Gradual weaning is better for you and your baby. Think of weaning as a process, rather than an event. Weaning actually begins the first time your baby has a food or beverage other than breast milk, and continues until breast milk is no longer a part of his diet—weeks, months, or even years later.
More important than when you wean is that you wean gradually. This allows your child—and you!—to adjust to this enormous change. Emotionally, most mothers have mixed feelings about weaning. Physically, gradual weaning allows your milk supply to decrease at a more natural rate, lowering your risk of engorgement and breast infection (mastitis).
Some strategies for easing into the weaning process:
- Talk it out. If you have mixed feelings about weaning, as many mothers do, talk with others who have been through it, or who know you and your child well.
- Go slow. Replace one daily breastfeeding at a time with solids or liquids (depending on your child’s age, ability, and preference). If your child is younger than 1 year, select an iron-fortified formula as a substitute; do not give him whole cow’s milk until his first birthday. If your child is 1–2 years old, whole milk is an acceptable replacement. If he is 2 or older, low-fat or skim milk is a good choice. You can also offer finger foods, if your child is able to pick up foods and feed himself.
- Take your time. Replace one breastfeeding at a time, waiting 3–5 days in between, until weaning is complete. If you get a significant amount of resistance from your child (e.g., changes in behavior, feelings of insecurity) consider slowing down the pace.
- Choose the least important feeding each time. Many children are especially attached to their early morning, naptime, and bedtime breastfeedings. If your child resists giving them up altogether, you can continue those breastfeedings, perhaps shortening the length of each over time.
- Increase cuddle time. This reinforces your baby’s sense that separation from your breast does not mean separation from you, and that your love and attention continue even after breastfeeding stops.
- Distract him. Active and curious toddlers often accept games, outdoor play, or storytelling as substitute activities.
- Expect physical changes. Your body may continue to produce breast milk for days, weeks, or even longer after you have weaned your child completely. You may experience little discomfort if you weaned slowly. If you do experience pain, you can take a pain reliever (e.g., acetaminophen), apply ice or cabbage leaves to your breasts, and/or wear a snug-fitting bra. Be alert for signs of engorgement or mastitis, and if you have any concerns, call your health care provider right away.
Throughout the weaning process, remember that the benefits of breastfeeding—for both you and your baby—continue long after breastfeeding has stopped.