Q: I am a new mother, and it’s almost time to wean the baby. I would like to know how to stop, what to expect, how to spot problems, and what to do when there is a problem.
A: Weaning is a pretty complex issue—one that at least one entire book has been written about (The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning by Kathleen Huggins and Linda Ziedrich). There’s no way I can begin to completely answer all of your questions, but I’ll hit some major points for you to consider.
When should I wean? Breastfeeding is an activity shared between you and your baby, so it should be a mutual decision as to when it should come to an end. Babies are generally content to breastfeed long past the point that many women quit in this country! The benefits of breastfeeding continue for as long as breastfeeding does, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least a full year of breastfeeding, and as long after that as is mutually agreeable.
While it may be difficult for you as a new mom to imagine, many nursing couples continue to nurse for months, and years! They find that nursing a toddler makes the challenging 2-year-old stage MUCH easier. (There’s another great book on this topic: Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner.)
And yet, for whatever reason, you may feel that nursing your baby anywhere near that long is not right for you. That is a decision for you to make.
How do I wean? Gradually is best—it’s easiest on you and your baby. Your baby has grown to see you as his major source of food and comfort through breastfeeding, so abruptly removing that source—even if replaced by lovingly bottle feeding—can be quite upsetting to him. And abruptly stopping breastfeeding won’t abruptly stop your milk production, so you can end up with a lot of milk quickly. Unremoved milk like that can lead to breast infections, and those are no fun.
Try removing one feeding at a time, every few days or even a week or more. Start with the feedings that your baby seems to care the least about, and gradually eliminate them one by one. Typically the hardest ones to eliminate are the early-morning feedings and the late-night feedings.
How will my milk dry up? Your breasts are uniquely designed to make milk according to what is needed. The more milk that is removed from the breast, the more milk the breasts will make. It’s a wonderful system of supply and demand. And it works in reverse as well. If less milk is removed from the breasts, then the breasts will respond by making less milk. You may continue to have at least small amounts of milk in your breast for months after the last breastfeeding, although the uncomfortably full stage usually only lasts for a day or two.
Will it hurt? Well, if it is done abruptly, then, yes, most likely it will be painful. Even though the system is designed to cut back on milk production as baby nurses less, this doesn’t happen immediately. You can use ice compresses to help with the swelling, and even use a pump to remove just enough milk to relieve the pressure. Do NOT attempt to completely empty your breasts, because that will just be a signal to your breast to go into overdrive!
How can I tell if I have a breast infection? Generally, if you feel like you have the flu, you most likely have a breast infection. You may run a fever, and feel achy all over. You may notice an area that is particularly red and uncomfortable on your breast (or not).
I would recommend that you contact either an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or your local La Leche League Leader to come up with a reasonable plan for you.
If I don’t wean my baby, will he ever quit? Babies will outgrow the need to nurse as they get older. For some babies this happens sooner than others. And realize, too, that an older nursling is “nursing” more than “breastfeeding”—he gets far more than just milk from you and your breasts!
By Melissa Clark Vickers
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant