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Weaning: Tips for breast-feeding mothers

Featuring content from Mayo Clinic

If you're breast-feeding, you might have questions about weaning. When is the right time? Will weaning upset your child? How can you avoid engorgement? Get the facts about weaning and how you can make the process a more positive one for you and your child.

When's the best time to start weaning?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months after birth — and breast-feeding in combination with solids foods until at least age 1. Extended breast-feeding is recommended as long as you and your baby wish to continue. Still, when to start weaning your child is a personal decision.

It's often easiest to begin weaning when your baby starts the process. Changes in breast-feeding patterns leading to eventual weaning often begin naturally at age 6 months, when solid foods are typically introduced. Some children begin to seek other forms of nutrition and comfort at around age 1. By this age, children typically eat a variety of solid foods and might be able to drink from a cup. Other children might not initiate weaning until they become toddlers, when they're less willing to sit still during breast-feeding.

You might also decide when to start the weaning process yourself. This might be more difficult than following your child's lead — but can be done with extra care and sensitivity.

Whenever you choose to start weaning your baby from the breast, stay focused on your child's needs as well as your own. Resist comparing your situation with that of other families, and consider rethinking any deadlines you might have set for weaning when you were pregnant or when your baby was a newborn.

Are there certain times when it wouldn't be smart to start weaning?

Consider delaying weaning if:

  • You're concerned about allergens. Some research suggests that exclusive breast-feeding for at least six months — instead of using formula made with cow's milk — might prevent or delay eczema, cow's milk allergy, and wheezing in early childhood.
  • Your child isn't feeling well. If your child is ill, postpone weaning until he or she is feeling better. You might also consider postponing weaning if you're not feeling well. You're both more likely to handle the transition well if you're in good health.
  • A major change has occurred at home. Avoid initiating weaning during a time of major change at home. If your family has recently moved or your child care situation has changed, for example, postpone weaning until a less stressful time.
What's the best way to begin weaning?

Take it slow. Slowly tapering off how long and how often you breast-feed each day — over the course of weeks or months — will cause your milk supply to gradually diminish and prevent engorgement. If you experience engorgement during the weaning process, apply cold compresses to your breasts to help decrease swelling and discomfort.

Children tend to be more attached to the first and last feedings of the day, when the need for comfort is greater. These feedings might be the last ones your child drops. As a result, it might be easier to drop a midday breast-feeding session first. If you're weaning a child age 1 or older, consider not offering this feeding and seeing if he or she requests it. After a lunch of solid food, your child might become interested in an activity and naturally give up this session. Once you've successfully dropped one feeding, you can start working on dropping another.

You might also choose to wean your baby from breast-feeding and offer expressed breast milk in a cup during the day but continue breast-feeding at night. Remember, it's up to you and your child.

Should I refuse feedings during the weaning process?

Refusing to breast-feed when your child wants to nurse can backfire and increase your child's focus on the activity. If your child wants to nurse, nurse him or her. Then, continue working to distract him or her with new foods, activities and sources of reassurance — such as a favorite stuffed animal — around the times of your typical breast-feeding sessions. It might help to avoid sitting in your usual breast-feeding spots with your child during these times.

What about nutrition after weaning?

If you wean your child from breast-feeding before age 1, use expressed breast milk or iron-fortified formula. Ask your child's doctor to recommend a formula. Don't give your child cow's milk until after his or her first birthday.

You can wean your child to a bottle and then a cup or, if your child seems ready, directly to a cup. Keep in mind that if you wean your child to a bottle, you'll eventually have to wean him or her to a cup.

If you're introducing your child to a bottle for the first time, do so at a time when your child isn't extremely hungry and might have more patience. Choose a bottle nipple with a slow flow at first. If you use a bottle nipple with a fast flow, your child might become accustomed to that and get frustrated with the pacing and different flow rates of milk during breast-feeding.

How long does weaning take?

Depending on your approach, weaning could take days, weeks or months. Remember, however, that rushing the weaning process might be upsetting for your child and cause breast engorgement.

Breast-feeding is an intimate activity for you and your child. You might have mixed emotions about letting go. But by taking a gradual approach to weaning — and offering plenty of love and affection — you can help your child make a smooth transition to a bottle or cup.