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Weaning Tips

Get the 411 on weaning your baby


We all know that breastfeeding is the better way to nourish a baby—the American Association of Pediatrics has been very clear on the benefits to both mother and baby of at least six months, and preferably a year or more, of breastfeeding. But whether you’ve put in the time and are feeling burned out, or something is getting in the way of your “breast is best” ambitions —maybe nursing just isn’t working out, or you’re going back to work someplace where pumping is difficult or impossible — there will come a time when the baby must be weaned.

How do you get your little sucker used to the idea that your breast is not hers anymore and milk is no longer a bonding experience? We asked Melissa Clark Vickers, an internationally certified lactation consultant and La Leche League administrator. Bottom line? Like pregnancy, weaning is not an act but a metamorphosis with many starts and turns. The most important things you can do are take your time, tune in to the needs of family members—and cut yourself some slack.

Set the Weaning Schedule

The AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of your baby’s life. If you can manage this, your breast milk will help protect him from disease and food allergies, as well as provide a range of nutritional benefits. You’ll also benefit: Moms who breastfeed have a lower rate of ovarian cancer and osteoporosis later in life. What about when those six months are over? The AAP recommends that you keep going through the first year of your baby’s life and beyond—there’s no upper age limit.

So how do you pick a time? Or do you let your baby decide?

On your schedule. Mother-led weaning is the norm—in the United States, at least. When you set the schedule, you don’t necessarily go against your child’s wishes on when, but you do set the pace. Reasons to start weaning range from a new pregnancy or an illness that requires medication or chemotherapy to the inchoate but unmistakable feeling that it’s time to move the relationship to the next stage. “It’s not unusual for a mom to feel burned out and just say, ‘I've reached my limit,’” Vickers says. “The key thing is to find as gentle a way to wean as possible.” On your baby's schedule. The far less common approach to weaning is the child-led version, in which you let your baby set the pace. Children will, when left to their own devises, wean eventually.  “It’s rare for a child to wean on their own in the first year,” says Vickers, “but it happens.” The more likely natural age lies somewhere between two and four years. Signs of a child’s readiness are obvious, Vickers says.  “They simply need the breast less, and therefore seek it out less until they don’t ask for it at all.”  It’s certainly the most hassle-free way to go—if, that is, you love everything about breastfeeding and are in no rush to end it.

If You Have To Wean In a Rush

Sometimes life gets in the way of your best breastfeeding plans—an illness that requires you to take medication or a required work trip that comes out of the blue.  “Make sure you’ve explored all your options first. It’s sometimes possible to use less toxic medications, for example. But if you have a deadline by which you must wean, allow as much time for the process as you can—ideally at least two weeks,” says Vickers. And if you haven’t got much time, you’ll have to forgo flexibility and adhere to a rigid schedule for tapering off the length and number of feedings.

Going Cold Turkey

“It’s certainly doable, if not advisable,” Vickers says of stopping all at once.  “Your child will survive, but it will be emotionally difficult for him. The other thing to remember is that it will be physically difficult for you, since you’ll have to express milk on a regular basis until you no longer produce it.” In other words, even if you don’t “wean,” you’ll have a heck of a transition to go through on your own if you stop breastfeeding abruptly. (Vickers recommends lots of ice.)

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