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Breastfeeding - weaning from the breast

breasts; breast feeding; breastfeeding; weaning; expressing; mastitis ;

Weaning begins when a baby starts to have foods other than breastmilk – starting solids and/or baby formula. All babies need to start other foods when they are about 6 months old – so weaning is a normal and natural process.

Contents

Every breastfed baby is eventually weaned. It may be after a few weeks of breastfeeding or a few years. Breastmilk contains all the nourishment babies need in the first 6 months of life. While babies start to have other foods and drinks from about 6 months onwards, breastmilk or infant formula is still the main part of their diet for the rest of the first year. No matter how long you continue to breastfeed, your milk is always nutritious and absolutely right for your baby's stage of development.

Often people think about weaning as meaning when a baby demands fewer breastfeeds or when a mother starts to give formula feeds instead of breastfeeds, but here we talk about weaning as being more than that.

Gradual weaning when you are both ready for it is ideal, but sometimes weaning happens earlier or more quickly. This can happen if the mother becomes unwell, when a baby refuses the breast, or if a mother needs to, or decides to, wean.

The weaning time is an emotional time for both a baby and the mother. A mother may feel sad and sometimes guilty about stopping breastfeeding when her baby is still enjoying it. She can feel sad to be stopping something that she enjoys and that gives her special closeness with her baby. Sometimes babies can become very unhappy when they cannot have a breastfeed.

When to wean

  • The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months (no formula or other foods) and that breastfeeding continue for up to 2 years, or more - with other foods added from about 6 months. However, breastfeeding for even a short time (a few months, weeks or days), is good for your baby.
  • Sometimes mothers start weaning when they think their baby is 'old enough' but breastmilk continues to be the best milk for a baby for the first 12 months or more.
  • Some mothers gradually wean during the second 6 months when other foods are being introduced, and some choose to let their child breastfeed into the toddler years until the child decides to give it up. So you can either guide the process or leave it up to the baby.
  • At any stage, gradual weaning is ideal, to allow you, your breasts and your baby time to adjust to the change. It is also less stressful for you and your baby.

Remember that breastfeeding is also an important way for your baby to get comfort and to relate to you. When you change how you feed your baby, you need to find other ways to do this. Your baby will need plenty of cuddles and closeness to help him give up breastfeeds, especially if you are trying to do it quickly.

Weaning babies less than 6-8 months

  • If you need to wean your baby from the breast under 12 months old, you will need to feed your baby infant formula. For information about bottle feeding babies, have a look at the Bottle feeding topics on this site. These would be good to start with: Bottle feeding - all about infant formula and Bottle feeding - feeding your baby with formula
  • Replace one breastfeed a day with a bottle to start with, then two, some hours apart, and gradually increase the number of bottle feeds as your breasts settle down. Some mothers do this over a couple of weeks or more, sometimes it may happen more quickly. 
  • Start by not giving a breastfeed for the feed that your baby is less interested in. Usually the feeds first thing in the morning and last thing at night are the last breastfeeds to stop.
  • Babies under 6 months do not need to start other foods (solids) when they start to wean – milk is still all that they need to be healthy and grow well.
  • Wear a well-fitting bra, and watch for lumps in your breasts. (See 'Overfull Breasts', below).
  • Offering a dummy for extra sucking if you wish to may help.
  • If your baby won't take a bottle from you,
    • get someone else to try,
    • or offer the bottle when the baby is sleepy,
    • or try a cup with a spout or a small open cup instead.

Weaning babies over 6-8 months

If you need to wean your baby from the breast under 12 months old, you will need to feed your baby infant formula. For information about bottle feeding babies, have a look at the Bottle feeding topics on this site. These would be good to start with: Bottle feeding - all about infant formula and Bottle feeding - feeding your baby with formula

As your older baby becomes used to other foods and ways of eating, you can offer formula in a cup (as at this age your baby can manage drinking from a cup) or cow's milk if your baby is over 12 months old. If you do not use a cup you will need to use a bottle.

  • Start by not offering the breastfeed that your baby is least interested in. Usually the first feed in the morning or the last at night is the last breastfeed to go.
  • Cut back breastfeeds by one every few days or one a week.
  • You could continue to offer one breastfeed a day for several weeks or express once a day for this time. You can add any breastmilk you express to the bottle of formula if you wish to.
  • As you gradually reduce breastfeeds you can offer more cup feeds. 
  • Offer other foods before breastfeeds or formula feeds when your baby is more than about 8 months old
  • Offer other drinks, such as water, in a cup if your baby over 6 months so your baby can learn this way of drinking.
  • Offering a dummy for extra sucking if you wish to may help.
  • If your baby won't take a bottle or cup from you,
    • get someone else to try,
    • offer the bottle when the baby is sleepy.
  • Ask your partner to go to your baby when he or she wakes during the night.

This process can take anything from a few weeks to 6 months or more; whatever suits you and your baby.

Overfull breasts

  • Breasts can sometimes become very tight, hard and uncomfortable (engorged) when weaning.
  • Express enough milk to keep comfortable. It doesn't matter if it takes a little longer for your milk supply to cease; it's better for your breasts to do it slowly.  You do not have to empty all of the milk from your breast, but an occasional full expression of both breasts may give a lot of relief. See 'Breastfeeding – expressing and storing breastmilk'.  You can add any breastmilk that you express to the bottle of formula if you wish to.
  • Wear a firm bra to give good support.
  • Take paracetamol for discomfort if you need to.
  • Cold packs may help your breasts feel more comfortable.
  • Watch for lumps in your breasts, and try to gently massage away any you find when you are expressing. A tender lump, perhaps with a little redness, may mean a blocked duct. It's worth trying to clear this as sometimes mastitis can develop. Put a hot pack or flannel on the breast before massaging and expressing, and a cold one after.
    • A lumpy area that becomes very red and sore may mean you have mastitis, especially if you have a fever and feel unwell. As well as gently trying to clear lumps as above, you will need to see your doctor as antibiotics may be needed. (See the topic Breastfeeding - sore breasts and nipples).

Sudden weaning

Sometimes mothers need to stop breastfeeding very quickly, and this can be quite difficult and your baby may be quite distressed.

  • Offer alternate breastfeeds from a cup or a bottle the first day and express enough milk from your breasts to feel comfortable.
  • Then stop breastfeeds the following day.
  • If you need to wean very suddenly, your breasts will become overfull and uncomfortable after missing a couple of feeds. You could express enough milk to keep comfortable about 3 times a day. It doesn't matter if it takes a little longer for your milk supply to cease; it's better for your breasts to do it slowly.  You do not have to empty all of the milk from your breast, but an occasional full expression of both breasts may give a lot of relief. See 'Breastfeeding – expressing and storing breastmilk'
  • Wear a firm, supportive bra, and take paracetamol if you need it for discomfort.  
  • Cold packs on the breasts or a warm shower may help.
  • Medication to dry up your milk is not usually necessary, and can have unpleasant side effects.

After weaning

  • Leaking is common in the early stages of weaning, but it usually stops once your breasts settle down.
  • Even when your breasts stop filling up and feel quite soft, some milk will still be present. You will notice you can still express some milk over the next weeks or even months.
  • Breastmilk production will slow down and eventually stop.

Your breasts were changed forever during your first pregnancy, so it is not the breastfeeding that alters your breast shape. It is unlikely they will return to their pre-pregnancy size and shape.

Resources

South Australia

General

Book

  • Women's and Children's Health Network (South Australia): 'Breastfeeding your baby'  AUD$6.50 plus postage and handling.
    Order form

References

Brodribb, W (2006) Breastfeeding Management, Australian Breastfeeding Association.

Riordan J & Wambach K 2010 'Breastfeeding and Human Lactation' (4th Edition) Jones and Bartlett publishers

World Health Organisation, 'Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding'
http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/global_strategy/en/index.html

 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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