August is National Breastfeeding Month and here at Ready. Set. Food!, we support each and every parent’s decision on how to feed and nourish their families.That’s why we’re proud to join National Breastfeeding Month in helping build a landscape of breastfeeding support with our new Breastfeeding 101 series.
When to stop breastfeeding is up to you as the mother, but there are still ideal times and ways to wean. Learn 11 possible reasons to stop breastfeeding, how to tell when baby is ready for weaning, and tips to help you and your little one through the weaning process.
It’s said that you should stop breastfeeding completely when either you or your baby is no longer enjoying the process. And for the most part, that's true.
It's your choice when to stop breastfeeding. Only you know what's best for yourself and your baby.
But one thing's for certain --- it's best not to stop breastfeeding suddenly.
Instead, several months before you stop breastfeeding completely, you'll need to start weaning, or gradually introducing solid foods and slowly reducing the amount of breastmilk you give baby.
Whether you and baby are ready for weaning will depend on several factors. How to know it's time to start weaning? We'll share 11 signs to look out for. But first, let's see what top health organizations have to say about when to stop breastfeeding.
Recommendations on Breastfeeding From Health Organizations
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for at least 6 months, and then feeding a combination of breastmilk and solid foods from 6 months of age until baby is fully weaned. Full weaning could happen at any point up to 2 years of age, or even beyond the second birthday.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends "exclusive breastfeeding for approximately 6 months," when solids start to be introduced. After that point, the AAP advises, "continue breastfeeding [along with feeding solids] until the baby's first birthday, or longer while mutually desired by mother and baby."
So, as the guidance from top health organizations lays out, when to stop breastfeeding should be up to you as the mother. (That is, as long as you start weaning after baby reaches the six-month mark.)
But ideally, weaning should be a gradual process, where you continue to feed baby breastmilk along with introducing solid foods.
After all, no food can match the nutritional benefits of breastmilk for baby in their first year --- breastmilk contains the exact balance of vitamins and proteins that your baby needs.
Plus, gradually stopping breastfeeding puts you at less risk of engorgement, blocked ducts, and mastitis, because it lets your body slowly adjust to a demand for less breastmilk.
But how to make the decision about when to stop breastfeeding? Take these factors into account when deciding on your timing of weaning.
Starting weaning when baby is ready for solids
The number one reason to start weaning is when baby has shown they're ready for solid foods. But this milestone doesn't come at the same age (or weight) for every baby. Instead, it's a developmental milestone.
Look for these signs that indicate baby is ready for solids:
- Baby sits upright with little to no support.
- Baby can hold their head up on their own for longer periods of time.
- When you eat, baby shows interest in your food (for example, they may grasp for the food or open their mouth).
- There's a change in baby's tongue reflex --- their tongue can push food to the back of the mouth and swallow, rather than pushing the food out of the mouth.
Once baby is ready for solids, weaning should be gradual. Start by introducing a little food before each nursing session. Then, gradually replace breastmilk with food. Replace one feeding at a time with solids (as this will let both your body and your baby adjust). Baby should move towards eating 3-4 meals a day with 3-4 nursing sessions a day.
As they start to eat more solids over time, most little ones will gradually reduce the amount of breastmilk they consume, so they can make room for more solids.
Combined breastfeeding and feeding of solids should ideally continue until at least one year of age. Then, baby can start to eat solids on their own, without breastfeeding.
Other signs to stop breastfeeding
There are other reasons why you may want to stop breastfeeding, besides baby's natural readiness for solids.
- You're returning or have returned to work, and you're either unable to pump or no longer want to. (This may end up being your work's decision if your little one is older. By law, most workplaces must let you have time to pump breastmilk as often as you need to in your baby's first year. But your workplace doesn't have to allow for these pump times after your little one's first birthday.)
- You've been called to active military duty, or you're in another situation where you'll be away from baby long-term and unable to pump breastmilk for them
- You are pregnant again and want to "make way" for breastfeeding your next baby: While you can breastfeed while pregnant if you desire (and even "tandem nurse" two children of different ages when the new baby arrives), many moms will wean the currently breastfeeding baby during their pregnancy. And sometimes, babies will wean on their own or nurse less when their mother is pregnant with the next baby.
- You want to become pregnant again and you need medical help to conceive (as doctors won't administer some fertility treatments to breastfeeding moms)
- You need to take certain medicines or undergo certain health procedures that will make it unsafe to breastfeed
- Your little one has several food allergies and you're unable to eliminate all their allergens from your own diet (as the allergens can be passed through your breastmilk)
- Breastfeeding is extremely painful for you
- Your little one (over one year of age) will be going to daycare, toddler time, or preschool
- Your baby is over a year old and ready to stop breastfeeding on their own, or
- You're simply ready to stop breastfeeding completely (no other reason is needed, as long as baby has started eating solids and is old enough for weaning! Remember, though, that if you can, it's best to wean gradually and continue some breastfeeding until baby reaches their first birthday, according to the AAP.)
What if you need to stop breastfeeding immediately?
If you need to stop breastfeeding immediately, it may be uncomfortable to suddenly stop.
But pumping or hand-expressing small amounts of breastmilk can help you ease the discomfort. Just don't pump or express too much --- you don't want your body to think there's an increased demand for breastmilk!
If you're experiencing engorgement, try applying ice packs or cabbage leaves to your breasts for relief. And if you develop mastitis during weaning, try some of the mastitis relief tips we mentioned in our previous guide.
Also, if you need to stop breastfeeding suddenly before baby has reached their first birthday, you'll need to switch to formula to make sure they get adequate nutrition. If this is the case, talk to your pediatrician.
Encouraging weaning: Tips for success
Should you let baby stop breastfeeding on their own? You could, but this may be difficult. Keep in mind that if you let your little one decide when to stop breastfeeding completely, they usually won't stop until well after 1 year of age.
If you're ready to encourage weaning, these tips may help:
- Cut out your little one's least favorite nursing time first, and wean them off of their favorite nursing session last (the one right before bedtime is most babies' favorite).
- Offer your little one a special playtime or a new toy during a time they would normally nurse, to distract them.
- Or, add something new to the routine. Read a book, take them out of the house, or give them time with your partner when you would normally breastfeed.
- Find new ways to offer comfort to your little one instead of a nursing session. Snuggle or cuddle them, wrap them in a blanket, or hold them close without breastfeeding. Do this somewhere that isn't your usual nursing spot.
- For toddlers 1 ½-2 years of age and older, try these strategies:
- Using a timer to set limits and expectations for a nursing session
- Acknowledging their emotions about weaning
- Planning special activity time as a distraction (such as a favorite game or a park trip)
And remember: weaning is often an emotional process for both you and your little one, but maintaining time to show closeness between the two of you will help you both through the process.
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