When should I wean my baby? How do you wean?
The early days of breastfeeding a baby can be challenging, but once breastfeeding is established, it can be equally as challenging bringing this special relationship with your baby to a close. Ideally a mother and baby come to a mutual understanding that they are ready to move on. In reality, the pressures of modern work life often compel a mother to finish breastfeeding her baby sooner than either mother or baby would prefer. There is also the issue of discontinuing pumping, either the 2 or 3 pumping sessions a day of the working mother or the more frequent pumping sessions required when the baby is unable to learn to latch on and nurse.
The weaning process begins when the first human milk substitutes are introduced into the baby’s diet. If a two week old is given a bottle of infant formula each day, that baby has already begun the weaning process. Any time an infant is receiving something else other than his/her mother’s milk at a feeding time, if milk is not being removed from the mother’s breast, the mother’s body begins the process of reducing the milk supply or weaning.
So when should weaning occur? Although this is a very individual decision for each mother baby pair, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life with the addition of solid foods starting at 6 months. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least 2 years. Unfortunately, less than 30% of infants in the United States receive any amount of breastfeeding more than six months.
When the time is right for weaning, the best approach is to make it a gradual process where the mother gives her body a chance to adjust to the decrease in milk production before dropping another feeding or pumping session. Rushing through the weaning process can lead to engorgement and blocked ducts that are painful for the mother, and can also lead to a breast infection known as mastitis.
Mothers who are working outside the home usually start the weaning process by decreasing the number of pumping sessions one at a time. Each time a pumping session is dropped; one should wait at least a week before dropping another pumping session. Once the mother feels comfortable all day with the reduced pumping schedule, another pumping session can be dropped. Depending on how old the infant is at the time the weaning process is begun, and whether the infant is taking solid foods, the infant will be given infant formula and/or solid foods to make up what would have been a breast milk feeding.
When mothers are able to let their babies wean themselves, the process is generally slower and many babies continue to nurse beyond the first year of life. When weaning an older infant the mother should look for feedings where the baby seems to be less interested and discontinue those feedings first. Remember that nursing is a great source of comfort for an infant as well as a means of obtaining nutrition. Try to continue to spend time cuddling with your infant to make up for the lost nursing time. Whenever possible, try not to begin the weaning process at a time when there are other stressful events happening in the family.
Weaning a baby is a transition for both mother and child, often the first of the many transitions they will navigate. Don’t be surprised if both you and your baby feel ambivalent during this process. At times you may take one step forward and then go back to more breastfeeding during a time of illness or unusual stress. Some mothers find it difficult to wean in spite of the fact that their infant is giving clear signs of being ready to wean. If the weaning process is not going smoothly, don’t hesitate to talk with your Lactation Consultant or other health care provider.