I recently weaned my fifth child. Like all of her siblings before her, I breastfed her from birth until two years old, Alhamdulilah. Weaning her was an emotional time for me. My feelings constantly slid up and down between sadness and relief, between wanting to keep her attached to me forever to being SO happy to have my body back to myself.
Every breastfeeding relationship eventually comes to an end and it’s a time of great change for mom and baby. When you’re ready to take this step, it’s helpful to get familiar with how babies can wean and understand the impact it can have on you physically and emotionally.
Weaning Begins Long Before the End
We often think of weaning as the time when we choose to completely end breastfeeding our child. But for our babies, the process of weaning begins as soon as they begin learning to take foods and drinks other than breastmilk.
This means that when a baby begins eating or drinking, either before or after their nursing sessions, the process of weaning has begun.
For moms who exclusively breastfed from birth, this can start between 6 months and a year later, when the baby begins to show developmental signs of readiness for additional nutrition. For moms who breastfeed at birth but begin supplementing down the line, or introduce solid foods before the 6-month mark, weaning starts much sooner and can play a role in mom not being able to continue nursing her baby through the first two years of life.
This is important to understand because if you are a mother who wants to breastfeed for two full years, but your infant feeding habits don’t support that, you may have trouble hitting your mark.
If you are a mother who wants to wean your currently nursing child in the near future, understanding how babies naturally reduce their breastfeeding over time and using that to your advantage, can help make it an overall easier process for you both, inshaAllah.
When a mother chooses to nurse, her breastmilk serves as the baby's primary source of nutrition from birth through the first year of life. Even when a breastfeeding child begins to taste solid foods around 6 months old, breastmilk is still the most important source of nutrition which is why many lactation educators and counselors will advise that children under one year old begin with their meals at the breast and then sample solids if there’s still an interest. This helps ensure the baby's nutritional needs are being met while they learn to explore new foods.
As the baby grows and begins to sample more variety and amounts of solid food, their intake of breastmilk will naturally decrease. This could look like more time lapsing in between breastfeeds, skipping meals at the breast altogether, or clustering their breast meals during specific times of the day, such as during the night or early mornings, while the remainder of the day is spent exploring solids.
When a child who is developmentally ready for solids naturally decreases their consumption of breastmilk, without any other underlying issues, it’s called “baby-led weaning” and it’s one of the most effective ways to allow your child to wean because it allows ample time for you and baby to reduce breastfeeding gradually, rather than abruptly ending breastfeeding altogether.
Mother-led weaning is when mom chooses to begin weaning the baby at a time dictated by her, regardless of whether or not the child is ready for it. There are many reasons why a mother might need to dictate the weaning process and it’s usually done in one of two ways: abruptly or gradually.
Abrupt weaning is something I personally never advocate for unless there is a medical necessity. Cutting off breastfeeding “cold turkey” can have a host of negative side effects for mom and baby including:
- Clogged ducts
- Breast infection
- Large mood swings and symptoms of depression in mom
- Pushback, tantrums, and sleep disruptions from baby
- Signs of sadness and mourning the breast from baby
- Confusion, pain, and/or negative associations for baby if the weaning is also being paired with tactics such as coating the nipples in hot sauce, applying foul scents to the breasts to steer baby away, punishing/scolding baby for trying to breastfeed, telling the baby mom’s breasts are “broken,” and so on.
Gradual weaning, whether mother-led or baby-led, allows babies to slowly reduce their feeds, easing the emotional transition for both mom and baby, and lessening the chances for negative physical side effects on mom.
Combining Both Over Time
If you have time and don’t need to rush weaning because of something urgent, I like to use a patient, gradual approach that combines both baby-led weaning with mother-led weaning. I’ve used this approach successfully with all five of my children and have advocated it for many breastfeeding mothers that I worked with who went on to have their own success with it Alhamdulilah.
Let’s assume that you plan to breastfeed from birth until your child reaches two years of age. Here is what I do for the first year:
- Exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of the baby's life (this means no other food or drinks are given to the baby other than breastmilk).
- When baby reaches 6 months of age, I begin watching for developmental signs of readiness for solids. If the baby is consistently showing the majority of signs for readiness, I slowly begin to introduce solid foods after breast meals. If the baby is not developmentally ready, I hold off on all solid foods until they are older and keep on breastfeeding. (Every child is unique in their development and readiness for solids. I have had children who began solids at 6 months, others who were not ready to begin until 9 months, and others who began at varying times in between.)
- Once the baby begins eating solids (baby-led weaning), I continue breastfeeding and do not introduce any other liquids or milks until after 1 year old.
- After 1 year, I include the introduction of other liquids and milk in small amounts, still only after breast meals, and continue to allow baby-led weaning to run the show. During this time, I observe the changes in my baby and mentally keep track of their patterns in growth, feeding, and sleeping as they naturally reduce their intake of breastmilk.
When a baby reaches 18 months (1.5 years), they’re not really a baby anymore and I shift my mindset to mother-led weaning. This is when I begin using more active but still gentle approaches to gradually reduce breastfeeding.
Techniques like “don’t offer, don’t refuse,” asking baby to wait while you distract them with a different activity, or offering nutritious solid food instead of a breast meal, are all good ways to gradually reduce breastfeeding without generally causing difficulty for the child.
As the child nears their second birthday (about 22 months), I start dropping feeds one at a time until all that is left is one last night time feed. At this point I also begin having conversations with my toddler about how they are getting older, all the amazing growth they’re going through, and how their time with feeding at the breast will come to an end soon. It may sound silly, but I’ve always found honest conversations to be very effective in helping my children transition off the breast, especially when paired with loving reinforcement from family members and older siblings.
Finally, when the child turns 2 years old, it’s time to wean completely and say goodbye to nighttime breastfeeding. At this point, I begin a new conversation that celebrates their growth, emphasizes their maturity, and makes it very clear that breastfeeding will no longer be available. I also schedule another adult in the family to sleep near the baby at night for about a week or two, instead of me, to help with night weaning. Though cutting the final feed usually doesn't come as a shock to older children, putting a bit of distance between mom and child at night really helps to reinforce that access to the breast is no longer available while still allowing the child to have comfort and loving support while they adjust.
After Weaning Adjustments
Once your baby is weaned, it’s normal for the adjustment to take a while to settle in.
Older children can continue asking to breastfeed for months after weaning and, as long as they are otherwise physically healthy, it’s just out of wanting comfort and closeness to mom. Breastfeeding is a powerhouse of nutrition but it’s also a deep bond between mother and child.
Your child may try to lift your shirt, grab at your breasts, or even verbally express they want to breastfeed. Gently remind them that breastfeeding is no longer an option and offer them another form of comfort from you instead: a kiss on the cheek, an extra big hug, a read-aloud in your lap, or even a cup of “big boy’s” milk.
If you weaned gradually over time, little physical management should be needed to reduce your supply but if you find yourself feeling full, you can pump just until you are comfortable and then apply cold therapy to reduce production.
It’s also normal to feel a range of emotions after weaning. Sadness, relief, missing the closeness but loving the freedom. The ups and downs are usually minimal with gradual weaning, do not last longer than a couple of weeks, and don’t interfere with daily activities. If you feel at any point that your emotions after weaning are intensifying over time, tending toward the negative, or interfering with your ability to go about your day, definitely reach out to a professional for help.
Breastfeeding is a beautiful relationship that doesn’t have to have an ugly ending. With patience, gentle approaches, and understanding of your unique child’s habits, you can wean your child easily and lovingly, in a way and time that works for both of you, inshaAllah.
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Melissa Barreto is a home-educating mother of five and the Co-Founder of Wildflower Homeschool Collective, a homeschool organization based in Northern New Jersey. She also holds a certification in Breastfeeding Counseling and spent many years working with mothers one-to-one after birth to breastfeed their infants, and leading community workshops to educate women about the benefits and best practices for breastfeeding success.