Q&A: When Is the Right Time to Wean Your Baby?

Don't Ask Me When I'm Going to Wean
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I used to have a toddler-sized t-shirt that said, “Don’t ask me when I’m going to wean.” My mom was old school enough to be truly mystified by this shirt.

She asked, “Who would wear that?” I said, “An 18-month old who is still breastfeeding.” Her mouth dropped open. “You mean…they still do that?”

Technically, you have begun weaning your baby the first time your baby has had milk from a source other than your breast. This reflects the fact that weaning is a process, a gradual change in a relationship or set of routines. Usually when we talk about weaning though, we mean the time when either you or your baby begin moving away from solely breastfeeding.   

Is there a ‘right time’ to wean my baby?

No. Each mother and baby figure out what is right for them. Some babies are ready sooner than mom, and sometimes the other way around! Usually if a baby less than a year old seems less interested in nursing, they are probably not finished with nursing…just too busy with some other developmental task at the moment. A bit of time and they will return to the breast. Every baby is different.

I had my babies a long time ago. Long before the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a year of breastfeeding, and even before we knew it was not a good idea to introduce cow’s milk earlier than a year of age. So when my babies got to that busy, easily distractible stage at 7 or 8 or 9 months old, and they were popping off and on the breast every two minutes to look at what was going on around them, my reaction was,

“Fine, if you aren’t interested, then I’m not going to fight it. We’re done for now.”

If I knew then what I know now, I might have persisted a bit longer and even made it to the year mark. That doesn’t mean that a year is necessarily the ‘right’ time to wean. It is a milestone and a time when a few off limits foods are considered ok for baby, but no calendar can tell you when your baby is ready.

I’ve heard my milk has no nutritional value after a year. Is that true?

No. This is a myth. Between 6 months and a year most babies begin to get additional family foods along with breastmilk. Baby is experimenting with new tastes, textures and skills. For the first 6 months, breastmilk was 100% of the baby’s calories. By 12 months, breastmilk will be a smaller percentage. The breastmilk is every bit as nutritious, but it is not 100% of baby’s intake. Some research indicates the density of antibodies and other nutrients that help baby grow and stay healthy may actually increase, almost as if to compensate for that diminishing proportion of the diet that breastmilk is providing.

Keep in mind too that if your baby is still breastfeeding 2-3 times a day beyond a year, there is no reason to add cow’s milk to his diet. He is getting his whole milk from you with the best type of fat there is to support brain growth. A baby not getting mom’s milk would need to be on formula or whole cow’s milk.

What if I feel like I’m ready to wean, but the baby doesn’t seem ready?

It’s normal to have those feelings of wanting to be done sometimes. You may be looking forward to getting your body back or feeling tied down. All normal. But try to stand back and see if giving up breastfeeding would really free you up. Having a sure-fire way to soothe your baby when he’s fussy or overtired is worth something too. Maybe there’s a compromise that could help you feel like you are making progress: perhaps give up pumping if your pumping routine is wearing on you; or pump and let someone else feed the baby once in a while.

A friend who did breastfeed her babies well into their second year talked about how healing it was for her to be able to sit down and nurse her child after a “terrible two” tantrum. It was soothing to the baby, and the hormone cascade that comes with a milk letdown helped my friend smooth over the rattled, angry feelings she had after the temper tantrum.

On the other hand, there may come a time when you feel like you have done everything you can. You’ve given it your best shot. You can walk away and know in your heart you did your very best. For some moms, this may come way earlier than a year. It’s important you walk away believing in yourself. No beating yourself up over what might have been. There will be many times as a parent you will do your best and wish you could do more. This is parenting. It’s an imperfect, messy process.

I’m not ready to quit breastfeeding, but I have family and friends who are bugging me to quit. What can I do?

Practice a few phrases to deflect their comments and change the subject. You don’t have to be confrontative or defensive about it. Just say, “We are working on it.” or “We’ll get there.” Then, “How about all that rain we’ve been having?”

If you want to be a bit more proactive, you could say, “Research shows a lot of benefit to continuing breastfeeding.” Or how about, “I breastfed through the hard part when the baby was little and we were learning. Why would I want to quit now when it’s finally easy?”

It’s not that different than the opinions everyone seems to have about various parenting issues: “Is he still wearing diapers!” “You let him get away with not eating peas!” “You are letting her get her nose pierced?!” Practice changing the subject now and it will server you well over the next 18-20 years!

How can I keep breastfeeding when the baby gets teeth? I don’t want to get bit!

The first teeth to erupt are generally those on the bottom gum. When a baby is breastfeeding, that is he is really drinking milk, his tongue is extended across his lower gum, massaging the breast from the bottom to move milk forward. A baby who bites when those lower teeth are coming in will bite his own tongue.

By the time you get to this age, you know when your baby is really drinking and when he is lingering and enjoying hanging out with mom. When a baby starts teething, his gums hurt. Once he has mostly satisfied his hunger, he may start rubbing his tongue against his gums or see what it feels like to move his mouth in different ways. As soon as that focused feeding passes, that’s when you are more likely to get bitten. Take him from the breast before he gets the chance to bite.

As the upper teeth begin to come in, use the same watchfulness to notice when the baby’s attention may be straying from feeding. You will be talking to your baby and baby will have begun to understand that there are some things mom doesn’t like. You may need to position the baby differently to tip his head back a bit more, or shape your breast slightly differently to get your nipple to a different angle.

Praise the baby when he latches well and gently. Stop the feeding when you sense attention wandering. Remove the baby from the breast and give him something to chew on (a frozen wet washcloth, a teething ring, a cold bagel) and tell him, “If you want to bite, you use this.” I also like these suggestions from other moms if you need to add a few more tricks to your repertoire.

I’m ready to stop breastfeeding. How do I do it?

The easiest way for both you and baby is to do it gradually. Drop one feed. A few days or a week later, drop another feed and so forth. What you do instead of that feed depends on the age of the baby. For a small baby, it will mean replacing that feed with a bottle or a sippy cup. For a baby 6 months or so, you may be able to substitute solid food. For an older baby, try doing something different with the baby to distract him from a usual snack time…read a book, go for a walk.

Weaning gradually like this is most comfortable for you,  too. Your body will adjust the amount and timing of the milk you make, scaling back slowly. Skipping feeds too often can lead to uncomfortable fullness and even clogged ducts or mastitis. Keep in mind that weaning is a process that takes time. Usually the more time you take with it, the easier it is.

Weaning is not a decision you will come to lightly and probably not quickly. Sometimes it’s easy and gradual, and suddenly you remember that it has been several days since you last nursed. I probably won’t be the same for each baby you have either. But then nothing really is, is it?

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