Weaning a baby off of breastfeeding can be a tricky and lengthy process for some moms, especially if the baby has been breastfeeding for a prolonged period of time.
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommends mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and then continue to breastfeed while introducing other foods into the baby’s diet until the age of two and beyond.
READ MORE: When is a child too old to breastfeed?
So why would a mom want to wean a baby off from breastfeeding? The reasons may vary, says Dr. Catherine Pound, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and pediatric physician and researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).
“A reason could be that Mom is going back to work and unfortunately, may or may not be able to continue to breastfeed depending on their work flexibility and support offered at work,” Pound explains. “Another reason may be because Mom chooses to stop for personal reasons. There are many reasons.”
And while every mother’s experience with breastfeeding is unique, there are a few general things moms can try that both Pound and Dr. Jack Newman of the International Breastfeeding Centre suggest which may help make the process of weaning a bit easier for mother and baby.
It’s mom’s choice
First, Pound says, the decision to stop breastfeeding should come from Mom.
“We have to make sure this decision comes from Mom and not from somebody else, and that they’re comfortable with that decision,” Pound says. “If they’re being told to stop, then I think they should really make sure it is the right decision for them.”
However, the CPS says that weaning can also be a natural child-led decision. This, they say, happens when the baby begins to accept more, as well as different types of solid foods while still “breastfeeding on demand,” their website says.
Babies who wean themselves off of breastfeeding tend to stop sometime between the ages of two and four.
Do it gradually
“Go slowly – there’s no rush to stop breastfeeding,” Newman says. “They don’t have to go straight from breast to no breast. They can sort of stretch this out over several weeks or several months. It depends on them. But the more slowly it goes, the better it is for everybody.”
Parents can start by substituting one feeding with expressed breast milk in a bottle or cup or a complementary food after six months of age, the CPS suggests.
Then as time goes on, continue to introduce more solid foods. Do this by introducing one food at a time and in small amounts as some babies may become constipated if they are given too much too soon, the CPS points out. For more information on what foods to introduce, visit the CPS website.
A sudden or abrupt wean should only be considered in very certain and extreme circumstances (like maternal illness), the CPS says.
If moms are introduced to a new medication and are worried it may affect their breast milk, Newman and the CPS say to consult a physician. Only very few medications require a mother to stop breastfeeding.
Ensure hydration and adequate nutrition
“Make sure baby is receiving an appropriate amount of milk based on the age of the baby,” Pound says. “Whether it’s with formula or cow’s milk, just make sure baby is staying hydrated.”
Newman adds that foods and liquids like cheese or yogurt or alternative milk are also great options to introduce to your child early on.
However, should the child have a dairy allergy, the CPS advises to consult a physician who will suggest alternative food options.
Also, make sure that you introduce foods with adequate protein, iron and other important nutrients, the CPS says.
“The mother should know that what’s comfortable for her is comfortable for the baby, too,” Newman says.
This includes lots of skin-to-skin contact, closeness, comfort and even walking.
The CPS also says to pay attention to any cues the baby may be giving. For example, baby will tell you when it has had enough, so don’t continue to feed if she’s full.
However, baby is also paying attention to the cues Mom gives. So if you tend to breastfeed in a certain chair, then chances are, when Mom sits in that chair, the baby will expect to be nursed.
Speaking of cues…
There are a few signals babies will often give off if they’re ready to wean off of breastfeeding and begin solid foods.
According to the CPS they are:
- They seem hungry earlier than usual
- They can sit up without support and have good control of their neck muscles
- The baby can hold food in its mouth without pushing it out on his tongue right away
- They show interest in foods others are eating
- The baby opens its mouth when it seems food is coming its way
- The baby lets you know when it doesn’t want food by leaning back or turning their head away
“It all depends when the mother is weaning,” Newman says. “So if we’re looking at a nine-month-old baby, then chances are Mom won’t get engorged. But if we’re talking 10 days after giving birth, then she might.”
However, should Mom experience engorgement, there are ways to manage it, Pound says.
“It all depends on what’s causing it,” she says. “But the best way to manage it [is] to express by hand enough so that it’s no longer uncomfortable, then continue on with your activities. And when you move, it helps to prevent blocked ducts and development of infection. Just make sure not to express too much because then that can increase milk production.”