weaning off the breast

Choosing how long and if to breastfeed your child is a personal decision for parents, with many choosing to stop within the first year of life and others choosing to continue well into toddlerhood. Official guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding until baby is at least six months old, and then gradually adding solid foods in addition to breastmilk until baby is one year or older. The WHO recommends continuing to breastfeed until two years of age. But at some point, whether it happens earlier than these what these recommendations state or later, weaning off the breast is inevitable, and can be a beautiful transition to a new stage in feeding when the time is right.

There can be many reasons for choosing to begin the weaning process, including:

  • Returning back to work
  • Toddler showing little/no interest in mealtimes
  • Convenience/quality of life/self care
  • Medical reasons such as pain/insufficient milk supply
  • Wanting to get pregnant again/avoid tandem nursing
  • And many other personal reasons.

Weaning off of the breast is a process that can take days, weeks, or be done over a couple months, depending on the mom and baby. Before attempting weaning your toddler, I suggest making sure they can drink out of an open cup or a straw cup pretty well. This ensures they’ll have the skills to hydrate themselves without having to resort to a bottle/sippy cup. This may take a couple months of practice, especially if they have never tried it before. Take a look at this post on open cup drinking in babies for some tips to help you out. While of course, weaning can look different for every family, let’s go over the most common strategies listed below.

Cut out one breastfeed at a time

You can cut out one nursing session at a time by offering milk/water in a cup alongside a solid food meal/snack for whichever feed you will find easiest to cut out first. Think of which feed your baby is least interested in or perhaps is most easily distracted. Often times, the mid-day feedings are the easiest to start with. As you cut out a nursing session, you can offer a stuffy or blankie or other love object to comfort your toddler if they seem upset, and be sure to offer lots of cuddles during the transition if they are still looking for contact from you. This is very much the same way of transitional weaning off the bottle that I outlined in this post here.

Distract/delay/change up routine

Toddlers are super easily distracted when you redirect them to a new activity. Now is the time to bust out a new toy, puzzle, sign them up for a new activity or just generally change your routine up. When the typical time for a nursing session approaches, be proactive and distract your toddler with the next activity, i.e. “Let’s put on your shoes! We’re going to go for a walk”. Likely with a change in routine or a distraction, they won’t ask for milk at all, or at the very least, you can delay nursing sessions until they forget about it altogether. This may work better some days than others – take it slow and keep at it.

Don’t ask, don’t offer

Playing off the last point, many parents let their toddler take the lead completely and adopt the “don’t ask, don’t offer” policy. This just means that if your toddler doesn’t ask for milk, they won’t offer it. If they do, they will offer it. The goal is that they will gradually wean themselves off it over time without actively initiating the process. Yes, this will often take a longer time than when initiating the weaning process yourself, but for some parents this is an approach they feel is more gentle and is especially good if they aren’t in a rush to wean at all.

Decrease the time spent at the breast

You can try slowly decreasing the amount of time spent at the breast during typical nursing sessions by about 1 minute each day. You can use a timer to help you with this. Once you get down to 1 minute per feed, eliminate the feed altogether.

Partial Weaning/Limiting Breastfeeding

Many times, complete weaning isn’t the goal, but for one reason or another, mom may want to place limits around how breastfeeding is done, or decrease the number of nursing sessions offered to their toddler. Here are the most common options/schedules for limiting breastfeeding during the day with a toddler.

Offering breast milk after solids

Some people breastfeed on demand even into toddlerhood, but many find that breastmilk (as with milk from a bottle) quickly becomes a favourite alternative to eating food (especially challenging ones) and prevents toddlers from expanding on the type/quantity of food they eat at meals. Although not weaning completely, I recommend setting limits on breastfeeding in these cases, such as switching to offering milk only after a solid food meal is offered to ensure they fill up on food first. Often times, milk after a meal won’t be needed once they’ve filled up on solids first. Note: I don’t recommend attempting this until your baby is at least 9 or 10 months old. If you find that your toddler is still holding out on their meal to get breast milk very soon after, then move onto one of the sample feeding schedules outline in the example below and please check out my Feeding Toddlers online course for help with feeding and raising an adventurous, food loving toddler!

Keep am, pm, and before nap breastfeeds only

Eliminating breastfeeds around main meals and snacks only, while continuing to breastfeed just before nap(s), in addition to morning and night seems to be an easy first official transition for many parents. This is because most toddlers are used to having an open cup of milk/water with all main meals by now and are ok with dropping breastfeeds altogether during these times of day.

E.g. 7:00 am – Wake up, nurse.
8:00 am – breakfast with water/milk
10:00 am – snack with water
12:30 pm – lunch with water/milk
1:30 pm – nurse, nap
3:30 pm – snack with water
6:00 pm – supper with water/milk
7:30 pm – nurse, bedtime routine and bed

Keep only morning and/or evening breastfeeds only

Remove all breastfeeds during the day (including those surrounding any naps) and keep only the early morning/evening feed. Milk production will adjust to meet these changes without meaning you will dry up completely. This is often a popular choice for moms who are out of the home all day, perhaps back to work, but would still like to keep up with 1-2 breastfeeding sessions a day.

E.g. 7:00 am – Wake up, nurse.
8:00 am – breakfast with water/milk
10:00 am – snack with water
12:30 pm – lunch with water/milk
1:30 pm – nap
3:30 pm – snack with water
6:00 pm – supper with water/milk
7:30 pm – nurse, bedtime routine and bed

Night Weaning

Eliminating breastfeeding at night (including night nursing), while is arguably the hardest for parents and babies to let go of, can definitely be done in a gentle way. In many cases, removing overnight feeds improves the eating habits of older babies/toddlers during the day. Please know that older babies do not need to have milk at night for calories or for sleep unless medically indicated. In fact, it can hinder healthy sleep habits. For information on night weaning, showing your baby how to get the necessary sleep they need and getting your nights back , you need to check the online course at Little Z Sleep’s online courses, blog and podcasts!! She’s a Godsend and so good at working with babies and parents to get those little angels happy and rested!

Finally, this post on transitioning your baby off the bottle has some tips that may help your little one with getting used to the taste of another milk when breastmilk is preferred.

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