by Amy Spangler
September 29, 2011
When to wean and how are among the many questions parents ask about breastfeeding.
The short answers are when you and your baby decide you’re ready and gradually. But short answers don’t begin to address the myriad of circumstances in which weaning occurs.
Weaning is one of the most misunderstood practices—in part, because it’s not a specific event. A baby doesn’t fully breastfeed one day and stop breastfeeding the next, except in rare cases. Weaning typically occurs over time. It begins when solid foods or other liquids are introduced (learn more about introducing solids here), and ends with a final nursing—one that is seldom planned, but becomes the last, simply because no more follow.
When to wean
How long a mother chooses to breastfeed—weeks, months, or years—depends on the individual needs of a mother and her child. Some babies start to lose interest in breastfeeding between 6 and 12 months of age when solid foods are introduced. Others, eager to explore the world around them, are less content to cuddle at the breast once they learn to walk and run. Sometimes mothers and babies are separated due to illness and weaning is necessary. Other mothers stop breastfeeding in anticipation of returning to work or school, unaware that the two (breastfeeding and work/school) can be combined. Quite often, social or cultural pressures prompt mothers to wean. In cultures where independence is valued, a baby’s first tooth or first step can be seen as a sign that it is time to wean. Mothers in Western cultures tend to wean sooner than their non-Western counterparts. Nonetheless, the average age for weaning worldwide is 2–4 years, and in some cultures children breastfeed for 5–7 years. In reality, the right time to wean is when your child, your partner, or you decide that the time is right.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) all recommend breastfeeding for at least 1–2 years, and the introduction of complementary foods around 6 months of age. But despite these recommendations, few mothers in Western cultures breastfeed beyond the first year (less than 1 in 4 U.S. babies born between 1999–2007 were breastfed for 12 months). And those who do practice what has become known as “extended breastfeeding” often find themselves the target of disapproving looks and critical comments. If you are concerned about the reaction of family and friends to your plan to breastfeed until your child decides to stop, talk with them early on about your decision, letting them know how much you need their support.
How to wean
Weaning is easiest when both parties (mother and child) are willing participants, but more often than not, one leads the way, while the other reluctantly follows. Given enough time, all children will wean themselves (child-led weaning). But quite often mothers choose to wean (mother-led weaning) before their child is ready to stop. If you live in a culture where few mothers breastfeed more than a year, you may be reluctant to follow your child’s lead, but more important than who takes the lead is that the process be gradual. Mothers who wean suddenly are more likely to experience feelings of sadness or guilt, in addition to physical symptoms such as leaking, swelling, or pain.
Tips for weaning gradually
Tips for weaning suddenly
Many mothers continue to produce milk for days, weeks, or even months after weaning is complete. Leaking is unlikely to occur if there are only small amounts. But if leaking becomes an issue, breast pads can provide short term protection. As long as the breasts are comfortable, milk expression should be avoided. If the breasts become hard or lumpy, mothers are urged to express only enough milk to relieve the hardness and remove the lumps. The less milk you remove from the breasts, the less milk you will make.
Occasionally a mother weans and then decides days or weeks later, when her child unexpectedly becomes ill, to resume breastfeeding. Reestablishing a milk supply that has disappeared, or nearly so, is known as relactation. A mother’s ability to relactate depends, in part, on how long it has been since she last breastfed. Click here for more information on relactation from La Leche League International.
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