How To Wean From Breastfeeding, According To Lactation Experts

Tips to make the transition smoother for nursing mothers and their babies.
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Sarah Madden for HuffPost

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Weaning from breastfeeding — and when and how you do it — is a personal decision. Sometimes, it’s the parent’s decision to stop nursing, sometimes the baby leads the way and other times circumstances make it necessary.

A mother may decide to wean due to painful feedings, supply issues, mental health struggles or the lack of support needed to make it feasible. Or, perhaps, she’s just reached a point in her breastfeeding journey where she no longer enjoys it or wants to continue.

A child may indicate they’re ready to wean by nursing less and less frequently, becoming easily distracted at the breast or turning down feedings. This may occur once they’re getting the majority of their nutrition from solid food at or after they turn 1 year old, said Krystal Duhaney, a registered nurse, international board-certified lactation consultant and founder of MilkyMama.

In some cases, parents may need to wean because they’re returning to work and pumping on the job will be too difficult to manage. Other times it’s because of health-related issues: The mother may need to start taking medication or begin a medical treatment that’s not compatible with breastfeeding.

So How, Exactly, Do You Do It?

Once you’ve decided to wean, you may wonder where to begin, and how to do it in a way that supports both you and your child. Below, lactation experts offer their advice.

1. Reduce the number of feeds gradually, if you can.

Drop one feeding no less than every three to five days so the transition isn’t too abrupt. Some experts recommend waiting a week before dropping the next one, if possible.

“This helps babies get used to nursing less, as well as helps moms adjust to the hormonal decrease of prolactin and oxytocin,” Trina Goodwin — certified lactation educator counselor and founder of The Lactating Mama — told HuffPost. Note that these shifts in hormones can affect your mood and emotional state.

Taking things slowly also allows your breasts to respond to the decrease in demand and helps prevent clogged ducts and mastitis ― a painful inflammation of the breast tissue often caused by an infection.

It’s generally easier to drop a midday feed first, or you can start with whichever one your child is least attached to. The bedtime feed tends to be the last one to go because that’s “when emotions for baby run the highest,” said Shoshanna Levine, an international board-certified lactation consultant in Brooklyn, New York. Others may prefer to hold onto the first feed of the day longest.

For your physical comfort, Levine suggested pumping or hand-expressing during your dropped feeding times “for a few days until your body adjusts to the new demand.” Only express enough so that you don’t feel too engorged; not a full feeding’s worth (which would signal to your body to keep producing milk).

If your child is less than 1, you will need to replace nursing sessions with bottles of breast milk from your freezer stash or switch to formula. If your child is older than 1, then you can introduce cow’s milk or a milk alternative.

2. Use at-home remedies for decreasing supply and increasing your comfort.

Putting cold cabbage leaves on your breasts may help “dry up” your milk, while also easing engorgement. Ointments like Cabocreme or cold compresses can provide relief, too. (Note that scientific research on cabbage’s effectiveness is still limited, but anecdotal reports suggest it can be helpful.)

“Babies will start to nurse less, or even become uninterested in nursing when supply is steadily decreasing,” Goodwin said.

Breastfeeding is a supply and demand system. So when your baby is breastfeeding less often, your body will begin to produce less milk.

Other ways to decrease your supply? Our experts recommend drinking peppermint or sage tea. A single dose of the decongestant Sudafed has also been found to slow milk production. But this is considered an “off-label” use of the medication, so be sure to talk to your health care provider before going that route.

3. Offer distractions and lots of love.

At your normal feeding times, try to distract your baby. You could offer a snack, snuggles or playtime, Goodwin suggested.

Also, try to avoid things that remind your child of nursing. For example, if you always breastfeed in a particular chair, don’t sit in that spot, Duhaney said.

“Keep baby busy throughout the day with fun activities and cuddles,” she said. “This will not only help distract baby from their desire to nurse, but also helps you replace nursing with other bonding activities.”

4. Ask for support.

If you can, get help from your partner, a relative or other caregiver. Your child may be more apt to take a bottle from someone other than you, at least at first.

“If the baby usually nurses upon waking, try getting up before your baby and have your partner or someone else do the morning routine,” Goodwin suggested.

5. If time isn’t an issue, consider the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” method.

“Don’t offer, don’t refuse” is exactly what it sounds like. You don’t offer the breast, but if your baby asks to nurse, you don’t say “no.” This method works best for babies over the age of 1, Goodwin noted.

Duhaney called this the “most gentle” method because it “helps gradually wean baby without an abrupt change in routine.” But it also takes the longest, so it may not be an option for all parents.

Quitting cold turkey isn’t recommended — but sometimes it may be necessary.

Stopping breastfeeding suddenly can be difficult for both mom and baby, so lactation experts do not advise doing so unless you have to. But if you do need to wean quickly, reach out to a lactation consultant, doctor or midwife who can help tailor a plan to you, Levine suggested.

Fast-tracking the weaning process “can also make you prone to clogged ducts and mastitis due to infrequent and ineffective milk removal,” Duhaney said. So you may need to hand-express or pump a little bit to relieve excessive engorgement and discomfort.

Massaging your breasts and over-the-counter pain medications such as Advil or Tylenol can also help.

If you’re weaning abruptly for a medical reason, you can ask your doctor about taking Sudafed to suppress lactation, Goodwin noted.

Give yourself some grace.

Goodwin wants parents to know it’s OK to do what they need to do to make the weaning process easier on them and their babies. It can be taxing on a physical, emotional and mental level.

“There aren’t any ‘rules’ when it comes to your personal weaning journey in my opinion,” she said. “This means even if mom has to take a step back from weaning for a second, and nurse her crying baby who is having a hard time adjusting, this, too, is a part of the weaning journey.”

Feeling emotional about the process is normal for both parties, Duhaney added. Her recommendation: Take things slow and “try to create other fun and loving ways to spend time with baby to make the transition smoother.”

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