What does it mean to have weaned a child?
Your baby is considered weaned when he stops nursing and gets all his nutrition from sources other than the breast. Although babies are also weaned from the bottle, the term usually refers to when a baby stops breastfeeding.
Weaning doesn't necessarily signal the end of the intimate bond you and your child created through nursing. It just means you're nourishing and nurturing him in different ways.
For example, if you often nursed your child for comfort, you'll have to find other ways to make him feel better. Read a book, sing a song together, or play outside instead. If your child protests, try to stay calm and be firm. If you need to, hand him to your partner for a cuddle.
When should I start weaning?
You're the best judge of when it's time to wean, and you don't have to set a deadline until you and your child are ready. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least a year – and encourages women to breastfeed even longer if both you and your baby want to.
Despite what friends, relatives, or even strangers may say, there's no right or wrong way to wean. You can choose a time that feels right to you, or let your child wean naturally when she's older.
Baby-led weaning: Weaning is easiest when your child begins to lose interest in nursing, and that can happen any time after she starts eating solids (around 4 to 6 months). Some babies are more interested in solid food than breast milk by 12 months, after they've tried a variety of foods and can drink from a cup.
Toddlers may become less interested in nursing when they grow more active and aren't inclined to sit still long enough to nurse. If your child is fussy and impatient while nursing or is easily distracted, she may be giving you signs that she's ready.
Mother-led weaning: You may decide to start weaning because you're returning to work. Or maybe it just feels like the right time. If you're ready but your child isn't showing signs she wants to stop nursing, you can wean her off the breast gradually.
When it's the mother's idea, weaning can take a lot of time and patience. It also depends on your child's age and how she adjusts to change.
It's a good idea to avoid the 'cold turkey' approach to weaning. For example, a weekend away from your baby or toddler is not a good way to end the breastfeeding relationship. Experts say that abruptly withholding your breast can be traumatic for your baby and could cause plugged ducts or a breast infection for you.
How do I wean?
Go slowly, and expect to see signs of frustration from your baby at first. Ease the transition by using these methods:
Skip a feeding. See what happens if you offer a bottle or cup of milk instead of nursing. You can substitute pumped breast milk, formula, or whole cow's milk (if your child is at least a year old).
Reducing feedings one at a time over a period of weeks gives your child time to adjust. Your milk supply also diminishes gradually this way, without leaving your breasts engorged or causing mastitis.
Shorten nursing time. Start by limiting how long your child is on the breast. If he usually nurses for ten minutes, try five.
Depending on his age, follow the feeding with a healthy snack, such as unsweetened applesauce or a cup of milk or formula. (Some babies younger than 6 months may not be ready for solids.) Solid food is complementary to breast milk until your baby is a year old.
Bedtime feedings may be harder to shorten because they're usually the last to go.
Postpone and distract. Try postponing feedings if you're only nursing a couple of times a day.
This method works well if you have an older child you can reason with. If your child asks to nurse, reassure him that you will soon and distract him with a different activity. If he wants to nurse in the early evening, explain that he has to wait until bedtime.
To ease your baby's transition to a bottle, try putting a few drops of breast milk on his lips or tongue before slipping the bottle's nipple into his mouth. You can also try giving him a small amount of breast milk in a bottle a couple of hours after breastfeeding but before he's so hungry that he's impatient and frustrated.
Will my child get enough nutrients?
Even exclusively breastfed infants need extra nutrients that breast milk can't provide, like vitamin D. If you wean your baby before she reaches her first birthday, she'll need to continue to drink breast milk or iron-fortified formula until she's a year old. Then once your child reaches toddlerhood, it'll be necessary to give her a wider variety of foods that offer the range of nutrients she needs to help her grow.
What to do when weaning becomes a struggle
If you've tried everything to wean your child and nothing is working, maybe the time isn't right.
Have you recently gone back to work? Your child may still be adjusting to the new routine.
Is your child sick? Babies often want to nurse more frequently when they don't feel well. And breastfeeding a sick child is not only comforting, but also a good source of nutrition.
Is your household going through a major life change? Events such as a move or divorce can also make weaning more difficult. Even going through a new developmental stage can make it hard to wean.
Try again in another month. Sooner or later, it'll happen.