How to Wean & What to Expect

Infant Sleep · Toddler Sleep

First, let me begin by saying congratulations on breastfeeding your little one for as long as you have made it! Whether it has been two weeks or two years, any length of time providing breastmilk for your baby is beneficial for you and your little one. So kudos to you! Celebrate your success! Starting the breastfeeding journey can be as complicated as weaning from breastfeeding. Let’s consider some best practices for how to wean and what you can expect along the way.  

Two Common Options for Weaning

Some moms may opt for an abrupt/cold turkey method. This isn’t usually recommended, unless it is for a medical issue – either for mom or baby. Some moms will elect to take supplements that can decrease supply more quickly. We recommend that you always check with your medical provider first. If ending nursing or pumping sessions is necessary quickly, you may still need to pump or hand express temporarily. In these cases, you want to empty the breasts just enough to relieve the pressure. Cold compresses also help during a cold turkey weaning.

What is more commonly advised is a more gradual and natural weaning. In this method, your child will often be over 15 months or even nearing 2 years old. Many children may easily wean down to two sessions. Commonly, the morning nursing session and the final session after dinner are the last to go because a child may maintain the most interest in nursing at those times.

A phrase that may be helpful to remember during the weaning period is “Don’t Offer – Don’t Refuse.” This means you let your child indicate when he or she desires to nurse. However, you are no longer intentionally offering nursing sessions or reminding them of common times.

How to Recognize when to Begin the Weaning Process

What signs can you look for to determine if your child is ready to start weaning? Some of the signs include, but are not limited to:
-not acting as interested in nursing
-participating more in comfort sucks rather than actually eating at the breast
-pushing away the breast (or bottle)
-slowly nursing less often
-beginning to skip feedings

Tips for Weaning Toddlers

If your child is a toddler over 18 months, here are a few recommendations for weaning. First, it is very helpful to set boundaries. For example, only nurse at home. Do errands around the usual nursing times to distract your child. Set timers, and only nurse at those times. (This one can be fun for your child and help him or her learn how long a minute is!)

Redirection is also hugely impactful! Having fun, new toys available or playing a new game with your child is a great idea. These activities can provide engaging alternatives during previous typical nursing times. Another thing that helps with weaning toddlers is introducing or increasing snacks. This helps to decrease your child’s hunger by giving solids before a typical nursing time.

Some moms also have had success with hosting a “weaning party.” This means actually setting a date on the calendar together to be the last day your toddler nurses. This is especially accommodating for a child over 2 or 2.5 years of age. Older toddlers can really have fun with a weaning party. With toddler weaning, some children may skip days or even weeks without nursing, and then out the blue ask to nurse. Don’t panic; this is okay! It’s almost always for comfort, and they may suck a couple times and be done!

What to Watch For

During weaning, especially if before one year of age, watch out for signs that your child may not yet be ready to wean. These include: new behavior issues, stuttering or speech issues, night waking, no longer napping very well, an increase in clinginess to Mom, and stomach upset, or constipation. If you are seeing these issues begin with your child, if possible, back off of weaning for a bit. Simply wait until a later time when your child may be more ready to begin the process again.

Weaning from a Pump

Next, let’s discuss weaning from the pump if you are a pumping and feeding Mama. There are a few different approaches to this one. First, you can drop one pumping session at a time. You can eliminate one session about every 3-7 days until you are down to just one pumping session. Then, you can eventually stop the final session. Second, you can decrease the amount of time you pump for just one pumping session until it is only a few minutes long. Then, drop that pumping session altogether, and move on to a different pumping session by decreasing the time.

Third, you can gradually decrease the pumping time for every pumping session at once, reducing each session about two minutes or so every other day. Lastly, you can gradually increase the length of time between the pumping sessions. If you usually pump every 3 hours, try pumping every 3.5 hours for three days. Then, go to every 4 hours the next three days, etc. Each of these strategies can help you more naturally wean from a pumping regimen.

The Emotional & Physical Effects of Weaning

How you take care of yourself during weaning is very important – physically and emotionally. As far as the physical, take care of those breasts! If you are feeling very full or uncomfortable, express just enough milk to relive the fullness – hand expression works great for this. This will also help to reduce your risk of plugged milk ducts or mastitis. Ibuprofen (if approved by your doctor) and a cold compress on your breasts can also help.

Finally, there is an emotional aspect for many Moms throughout the weaning process. We all know about how mothers’ hormones change during pregnancy, birth, and lactation. Hence we can imagine there is a huge shift in hormones during weaning as well. This can lead to some feelings of depression, anxiety, sadness, irritability, and hopelessness while weaning your child.  Many moms have these feelings for a couple weeks, and then the mood gradually improves.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you have the ability to allow a more gradual weaning, the shift in hormone levels is more gradual as well. As a result, we often see less depression in these moms, as compared to a mom who may need to wean her child more abruptly. We also see an increase in the likelihood that a mother will experience some depression while weaning if there is depression in her medical history. What can we do to help these feelings? Of course, exercise can always help, along with meditation and breathing exercises. Finding whatever helps you relax will be instrumental in contributing to decreasing these thoughts of hopelessness!

There are wonderful support groups in nearly every urban city where you can meet other moms going through the same thoughts and struggles, one of them being La Leche League. Please know that it takes a courageous and strong mother to seek help from her provider if she feels her depression is becoming concerning. Always remember: even if the breastfeeding journey is over, the nutrition and love you have given your child will last his or her lifetime! You are not alone!

About the author: Kimberly Kelk is a Registered Nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). Kimberly graduated with her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing and has worked as an RN in Labor & Delivery, Postpartum, and Special Care Nursery units in the hospital setting.   Kimberly currently supports nursing moms and babies meet their breastfeeding goals in an inpatient and outpatient hospital setting, as well as supporting Sleep Wise families virtually .

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