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.
You might decide to stop breastfeeding when or before your baby reaches 6 or 12 months. For example, you might find that you start thinking about weaning when you’re getting ready to return to work.
Your baby might even start weaning before you’re ready, but this is less common.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended until your baby starts eating solid foods at around six months. It’s best for your baby if you keep breastfeeding while giving your baby solids until at least 12 months.
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. By 7-8 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, so they need to be weaned onto 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, from a cup or bottle. Drop one breastfeed at a time, and wait a few days or a week before you drop the next one.
Weaning for mum
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 your milk sometimes. Express just enough for comfort. If you express too much, it won’t reduce your milk supply and weaning can take longer.
Some mums need to go from one feed a day to one feed every few days to avoid engorged breasts, before stopping breastfeeding altogether.
Watch out for lumpy breasts. 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.
If your baby is older than six months and developing well, you might decide to try night weaning while still breastfeeding during the day. On the other hand, 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
Breastfeeding gives you some protection from getting pregnant, especially if:
- you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding
- your periods haven’t started again
- your baby is less than six months old and doesn’t sleep for long periods between feeds.
When you start to wean your baby, breastfeeding might give you less protection from getting pregnant, so 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 six weeks old. Some women find that the combined pill helps to reduce 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 three 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.