wait for your toddler to come to you. “Begin offering food instead of the breast or plan to be on a walk during nursing times; a new setting and activity will often result in an easily skipped nursing session. Make the child feel special and involved through the weaning process; emphasize the positive maturity development. Give lots of alternative affection during this time.”
It’s also helpful to remember why your toddler nurses, and try to emulate some of that as you wean, according to O’Connor. “Nursing a toddler meets so many of their needs: hydration, touch, immunity, calories, attention, and calming. When weaning your toddler, offer lots of eye contact, physical attention, nutritionally dense snacks and water.”
She also suggests setting limits on where nursing takes place and stick to these boundaries. “Limit nursing to just nursing as opposed to nursing while reading a book or while watching TV. Offer the toddler physical activities — distraction is a good strategy if not overused.” And super important: Avoid telling your toddler they are too big for nursing, says O’Connor. They could be still nursing for comfort at this point.
How To Wean From Comfort Nursing
“Comfort nursing is when your child enjoys suckling for the feelings of closeness, bonding, relaxation, relief from pain, and comfort that being connected to their parent in this way conveys,” Shapiro says. “There is nothing wrong with this and — unless it is bothering you — in general, it's a great bonding practice which many parents enjoy.”
If you want to wean from comfort nursing your toddler, Clark says you should find a substitute comfort. “You can also change their routine if it's associated with a certain part of the day, and enlist the help of someone else who they can't nurse from to become part of that routine.”
Shapiro adds, “If you feel ready to wean from nursing — which doesn't seem connected to hunger — you can try distraction or substituting the nursing with some other bonding activity, like snuggling, stroking, allowing your child to stroke your body, gentle rocking, or giving them some type of lovey to hold and connect with for comfort.”
Jada Shapiro, lactation counselor and maternal health expert, and founder of Boober, a marketplace for expectant parents and new families to find classes and on-demand care providers for pregnancy to postpartum, including lactation courses.
Katie Clark, certified lactation educator, certified breastfeeding specialist, IBCLC student, and founder of The Breastfeeding Mama.
Leigh Anne O’Connor, international board certified lactation consultant, La Leche League leader, past president of New York Lactation Consultant Association (NYLCA), and a member of International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA) and United States Lactation Consultant Association (USLCA).