Weaning from the breast: how to stop breastfeeding

baby bottle feeding

Whether you’ve breastfed your baby for two months or two years, deciding when to wean her off the breast is a choice to make based on what’s best for both of you. Whenever you do it, though, stopping breastfeeding should be a gradual process, making it a much easier experience.

What does it mean to wean my baby from the breast?

Weaning your baby does not necessarily mean introducing her to a diet of solid foods only. It simply means stopping breastfeeding. You may then choose to replace breastmilk completely with either formula or solid foods, or a mixture of both, depending on your baby’s age. Some mothers choose to still express breastmilk without nursing and use that to supplement meals of solid foods or to give their baby one or more expressed feeds a day in place of formula.

One of the many benefits of breastfeeding is the bond that you enjoy with your baby while feeding and some mothers worry they will lose this bond when they are no longer breastfeeding. Try to remember that the special connection you have with your baby comes in many ways, from a cuddle while she’s having a bottle, to reading her a story at nap time, or having fun together while she’s having her first tastes of solid foods.

When should I wean my baby off breastfeeding?

There is no set time frame for stopping breastfeeding. Some women encounter problems with breastfeeding or find lifestyle changes mean they begin weaning from the breast earlier than they intended, while others go on to breastfeed their children until they are toddlers.You might choose to express milk and stop nursing when you’re going back to work full-time, so that your baby continues to receive breastmilk but doesn’t need you to be there for feeds. Much depends on circumstances.

The time to stop is when you or your child definitely wants to stop, not when you're worried you ‘should’, or if someone else wants you to.

The consensus among experts including the NHS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives. Breastmilk provides babies of this age with all of the vital nutrients and energy they need for weight gain and development. Breastmilk (and formula) is also considered better for a young baby’s developing digestive system than solid foods.

WHO goes on to recommend continued breastfeeding alongside solid foods until your child is two years old. However, for many mothers, breastfeeding for this long is either not possible, impractical or they simply don’t want to.

“My daughter was exclusively breastfed until she was six months and then mixed-fed until nine months when I went back to work. I had aimed for six months of exclusive breastfeeding so was happy with how it worked out, and I was ready to stop, to be honest.”

What is self-weaning?

Your baby may be self-weaning if she is reluctant to feed and perhaps even refusing the breast altogether. Breastfeeding experts say that, left to her own devices, your baby will one day wean herself off breastmilk. This is true, but given that your baby has no concept of a calendar, it’s unlikely that she will do it to a nice, neat schedule.

Babies that do self-wean tend to be well over a year old with most aged between two and four.

If your baby seems to be doing this earlier, do remember that breastmilk or formula should remain her main source of food until she is a year old. Remember that if your baby is under six months, her digestive system may not yet be able to cope with solid foods. She may also lack the head and neck control required to sit up and eat. So if she weans from the breast at six months, you will need to move on to formula and bottles to replace those milk feeds.

And don’t mistake her grabbing for food off your plate as a sign she needs to give up breastfeeding. She still needs both milk feeds (either breast or formula) and solids until she’s one. You can, of course, move to formula, but you may find this takes some time for her to get used to, or that it makes no odds to her at all.

Is my baby self-weaning or is it a nursing strike?

If your baby is under 12 months and suddenly stops feeding, be careful not to mistake this for self-weaning. It is very rare for babies this young to self-wean and it is far more likely that your little one has downed tools and is on strike.

A nursing strike can occur for a number of reasons. They can be common at around four to five months when your baby suddenly becomes aware that there is a lot more going on around them than boobs, and so may become distracted and reluctant to feed. If this happens, then feeding in a quiet, calm area will help eliminate the possibility of distractions.

Nursing strikes can also be your baby’s way of communicating that something is wrong and could be the result of one of the following:

  • An illness or infection such as thrush or a cold along with a stuffy nose that makes nursing uncomfortable
  • Teething
  • A change in routine
  • Having had a fright during a previous feed, perhaps because of loud noise or over-stimulation
  • A sensitivity to a food or substance, perhaps something strong-tasting you’ve eaten that is coming through in your milk, or even something as simple as heavily applying nipple cream close to feeding time

A nursing strike can be upsetting for you both; your baby may be hungry and you will, inevitably, be concerned and also upset that your baby is rejecting your milk. It can be tempting to think that you have no choice but to give up breastfeeding. But most babies on ‘strike’ will usually cross the picket line with some gentle coaxing.

Try to offer her your breast at night when she is sleepy or take a bath together and try when she is relaxed. It might also help to vary nursing positions. If gentle persuasion isn’t doing the trick, speak to your health visitor or local breastfeeding group for support.

Continue to express milk even if she won’t take your breast. This will help prevent mastitis or engorgement and you will be able to bottle feed your baby the expressed milk if she will take a bottle, or freeze it for later.

If you are concerned that your baby’s loss of appetite is the result of illness or infection, always pop her down to your GP just to rule that out.

How do I wean from the breast?

How you go about reclaiming your boobs as your own depends very much on what stage you are at. If you’re planning to slowly reduce feeds at the same time as introducing solid foods, but not actually move to formula, then you don’t need to reduce the number of breastfeeds at all until your baby is on three square meals a day (at around seven to nine months). You can then start to drop one feed at a time and introduce a snack instead, eventually dropping virtually all her feeds by a year (though many children of this age continue to feed morning and evening for some time after.

baby ready bottle milk

If you’re looking to wean from the breast completely earlier than a year, you’ll need to replace some of the feeds you drop with formula, though obviously the number of feeds a day will still reduce as she takes more solids. Again, just think in terms of milk being her main source of calories until 12 months. And obviously, if you’re weaning off breastmilk before six months, you will need to replace all her breastfeeds with formula feeds until she’s ready to start solid foods.

Here are a few general tips for making weaning from the breast easier at whatever stage you are at:

Take it slowly

Gradually reducing breastfeeds rather than stopping altogether is going to produce a much better experience for you and your baby. If you are weaning because you are returning to work, bear this in mind and work towards this deadline.

Gradually reducing feeds also allows your milk supply to adjust and reduces the risk of engorgement or mastitis. Failing to do things slowly could leave your baby and your boobs in distress.

Pick one feed to drop first

This would ideally be a feed during the day rather than first thing in the morning or just before bed. It’s likely that your baby finds those feeding times the most soothing and she may not respond well to her routine being disrupted when she’s tired.

I stopped breastfeeding my son at 14 months. My husband took over the night feeds for about a week so there was no association with me and boobs!

Mixed feeding can be a good way to start. This involves replacing one or more feeds a day with formula instead of breastmilk. Try giving her a bottle or cup containing expressed breastmilk, formula or cow’s milk. Maintain this as a routine for a few days then pick another feed to drop and do the same thing. Gradually build up over a few weeks until you have fully weaned your baby.

Be prepared

If you are replacing breastmilk with formula, first make sure that your baby will actually take a bottle before you start. If she’s old enough, you could try to bypass the bottle and give her formula or cow’s milk in a sippy cup or beaker. If you don’t plan on introducing formula or cow’s milk, make sure your baby is well-established on solids before you phase out the final feeds.

You’ll also need to make sure that you have a highchair, a supply of bibs and multiple spoons – only one of which your baby will use, the rest she’ll wave or chuck on the floor.

Introduce cow’s milk gradually

Your baby must be 12 months to have cow’s milk as a main drink. Any younger and she may have trouble digesting it. When giving your baby cow’s milk, use whole milk rather than semi-skimmed or skimmed.

You can start by giving her bottles with three-quarters expressed milk and one-quarter cow’s milk for a week. Then change the ratio to half expressed milk and half cow’s milk and give her that for a few days before eventually switching to one-quarter expressed and three-quarters cow’s milk before moving on to an entire bottle of cow’s milk.

Replace the comforting with something else

Breastfeeding is as much about comforting your baby as it is about nourishing them. Some babies rely on breastfeeding to soothe and calm them. Before weaning, think about how you can replace this comfort for your child. Perhaps singing, a look book, or some other distraction like Tom Hardy reading CBeebies’ Bedtime Stories might work – ok, so that’s really just comforting for you.

Persevere

The older your baby, the more patient you’ll need to be as she may find it harder to get used to the change. Again, reducing feeds slowly will allow her time to adapt.

Be kind to yourself

You may miss feeding times, too, or you might be relieved to have finished breastfeeding. Either way, your body will be going through changes. You could be more prone to problems like mastitis or engorgement if your milk supply hasn’t adjusted so be aware of the signs so you can keep an eye out for them and nip problems in the bud.

Can I wean my baby straight from breastfeeding to solid foods?

Yes. If you’re weaning your baby onto solid foods, then have a read of Mumsnet’s weaning advice – plus these starter tips – to make the process easier:

I had a bottle-refusing daughter and I stopped breastfeeding her at 11 months. It was all totally fine. She ate well and then drank milk or water from a sippy cup.
  • Put your boobs away. You’ll need to hide temptation from your baby as they’ll naturally want to lean in and feed.
  • If you’re following your baby’s lead, start with finger food. Give her food that she can hold in her hand and play with. Pop her in a high chair and bring her to the table at family meal times. Your baby will learn from watching the family and use her developing motor skills and taste to feed herself.
  • If you are initiating weaning, then start with mashed or puréed foods. They’re not suitable for baby-led weaning but ideal for spoon feeding.
  • Keep an eye on your baby. Don’t be alarmed if your baby gags, she’s trying new flavours and textures and some may not be to her liking. But do make sure to cut food small enough for her to chew or swallow. It’s also important to keep an eye on her as you need to know that she is eating enough.
  • Gently, gently. It can be hard to tell how much is enough when you start weaning and you might be concerned about whether your baby is getting the right amount to eat. If she’s full, she’ll let you know. Don’t force it or she could become upset and it might be harder next time.

Does my baby still need milk when weaning?

If your baby is aged between six and 12 months and starting solids, they will still need 500-600ml of milk (breast or formula) a day to support their nutritional needs. Babies over 12 months will still need at least 350ml of milk a day and no more than 600ml.