A nursing mom barely remembers what it was like to sleep through the night or to have uninterrupted time for herself; finding time for a simple shower is a luxury! But soon it is time to think about weaning from breastfeeding.
Like breastfeeding, the choice of when to wean is a personal decision. Because there are two people involved in the process, the decision must consider the needs of both.
Weaning from breastfeeding does not have to be traumatic. Gone are the days when mothers were advised to paint their breasts with bitter tinctures or to leave town for a week while Grandma coped with a screaming baby. Today’s breastfeeding moms are wise enough to follow the La Leche League’s advice, “gradually, and with love.”
Baby-led weaning from breastfeeding is recommended by most breastfeeding advocates. A baby often begins to wean himself as soon as formula or solid foods are introduced between the ages of six months and one year. Indications that a baby is ready to begin the weaning process include him being easily distracted while nursing, pushing the breast away and biting.
Mother-led weaning may be initiated because she wishes to return to a career. She may be pregnant and choose to wean before the new baby arrives. She may simply decide that she wishes to stop breastfeeding. There is no right or wrong reason to wean; it is a personal decision.
Whether baby-led or mother-led, weaning should be a slow process. Weaning from breastfeeding too abruptly will distress the baby. It may also cause uncomfortable breast engorgement and mastitis for the mother or depression from a sudden drop in hormones.
To taper off slowly, one feeding is dropped. At the normal time of that feeding, the baby may be offered a cup or bottle of breast milk, formula or cow’s milk for a child older than one year. If breasts become engorged because of the skipped feeding, the mother can express just enough milk for relief and use cold compresses and over-the counter pain relievers to relieve discomfort.
When the mother no longer experiences breast discomfort from the missed feeding, another feeding is dropped. Again, the baby needs to be offered alternatives to nursing: food, a favorite story, a toy or a silly game. Feedings continue to be dropped, one at a time. The last feeding will usually be an early morning or bedtime feeding. This may be the most difficult to eliminate; mothers often choose to continue this feeding for some time before tapering off to every other day, then every third day, then finally stopping.
Many mothers feel both liberated and sad when breastfeeding ends. They can take comfort in knowing that the nurturing bond forged during breastfeeding will have lifelong physical and emotional health benefits for their children.