Weaning a Breastfed Baby
In the course of nursing a child, it is inevitable that he or she will eventually need to be weaned. By definition, weaning is the transition from breast milk to other foods. Although it is less than ideal, many breastfed children may be weaned early and switched to formula, usually for reasons of convenience for the mother. There are two other types of weaning that can take place when a child is physically ready, after he or she has reached the age of at least twelve months. These are mother-led weaning and child-led weaning.
Mother-led WeaningMother-led weaning occurs when a mother has decided she is ready to stop nursing, even if the child might not be. Once a child has reached twelve months of age and is eating plenty of solids, it is possible to gently encourage him or her to stop nursing. This can be done a few different ways, depending on one's situation.
Child-led Weaning Child-led weaning is where the child gradually cuts down on nursing without being prompted to. This occurs typically sometime between the ages of two and four, when the child no longer has either an emotional or nutritional need to nurse. In other words, weaning is a developmental milestone as much as learning to talk or walk. A child will voluntarily wean when he or she is ready to do so.
Sudden Weaning Sudden weaning is very rarely necessary and isn't ideal. As is apparent from the title, in this instance, the nursing relationship is terminated suddenly. Usually this is the result of a medical issue where the mother and child are forced to be apart (as in hospitalization) or the mother needs medication that could be transmitted to the child through breast milk. Weaning this way can lead to a variety of problems for the mother, such as:
- plugged ducts
- breast infection
- breast abscess
- mood swings
If sudden weaning is unavoidable, there are a few things that can be done to ease the transition for the mother. First, if at all possible, use a breast pump. Even if the milk is unusable because of medication or illness, this will ensure the supply is not lost. Then, when able, the nursing relationship can be reestablished. Or, if a pump is not available, hand expressing milk can relieve some of the symptoms of engorgement at the very least. If permanent weaning is desirable, cold cabbage compresses are a good way to reduce lactation.
Gradual Weaning Gradual weaning involves stretching the process out over time, slowly incorporating other forms of affection and nutrition to compensate for the loss of the nursing relationship. Gradual weaning also allows for the mother's breasts to slowly adjust and the milk supply to decrease.
The best way to gradually wean a child is to eliminate one nursing session every few days to a week. Replace these sessions with alternate forms of nutrition, or distracting activities. This allows both mother and child to adjust before eliminating more. This is simply continued until all nursing sessions have been phased out.
Many times a "don't offer, don't refuse" method may work. This is when the mother does not offer to nurse, and may attempt to distract the child or prolong the time between feedings, but does not refuse to nurse if the child requests it, either.
Weaning Too Fast When attempting to gradually wean, there are some signs that let a parent know if the process is going too fast for the child.
- Sudden increase in separation anxiety.
- New comfort measures such as thumb-sucking or increased attachment to a lovey.
- Behavioral issues such as pinching, biting or other signs of acting out.
- Physical symptoms of anxiety (stomachaches, constipation etc.).
If it becomes apparent that the weaning process is proceeding too quickly for the child, slow it down. This does not mean that the number of nursing sessions needs to increase, but perhaps more time needs to be taken before cutting out another one. Rather, increase the amount of time that is spent in cuddling and other comforting activities. Of course, nursing sessions can always be added back in at times the child seems to need them the most. For many children this is either the first or the last nursing of the day.
Check out our whole section all about Breastfeeding!