When to Wean: Considerations on Timing and Tips for Making the Transition
Weaning your baby is a personal and often emotional decision. It’s one that only you and your baby can make. Sometimes the decision is made mutually between mama and baby and sometimes one of the two drives it. Weaning looks different for every breastfeeding relationship, but no matter what yours looks like, we hope to provide you with some helpful tips to make the transition smooth.
Reasons to Wean: The Physical, Emotional, and Logistical
There are a number of reasons why a mama might want to wean. Whether physical, emotional, or logistical, all are valid.
- Breastfeeding is demanding physically - from having a baby or pump attached to you to the additional nutritional demands it requires, it can be downright exhausting.
- Breastfeeding may be challenging for you - maybe you’ve dealt with a tongue or lip tie, maybe you’ve struggled to keep supply up and the stress is just not worth it.
- Breastfeeding may not be compatible with other needs - maybe you need to take medication to nurture your own physical or emotional health that isn’t safe for breastfeeding.
- Breastfeeding requires tremendous effort and commitment by mama - sometimes, the effort and emotion can simply be too much. Many mamas, especially those who have been nursing for an extended time share that they simply feel “touched out”.
- Breastfeeding can be a logistical challenge - especially for many working mamas, the added stress and burden of planning nursing and pumping sessions throughout the day can be a logistical challenge that ultimately causes too much added stress.
- There may be a natural breaking point - your little one may be losing interest due to age, starting a new childcare program, showing increased interest in solid foods, or it may be a challenge to feed them (i.e., getting distracted, etc.).
- You may have other goals - perhaps you are motivated to get your cycle back to try for another baby.
The timing of when you wean influences how baby must be supplemented to continue to meet their nutritional needs.
- Before 6 months - when baby weans before 6 months, he or she will need to be supplemented exclusively with formula (unless baby shows all signs of readiness and some solid food is introduced before 6 months)
- 6 months to 1 year - in this window of time, baby should get a combination of formula and solid foods. How you choose to introduce solids is a personal decision, but no matter your method, focusing on foods rich in Iron, Zinc, DHA, and Choline provides baby with optimal nutrients to meet their needs.
- 1 year or more - babies weaned after a year have more flexibility in terms of introducing a toddler formula, milk (if your baby tolerates it), or neither, if your little one is able to get sufficient fat, Calcium, and Vitamin D from other foods and supplements. Your child’s healthcare provider can help guide this decision. In addition to the nutrition that breast milk provided, older toddlers may seek something to fill in the void of nursing time. Some families find that replacing a nursing session with another nutritious snack or even activity helps to smooth the transition.
One element of weaning that isn’t often talked about is the hormonal shift that your body may experience when weaning. Incredibly, the pregnancy and postpartum hormones you just experienced were not the end of the physical and emotional whirlwind that hormones can sometimes cause.
Weaning causes a drop in prolactin and oxytocin levels. Depending on how quickly you wean, and how drastic this drop, you may experience some unpleasant symptoms like dramatic temperature changes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, depression, and anxiety. Generally, the more gradually you wean, the more mild these symptoms. They do tend to pass after a week or so, but if not, or if you don’t have the option to control the rate at which we wean for a variety of reasons, seek the support of your healthcare practitioner and/or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who may recommend herbal support to assist in your hormonal response and drying up milk supply.
When You’re Ready
Not every mama can plan to wean gradually and not every baby will have trouble with the transition, but here are some tips for when the time comes.
If your little one is under a year, you may have an easier transition to simply swapping in bottles, especially if your little one is combo fed (formula + breast milk).
If your little one is over a year, you may need a bit more structure in how you wean. If your little one has been nursing on demand, cut back slowly on nursing sessions to help decrease your own supply slowly and ease the burden on your hormones can help ease you both into a new schedule.
If you’ve already cut back and really just need to “rip off the bandage” our practitioner partner and friend Dr. Elana Roumell shared a helpful framework:
- Plan: Pick a date and decide how you will separate from your baby or toddler, or how you will handle skipping the nursing session they expect. Dr. Elana personally planned a weekend away with friends and said “marking a future date in the calendar gives you time to really sit with this idea. You’ll know if you are ready to wean or not as each day gets closer to the one. If you are counting the days and your anxiety increases and you are dreading the idea of weaning, you are NOT ready. And that’s OK. If you are like me and can’t wait for your weekend away, looking forward to catching up on sleep and not have a baby on your boob then you are ready!”
- Support: Support can present a number of ways. For Dr. Elana, it meant rearranging her schedule so there wasn’t too much on her plate the few weeks after weaning, in anticipation of feeling possible anxiety and overwhelm. It may also mean an honest conversation with your partner about your worries, emotions, and potential reaction or response to weaning. Dr. Elana also recommends talking with your health provider about herbal support. Her personal preference is Vitex, which may help decrease prolactin while increasing dopamine.
- Go away: Physically leaving may not be necessary, but for many, it can be quite helpful as an out of sight, out of mind approach. As Dr. Elana says, “babies SMELL us! They know when milk is nearby, they know when their Mama is around, they see us, they want us! Most often I take it as a compliment, but when weaning it becomes a battle. A battle I’m personally not willing to fight. So I choose to remove myself and allow this time to break old nursing habits and create new ones.
- Commit: You’ve done a lot of work already - now is the time to stick to it! Your little one may have no problem or they may immediately want you the next time they see you. Be ready for either scenario. Dr. Elana suggests wearing shirts that are high neck so your little one can’t just pull your shirt down, practicing lines to share with your little one (if appropriate) to let them know that milk is all gone but you have other options to eat or drink instead, be ready for focused attention and play, and make a plan to separate your sleeping environment if you haven’t already.
A New Phase
Weaning can be a highly sensitive and emotional process. After all, weaning often isn't just putting a stop to breastfeeding, it can be a major shift in the mother-child relationship.
Know that there is no wrong time to wean. It’s a personal decision and it’s right for you whether you breastfeed for 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years. If you desire to breastfeed longer, we hope you feel empowered to seek support from an IBCLC to make that happen. If you are ready to wean, we hope these tips help!
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