What is weaning?
Weaning means stopping breastfeeding.
Weaning starts when babies have food other than breastmilk. It ends when they no longer have any breastmilk.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended until your baby starts eating solid foods at around 6 months. It’s also best for your baby if you keep breastfeeding until at least 12 months. And you can keep breastfeeding beyond 12 months, for as long as you and your child want.
The weaning process: making it easier
When you’re stopping breastfeeding, it’s a good idea to take it slowly. This way your baby can get used to the change in routine and diet, and your body can get used to not making milk.
If the decision to wean is yours rather than your baby’s, you might need to offer some extra comfort as you and your baby make the transition to bottle-feeding or drinking from a cup. Plenty of cuddles and time with you can help your baby feel secure and loved without relying on the breast.
Weaning for baby
You can wean baby to a cup or a bottle. This decision depends on your baby’s age. For young babies who are weaning, bottle-feeding can help with their need to suck. By 6-8 months, babies can learn to drink straight from a cup.
The age of your baby also determines whether to replace breastfeeds with infant formula or cow’s milk. Babies younger than 12 months shouldn’t be offered cow’s milk except as part of their solid food. They need to be weaned onto infant formula. After 12 months, children can have cow’s milk as a drink and don’t need infant formula.
When you start the weaning process, the first step is to replace the breastfeed your baby seems least keen on with expressed breastmilk, infant formula or cow’s milk. Drop one breastfeed at a time, and wait a few days or a week before you drop the next one.
Weaning for breastfeeding mothers
If you have blocked milk ducts or mastitis before you start weaning, wait until this is better.
When you’re ready to wean, gradual weaning is better for you as well as for your baby. If you stop breastfeeding quickly, your breasts might fill with milk (engorge) and get very uncomfortable. To prevent engorged breasts, you might need to express milk sometimes. Express just enough for comfort. If you express too much, it won’t reduce your milk supply and weaning can take longer.
You might need to go from one feed a day to one feed every few days to avoid engorged breasts, before stopping breastfeeding altogether.
After your baby has stopped breastfeeding, you might have lumpy breasts for 5-10 days. A sore lump might indicate a blocked duct or the beginnings of mastitis. If this happens, try massaging the lumps or expressing a small amount of milk. This might reduce the lumpiness.
If any lump is painful and hasn’t gone away after 24 hours or you start feeling flu-like symptoms, see your GP as soon as possible.
It’s common for babies to wake at night during the first year of life. They wake to feed, and they also wake for comfort. So if you’re comfortable with feeding your baby during the night, there’s no hurry to phase out night feeds. You can choose what works best for you and your baby.
Weaning, pregnancy and contraception
If you’re heterosexual and sexually active, breastfeeding gives you some protection from getting pregnant, especially if the following 3 things are true:
- You’ve been exclusively breastfeeding.
- Your periods haven’t started again.
- Your baby is less than 6 months old and doesn’t sleep for long periods between feeds, especially at night.
If any of these 3 things are not true for you, breastfeeding might give you less protection from getting pregnant. It’s a good idea to consider other forms of contraception.
If you’re thinking about oral contraception – either the combined pill or the minipill – there are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- It’s safe for most breastfeeding mothers to start the combined pill (oestrogen and progesterone) if their baby is at least 6 weeks old. Some women find that the combined pill reduces their supply of breastmilk.
- You need to take greater care with the minipill if it’s your only contraception in addition to breastfeeding. For example, you must take it within 3 hours of the same time every day.
The pill is prescription medicine, so you’ll need to see your GP or obstetrician to get it. Your doctor will talk you through how to use it properly so you’re protected from getting pregnant.
Things to note about stopping breastfeeding
To wean an older baby or toddler, it’s best to go slowly if you can, changing your child’s routine gradually.
It’s also quite common to feel a bit down after your last feed, even if you were looking forward to weaning.
Your hormones might take some time to return to normal. Some women begin ovulating as soon as they reduce night feeds or begin to wean, while others find that the return of ovulation and menstruation takes several months.