How Do You Wean A Baby?

To wean a baby means to stop breastfeeding. Once a baby no longer nurses at the breast and takes food and drink from other sources, he is said to be weaned. Some babies wean themselves as they lose interest in nursing. Others need to be coaxed into giving up breastfeeding.

Mothers and babies can feel emotional about nursing. The bond between a mother and a nursing baby is strong and intimate. This can make it difficult or even painful for one or the other to give up the nursing relationship. Mother and/or baby may not want to give up the closeness experienced while nursing. A mother may feel guilty to wean her baby because it feels like taking something away from baby that is very important.

Sometimes a mother has to give up breastfeeding due to health issues. A mother may need to give up nursing in order to undergo chemotherapy, for instance, because the drugs can cross over into the baby’s milk. A breastfeeding mother who becomes pregnant may have to wean baby because nursing is bringing on contractions in early pregnancy and may bring on a miscarriage. In these cases, the process of weaning the baby may need to be immediate or sudden. This is especially painful for mother and baby. Baby doesn’t understand why all of a sudden he cannot nurse and mother feels terrible she cannot give baby what he wants most.

Most of the time, however, weaning is a choice. It means that baby no longer needs breast milk or so much physical contact. Instead, baby is growing up and becoming independent. In this sense, to wean a baby is like a lot of other parenting tasks—it’s about easing children out into the world and helping them not need their parents so much.

When you wean your baby, it’s important to find other ways to be close and cuddly. When you were nursing, breastfeeding was the way you soothed your baby’s hurts. Now, when baby gets a booboo, you might want to hold and rock him, or offer to read a book to him.

If the baby is begging to breastfeed, don’t get upset. Just be polite and firmly say no. It may help to have a spouse or partner take baby into another room to settle down. Baby only expects breastfeeding from you.

When to Wean

It can be difficult to know when to wean. A mother can feel guilty about wanting to wean if her baby is still quite young. She may feel cultural pressure to wean if her baby is older. The pressure to stop breastfeeding may even take the form of disapproval from friends, family, or strangers. And sometimes, pressure to wean may even come from a spouse who feels that enough is enough. All things considered, when deciding to wean the baby, remember that it is your body and your time. That means that when to wean the baby is ultimately your decision and your decision alone.

There are health and other benefits to nursing. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that moms breastfeed with no other food or drink for the first six months, and then to continue breastfeeding in combination with other food and drink for at least another six months, until the baby is one year old. The AAP suggests that at this point, breastfeeding can go on for as long as desired by mother and baby.

Wean Baby Gradually

Following the AAP guidelines means that the way you wean your baby will be a gradual process. At first, you’re nursing the baby fulltime. Then, you’re adding food, little by little. By the time baby is six months, he can start drinking from a cup. All of these practices are slowly teaching your baby to live without breastfeeding. Because the process of ending the breastfeeding relationship is gradual, it is more natural and may not have to be traumatic.

Some babies lose interest in the breast as they become more interested in real food and begin to cut teeth, somewhere between 6 to 9 months. Babies this age can hold their heads up without help and can sit (with support, if necessary). They no longer have the infant’s tongue-thrust reflex of sticking the tongue out when the lips are touched. They’re of the age when solid food becomes much more interesting than breast milk.

As for teething, babies getting ready to cut teeth may turn away from breastfeeding, as sucking on the breast can irritate their already aching gums. Toddlers, meantime, may want to stop breastfeeding because they are on the go. They don’t want to stop exploring the world long enough to hold still for a feeding. Whether cutting teeth or wanting to explore, babies this age may get downright cranky when you try to breastfeed them.

If you want to continue to nurse a baby or toddler who is losing interest in breastfeeding, keep offering the breast when convenient to do so. Babies will usually be glad to continue. Some mothers, however, will be glad to accept the baby’s preference to stop nursing, since this means weaning without baby tears or trauma. According to the AAP, most babies are weaned between the ages of 4-7 months.

Baby’s Choice to Wean

If the baby seems impatient to finish feeding or gets distracted often while feeding, these are signs the baby may be ready to wean. Some babies climb up on a mother’s lap to feed only to fight to get back down after a half-hearted suck or two or three. Other babies want to stop feeding to look toward every noise they hear. They’re too busy to nurse with their full attention. This is a good time to say goodbye to nursing for good.

If you decide to go ahead and wean the baby with a baby who is losing interest in nursing, try using the “don’t offer-don’t refuse” method. That means that unless the baby asks to breastfeed, you don’t offer the breast. This is a nice way to wean for both mother and baby because baby-led weaning means no baby tears to contend with. Much less stressful for everyone!

Mother’s Choice to Wean

Sometimes a mother wants to wean because she’s going back to work and it’s more convenient to wean than to pump milk. Or perhaps she’s tired of being tied to the baby all the time and wants her freedom from nursing. The nursing relationship can feel restrictive or otherwise unpleasant for some women and it’s legitimate for a mother to want out of the nursing relationship for these reasons. In some cases, a mother just feels it’s time to wean. That’s just fine.

No matter the reason you decide to wean your baby, it’s best to do it as a gradual process. By cutting back gradually, you spare the baby the trauma of suddenly stopping a favorite and most comforting activity. In addition to making it easier on the baby, weaning the baby gradually prevents trauma to the breasts. Sudden weaning can cause the breasts to become engorged, and/or plugged milk ducts, which can lead to breast infections.

How to Wean

Once you’ve decided to wean your baby, try skipping a feeding. Instead, depending on the baby’s age, you can offer her a cup of water, juice, or milk. A baby of nine months should certainly be weaned to a cup. There’s no reason to wean a baby this age to a bottle, which may end up affecting the baby’s teeth and bite.

The baby may seem upset to be put off from nursing. Talk her through the experience gently. Praise her attempts to drink from the cup and encourage her to enjoy the experience. Hug her and smile at her. Sing a song.

After a few days or a week, skip a second feeding. By letting some time go by as you cut back on feedings, you’re letting your milk supply adjust to a reduced demand. This is smart and will help you avoid a painful case of mastitis.

For many mothers and babies, the most difficult feeding to eliminate is the bedtime feeding. For other mothers, it’s a long, lazy Sunday feeding. It can be upsetting to give up the feeding that is most beloved. Soothe baby by rocking and cuddling. Read a book together, sing a song. It won’t be the same as nursing, but when baby sees you are determined, she will have no choice but to accept your offerings.

In addition to cutting back on feedings, you can also try cutting nursing time short. Does your baby nurse for ten minutes? Try getting her to stop after five minutes. Have something ready to offer the older baby instead, such as a cup of applesauce or a chunk of banana. The younger baby can be offered a bottle of formula.

If the baby won’t take a bottle from you, try offering the bottle in a different position or location that the baby doesn’t associate with nursing. Still won’t take the bottle? Have a spouse or other family member offer the bottle while you go into a different room, out of baby’s sight.

Another way to be out of sight? Spend a weekend away from baby. When you return, you may find that nursing will no longer be so interesting to your baby. She may ask to nurse but not insist.

Delay and Distract

Once you’re down to just two or three feedings a day you can try pushing off feedings. This works well with toddlers. The toddler will ask to nurse. Say, “Not now. Soon,” and offer some fun activity. If it’s early evening, you can tell the baby that you’ll nurse her at bedtime.

It’s a good idea to wear something that makes nursing difficult, such as a dress that zips up the back. That makes it impossible for your child to, for instance, lift up your blouse to nurse. Older babies will understand if you tell them that it’s too difficult to nurse because of what you’re wearing.

If you become engorged at any time during the weaning, you can offer the breast to the baby for just enough time to relieve the too-full feeling. Or you can pump and use the milk in the baby’s cereal. Ice packs or over-the-counter painkillers can be helpful in treating any discomfort from weaning.

Weaning’s Too Hard?

So let’s say you’ve tried to cut down on feedings, reduce the amount of time spent at the breast at feedings, and have attempted to delay and distract, but baby is still a crying, red-faced mess—what should you do? You may want to consider that it’s just not the right time to wean your baby. Wait a few days or weeks and try again.

Or maybe your baby is fussy for another reason:

  • Have you just moved? Just returned to work? It may be your baby needs more time to adjust to a new place or to her caregivers and her situation in general.
  • It may be your baby isn’t feeling well. Babies want to nurse more often when they’re ill. It never hurts to bring your baby to the doctor for a checkup.
  • Some babies are frustrated as they approach a milestone, such as learning to walk. You may want to give the weaning a break until your child gets over her developmental “hump.”

If you’re going through some sort of trauma, such as a divorce, or a death in the family, your baby may be feeling your stress. It’s probably not the best time to wean, if you can help it.

The thing is? In most cases, you don’t have to wean your baby right away and can always try again in another month. Don’t be disheartened. So this time it didn’t work out. But it will in future. When the time is right.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.