Breastfeeding is a beautiful, albeit sometimes challenging, experience for mothers and babies. The myriad benefits of breastfeeding make it all worth it. But, like all good things, it does come to an end. Determining when and how best to wean your baby may be challenging. Some babies may resist the idea, while others naturally wean themselves. Either way, having some strategies for introducing solids and tapering off full-time breastfeeding helps prevent breast soreness, duct blockage, or a fussy baby.
Extended Breastfeeding is Beneficial to Mother, Baby, and the Environment
No matter how long you choose to breastfeed, there are many benefits for both mother and baby. According to the CDC, benefits for infants include:1
- Lower risk of asthma.
- Lowered risk of obesity.
- Less chance of developing type 1 diabetes.
- Fewer ear infections.
- Less risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Less risk of severe lower respiratory disease.
- Fewer gastrointestinal infections, such as diarrhea and vomiting.
Benefits for mothers include a lower risk of:
- Ovarian and breast cancer.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- High blood pressure.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for approximately six months.2 At this time, it is recommended to start introducing solid foods and to continue an appropriate diet for your little one while breastfeeding for two years or longer.
Extending breastfeeding past one year leads to even more excellent protection from illnesses and long-term diseases.5 For mothers, the more months and years a woman breastfeeds during her lifetime, the greater her health benefits. Breastfeeding is encouraged if you and your child enjoy the process and want to continue.
Our beautiful blue planet also benefits from breastfeeding since no energy for manufacturing or air pollution is created from breastfeeding as it is with formula. There is no packaging and no waste. No energy is needed to warm breast milk to the correct temperature as it is perfect straight from the source.
When to Begin Weaning Your Baby
When to wean your baby is an individual decision with unique reasons for everyone. Every baby is also different in how long they naturally breastfeed and may even wean themselves. Some babies will relish trying new foods, while others may turn their heads or spit out most of their solid foods. Weaning is a personal decision with many factors to consider for both mother and baby.
There are a few hard and fast rules to weaning your baby. Much of weaning is determined by the unique and individual needs of your baby and yourself. A couple of essentials to keep in mind, according to the CDC:4
- If you wean before your child is 12 months old, replace your breast milk with infant formula.
- If your baby is older than 12 months, replace breast milk with fortified cow’s milk or a milk alternative. After 12 months of age, babies no longer need infant or toddler formulas.
Some mothers are concerned that extending breastfeeding beyond infancy may make weaning more difficult. This is not necessarily true since weaning is often the most stress-free when your baby begins to wean themselves. Natural child-initiated weaning can often start at six months of age when you introduce solid foods, says the Mayo Clinic.3 Since your baby is becoming full of other nutrition types, they may not nurse enough or signal that they want to breastfeed as often.
Watch out for unreadiness signs:
Despite your best efforts, sometimes your child isn’t ready to wean. Typically, your child will signal that they’re not prepared by acting in particular ways. Behaviors that signal unreadiness to wean include:
- Behavior regressions.
- Anxiety, including separation anxiety and increased clinginess.
- Waking during the night more than they were previously or beginning to wake after sleeping through the night previously.
Even if weaning has been going well, there could be setbacks when a disruption to your child’s life occurs, including illnesses, teething, beginning to go to daycare, concerns regarding allergies, etc.
Mothers, too, can experience shifts in how they feel while weaning. Common feelings include sadness or depression, anxiety, or despair. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare team or group or talk to your doctor if these feelings become hard to handle. There’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and picking up the weaning process when things are a little more settled for both of you.
How to Wean Your Baby
The optimal way to wean your baby is gradually over several weeks or even longer. Of course, this will be individual, depending on the baby. Many babies suddenly stop weaning on their own, but it is a gradual process most of the time. Reducing breastfeeding length and frequency is ideal for preventing the overproduction of breast milk. Your breasts will naturally stop producing as much milk as you taper feedings. Gradual weaning also benefits from allowing your child to become accustomed to the new tastes and textures of formula (for under 12 months) and cow’s milk (for over 12 months) and adjusting using a bottle or cup if they haven’t before.
Steps for weaning success:4,6
- Start by gradually decreasing the time your little one is breastfeeding each nursing session or the number of breastfeeding sessions daily. You can replace one breastfeeding session daily with a bottle or cup of formula if your child is younger than 12 months or with fortified cow’s milk or milk alternative if your child is older than 12 months.
- For best success, breastfeed your child when they ask or signal that they want to be nursed, and avoid offering breastfeeding when they don’t. The La Leche League International calls this the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” technique.
- Offer distractions during normal nursing times. For older children, this could be offering a snack instead, having playtime together, or taking them out of the house on an adventure.
- Ask other family or household members to step in and help your little one during usual nursing times and bedtime routines.
- Take care of yourself! You need to listen to your body and address any problems or discomfort you are experiencing, such as engorgement. You do not want any further problems to arise, such as mastitis.
Introducing Solid Foods
Different methods exist for introducing your baby to solid foods, from spoon-feeding complete with airplane sounds to let your baby take the lead with baby-led weaning. In the case of baby-led, “weaning” refers to introducing complementary solid foods. We spoke to Alex Turnbull, a family-focused registered dietitian and Gut Council member for Jetson, for tips on beginning your baby on solid foods.
Turnbull recommends making your baby food so you can control the nutrition and freshness of ingredients. Here are her tips:
- Use high-quality fresh or frozen ingredients.
- Wash all of your fresh produce.
- When starting with solid foods, use a fork, potato masher, blender, or food processor to create a smooth texture.
- Thin the purée if necessary, with some breast milk, formula, cow’s milk, or water.
- Store your homemade purées in the fridge for up to three days or in your freezer for up to three months.
- Be sure to label and date all of your stored foods properly.
- Avoid adding salt or sugar until your child reaches 12 months or even longer.
With baby-led weaning, your baby takes the wheel by choosing what and how much they eat and feeding themselves. This method allows your baby to tune in to their natural hunger and fullness cues with the added benefit of developing the pincer grasp, fine motor skills, and hand-to-mouth coordination.
Tips for Baby-Led Weaning:
- You can begin baby-led weaning once your child can sit upright.
- Place small and soft finger foods in front of your baby, allowing them to pick up and place whatever foods appeal most to them in their mouth.
- Always maintain adult supervision while your baby is feeding themselves. Do not let anyone put food into your baby’s mouth.
- Avoid hard foods such as nuts, raw vegetables, hard fruits, uncut grapes, foods cut into coin shapes, and popcorn.
In the End, Weaning is Unique For All Families
When, how, and why you begin the weaning process is as individual as your baby. Don’t be afraid to slow down or reverse the weaning process; remember that setbacks are normal. Be proud of your accomplishments in offering your child the best possible nutrition they can get. Remember to seek help if you’re feeling discouraged or have experienced disconcerting feelings surrounding weaning.