Breastfeeding is a beautiful, albeit sometimes challenging experience for mothers and babies. The myriad of benefits of breastfeeding makes it all worth it. But, like all good things, it does come to an end. It may be challenging to determine when and how it is best to go about weaning your baby. Some babies may be resistant to the idea, while others may 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:
- 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 the first six months. After that, your baby may be ready to introduce some foods while continuing to breastfeed for one year or longer. The CDC encourages mothers to breastfeed their babies for a minimum of one year. After six months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing foods other than breast milk or formula.
Extending breastfeeding past one year leads to even more excellent protection from illnesses and long-term diseases. For mothers, the more months and years a woman breastfeeds during her lifetime, the greater her health benefits. Breastfeeding is encouraged as long as you and your child are enjoying 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 that will have unique reasons for everyone. Every baby is also different in how long they naturally breastfeed and may even wean themselves. Some babies will relish the opportunity to try new foods, while others may turn their head 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 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:
- 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. Since your baby is becoming full of other nutrition types, they may not nurse as long or signal that they want to breastfeed as often.
Watch out for unreadiness signs:
Despite all of 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, or 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 local La Leche League leader or group or talk to your doctor if these feelings become hard to handle on your own. 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), cow’s milk (for over 12 months), and adjusting using a bottle or cup if they haven’t before.
Steps for weaning success:
- Begin by replacing one breast milk feeding session a day 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.
- Gradually replace more breast milk feedings with formula or other milk. For best success, breastfeed your child when they ask or signals 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.
- You may wish to start with a nighttime feeding if having your child sleep through the night without breastfeeding is ideal for you.
- Maintaining breastfeeding before your baby goes down for a nap or goes to sleep at night for as long as the weaning process continues is a good idea as most mothers find the comfort of nursing helps get their baby to sleep.
- It may be necessary to avoid being in the room during a replacement feeding so that your baby cannot smell you if they are under a year old.
Introducing Solid Foods
There are different methods for introducing your baby to solid foods, from spoon-feeding complete with airplane sounds to letting your baby take the lead with baby-led weaning. In the case of baby-led, the “weaning” refers to introducing complementary solid foods. For tips on beginning your baby on solid foods, we spoke to Alex Turnbull, a family-focused registered dietitian and Gut Council member for Jetson.
Turnbull recommends making your baby food so that 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 first starting with solid foods, use a fork, potato masher, blender, or food processor to create a smooth texture.
- Thin the puree if necessary with a little breast milk, formula, cow’s milk, or water.
- Store your homemade purees in the fridge for up to three days or 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, if possible.
With baby-led weaning, your baby takes the wheel by choosing what and how much they eat and by 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 and 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 in their mouth whatever foods appeal most to them.
- Always maintain adult supervision while your baby is feeding themselves. Do not let anyone put foods 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 and remember that setbacks are normal. Be proud of the accomplishments you’ve made in offering your child the best possible nutrition they can get. Remember to reach out for help if you’re feeling discouraged or experienced any disconcerting feelings surrounding weaning.