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Smart Ways to Wean a Breastfeeding Baby

by Pam Martin of "Mamapedia"
Photo by: iStock

Among all the milestones in a baby’s development, breastfeeding may cause the most passionate debates. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants consume nothing but breast milk to six months of age and then solid food and breast milk to at least one year of age. Tori Sproat, IBCLC, RLC, from Tiny Tummies Lactation Services, says, “It is worth mentioning that the natural age of weaning is between 2-7 years of age; the World Health Organization recommends nursing until at least age 2 and then until parent and child are ready to wean.” Whether you wait that long or decide to wean your breastfeeding baby sooner, there are many things you can do to make the process easier on baby and you.

Grace Wong, RD MSc, a pediatric dietician in Calgary, Canada, recommends that you make a plan. " It’s helpful for moms to consider their intent and plan for weaning ahead of time. This plan does not need to dictate the weaning process and moms can change their plans depending on their breastfeeding/weaning experience. Having a tentative plan helps moms to prepare for the weaning process." She also points out that your child’s age and developmental stage are also important considerations, as weaning an infant is very different from weaning a toddler. “A six-months-old baby is transitioning to formula as the primary source of nutrition. Parents need to consider introducing bottle-feeding and formula. If a healthy 18-months-old is eating a variety of foods and has age-appropriate skills to drink from a cup, weaning off breast milk does not impact the child’s nutrition as much.”

Along with other experts, Sproat points out, " The biggest thing for many parents to note here is that weaning is a gradual process, which is best for both parent and child. Physically, if you were to wean quickly, it would hurt! Engorgement and mastitis are no joke. For your child, they need the gradual process as well, for they have known this as their primary source of comfort for so long." Aim to drop one feeding session every three to four days, starting with the one that baby seems least interested in or that is most inconvenient. It may be easiest to drop mid-day feeding sessions first, reserving the first and last feedings of the day for the end of the process, since your child will likely be most in need of comfort at those times.

Also, don’t begin your weaning efforts during especially stressful life changes, when you or baby are overly tired or when your child is teething or not feeling well. The bonding and comforting that come from breastfeeding are especially important during those times, making them difficult periods to get cooperation for such a big change. And, when you do start the process, remember that “breastfeeding meets multiple needs for young infants, e.g. nutrition, bonding, soothing. As a child grow, parents can offer other age-appropriate ways to meet these needs. For instance, if your child seeks breastfeeding as a way to bond or connect, engage him/her in other ways to connect,” says Wong. Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, suggests, “Offer skin to skin and eye contact with baby as breastfeeding offers this contact and baby will expect this.”

Experts offer a variety of specific and practical tips for the process itself. Hormuz Nicolwala, MD, a pediatric resident physician at Children’s Hospital of West Virginia, suggests, " just substitute breast milk for whole milk in a bottle instead of offering breastfeeding. Yes, the child might become more fussy because they are not getting their breast milk but the best thing to do is kind of like a negative reinforcement- not offer breast milk at all and just offering whole milk in a bottle even if the child will throw a fit or be fussy. Not in a mean way, one just needs to not give in to the child’s fussiness." Other lactation specialists recommend getting your partner or other caregivers to give baby a bottle while you are out of the room, if she refuses to take it from you.

Changing your routine and distraction are helpful, also. Keep cleavage out of sight, don’t lie down or sit in your usual nursing spots, especially during the feeding times you’re trying to eliminate. Sproat suggest that you limit nursing to a specific spot; she recommends teaching baby " milkies are only at home in our special chair now."

She also advises that you adopt a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” attitude; only nursing when your child asks. In addition, she says, “if your child is asking to nurse, direct them to a beloved toy/activity/cup of water/snack/etc.”

Make solid foods more fun, too, by offering them in brightly colored dishes or letting baby scoop them himself. Don’t force the issue, though; let him decide when he’s full.

And Sproat offers wisdom about that sense of time passing too fast when it’s time to wean: If you think about it, parenting is a form of weaning – they start out very reliant on us in every way and gradually become less and less so until they are grown and off being adults!

Pam Martin has been writing professionally since the early 1980s, on a wide variety of topics. She brings 20 years of classroom teaching and tutoring experience to the party, including early elementary classes and courses in writing, reading and literature, history, geography and government at middle and high schools. She is also accomplished in crafting and in writing about projects, including her blogs, Roots and Wings From the Village, The Corner Classroom, and Sassy Scribbler, which encompass crafting, cooking, lesson plans, and professional writing advice.

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