Every new phase in a child’s life is filled with ups and downs; some things will be easy and exciting while other things are harder and often dreaded. Weaning is one of the latter phases.
Deciding to stop the bottle or breastfeeding can be hard for both mom and baby. It brings many emotions as well as physical discomforts that occur for mom. It can lead to many sleepless nights and countless breakdowns – both baby and mom.
Weaning doesn’t have to feel like an impossibility though. With a few tips, you can make weaning easier on everyone involved, perhaps even make it a little fun for a child who may be hesitant to start the whole process.
1. Bottle vs. Breastfeeding
How you choose to feed your little one can make a difference in how difficult it may be to wean them. Neither is necessarily easy, but knowing what to expect can help you make the transition with fewer headaches.
Bottle feeding – whether it’s breast milk or formula – can be a bit easier to transition. Bottles are easier to take away if you need to quit cold turkey. You can also introduce sippy cups a bit easier since they already have an idea of how a cup works.
Breastfeeding can be a bit more difficult, especially if mom is the primary caretaker. It can’t be taken away as easily as a bottle; most breastfed babies automatically associate the presence of mom with feeding time. Also, sippy cups feel and taste a lot different from the bare skin of a breast.
2. When to Start Weaning
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for at least the first six months of a baby’s life. From there, you should continue to breastfeed in addition to offering solid foods.
How long you decide to bottle or breastfeed for after the first six months is ultimately up to you. However, renowned groups like the AAP and WHO (World Health Organization) encourages women continue supplemental breastfeeding for at least a year or two (respectively).
3. Start Talking before Doing
Depending on how old your little one is when you try to start weaning, you can start preparing them for the change by talking about it.
Little ones respond easier when they see you are excited for something. So, talking about sippy cups, solid foods, and the fact that they are growing up can help make the transition a bit easier.
4. Following Your Child's Lead
Weaning typically goes much easier when your child is ready for it. This is why many parents are starting to choose the way of baby led weaning.
It starts with a child who begins to lose interest in nursing, which can start any time after solids are started. By the time your baby is a year old, they may be more interested in solids than breastfeeding or bottles. They may prefer to drink from a cup, too.
Increased activity level in toddlers can also help spur along baby led weaning. They will want to continue playing rather than stop to eat. All of these things are signs that your baby or toddler may be ready to start the weaning process.
5. You May Need to Make the First Move
In other cases, children need more of a gentle push to get them started. It may just be that you are ready to be done with breastfeeding or it could be that something else is getting in the way of continuing, like a return to work.
When practicing mother led weaning, it can take a bit more patience and a lot more time to get your child on board. Your little one’s age can also make a difference as older children can understand a bit easier if you explain it to them.
6. Advisory against Quitting Cold Turkey
If you are breastfeeding, quitting cold turkey is probably the worst thing you can do for both you and your baby.
The cold turkey method can be very traumatic for little ones. It can also cause a lot of pain for mothers as breast engorgement occurs quite regularly. You are also at risk for plugged ducts that can lead to infection.
There are a few cases where sudden weaning may be necessary. You may be starting a new medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding. Pregnancy, illness, hospitalization, and surgery can also be cases that call for sudden weaning.
7. Introducing Solids can Help
By the time your child is 6 months old, they should be able to start sleeping through the night – if you go about things the right way. The main reason is because solids can be introduced at this point.
Solid foods aren’t digested as quickly as formula or breast milk, which means that your little one will feel full longer and won’t need to feed as much during the night, if at all.
Introducing solids can also help with the weaning process. Your child may be more interested in trying new foods rather than breastfeeding or taking a bottle. And the fact that they stay full longer means that they won’t need to nurse as often.
8. Wait for Cow's Milk
It can be very tempting to make things easier by replacing formula or breast milk with cow’s milk. However, it is advised that you wait until your child is at least a year old before introducing cow’s milk.
Dairy is much harder than formula or breast milk for little ones to digest. All of the proteins and minerals can be quite taxing on a baby’s immature kidneys. It can also cause an iron deficiency if they are drinking too much milk and not eating enough iron-rich foods like meat, eggs, and cereals fortified with iron.
9. Shorten Each Feeding Session
So how do you start the whole weaning process? What’s the best method?
There’s no “one size fits all” type method, but there are some tried and true steps you can follow to help make it easier. You can start by simply shortening each of your feeding sessions.
If you usually nurse for 20 minutes at each session, start by dropping a few minutes off each throughout the day. Keep the transition gradual over days and weeks until the feedings have almost disappeared.
10. Drop One Midday Feeding
Another method that can work hand in hand with shorter feeding sessions is just dropping one altogether. It’s best to start with a midday feeding as babies are often more attached to their morning and bedtime feedings.
As your baby gets older and they start eating more, you may find that you are only nursing 3 to 4 times per day. This makes it easier to choose and drop a feeding around lunch time, offering solid foods instead.
11. Offer Distractions
Sometimes the only thing you can do to detract from breastfeeding or bottles is to draw a child’s attention elsewhere. This is where distractions come in handy.
- Bring them outside to play, read them a book, or hand them a snack. This will distract them from wanting to nurse and allow you to feed them solid foods instead.
- Giving your little one a snack or an alternative meal some time before they usually feed will also make them feel fuller, so they may not ask to nurse for a while after eating.
- A fuller child is much less likely to fuss when they aren’t breastfed often enough and usually do not feel adverse effects from reduced nursing.
It is important to note that you should offer distractions before your child is asking to nurse. At this point, they should be on a pretty set schedule, so you should know when they will likely get hungry. Offer distractions before they start to strongly desire a nursing session.
12. Save Bedtime for Last
Most children rely on nighttime nursing sessions to help them get to sleep, so dropping these first is not the best idea. And if your baby is upset during the night that means you won’t be getting as much sleep either.
It’s best to start midday as we already mentioned and save bedtime feedings for last when weaning. It may still be difficult to drop that final feeding at night (or during the night), but your child will have an easier time since the rest of their feedings have already been eliminated anyways.
13. When You Should Finish Weaning
As mentioned previously, you don’t need to cut out breastfeeding completely for a while. If you can continue occasional breastfeeding through your child’s second birthday, that is your best option. However, we know this isn’t possible for everyone.
If your child is bottle feeding, sooner rather than later is better for their health and development. The AAP recommends that babies give up the bottle by about 1 year, no later than 18 months.
Waiting too long to stop the bottle can affect a child’s health and development. Prolonged bottle use can add excess calories to a child’s diet, increasing their risk for obesity. It is also bad for their oral development and puts them at risk for tooth decay since most children take their bottles to bed.
14. Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
If you do decide to continue with supplemental breastfeeding beyond one year, there are many benefits that are associated with extended breastfeeding.
With all the vitamins and minerals present in breast milk, it can promote a healthy future including lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. Extended breastfeeding also continues to boost your child’s immune system as they receive antibodies from your breast milk.
In addition to health benefits, it can be an additional comfort to your child, giving them confidence to be a bit more independent knowing they can always return to the breast.
15. Waiting Longer May Make It Harder Though
However, we all know that extended breastfeeding doesn’t work for every mom. And we also know that waiting longer can make it harder to wean a child.
When your child becomes a toddler, they will be able to voice their opinion more so they will be able to ask for the breast or bottle outright.They are also more aware of things that are happening around them and may be more resistant to change.
Because of these things, you may determine that extended breastfeeding is not right for you and your child.
16. Have Dad Step in More
Oftentimes, little ones associate the presence of mom with feeding time, especially when she is breastfeeding. Her presence as well as her smell can trigger a baby’s desire to breastfeed, making it that much harder to wean.
Instead of mom being the only one to take on this task of weaning, it is better for dad to step in a bit more.
If your baby wants to nurse whenever they see you around at a certain time, arrange for someone else to care for them during this period. It could simply be that dad offers a snack or takes the child outside to play instead.
Once your baby is used to idea of not getting the breast from mom, you’ll be able to start offering these snacks on your own when necessary without your baby always wanting to nurse when you’re around.
17. Create a New Bonding Routine
Another thing that makes weaning difficult is the fact that breastfeeding has been a bonding activity for so long between mother and baby. It is important that you create new bonding routines and activities that your child can use to replace breastfeeding.
Adding these bonding activities to your routine can help the transition go more smoothly and give your little one something new to look forward to. This can be in the form of a bedtime story, a cuddle, a lullaby, or even something like a (baby) massage or a foot rub.
By demonstrating there are other ways to feel safe and that you will still be around to bond with them even after breastfeeding is over, you’re showing them that it’s not the end of the world. Once a child understands that breastfeeding is just one of many ways they can achieve a particular result, they will be able to move on more easily.
18. Ask for Tips and Advice
Other moms can be a great source of information on all things baby, especially if they have older children or are going through the same things you are at the same time. You can connect with friends or reach out to mom-based online forums to get some much needed advice.
These moms can offer reassurance that you are doing the right thing and/or that you are not alone in your struggles. You can get tips on how to make the weaning process easier for you and your child. The possibilities are endless.
19. But Don't Solely Rely on the Experiences of Others
At the same time, it is important to remember that every child is unique. Receiving advice from others can be very helpful, but someone else’s experiences are different from your own. Take that advice and adapt it to your unique situation and your child’s personality.
You are not a superhero, and neither is your little one. Sometimes, you might slip up and allow just one more full nursing session because you’re too tired to argue or soothe a screaming baby. Sometimes, you might make some progress and other times find yourself back at square one.
Sometimes, your child just won’t want to take a step in the right direction today. And that’s okay! It’s important to celebrate every small hop you take in the right direction.
20. Balancing Nutrition after Weaning
One question most mothers run into when weaning is, “How do I know that my child is getting all the nutrients they need in their new diet?” This concern is very understandable; after all, formula and breast milk provide all the nutrients a child needs for the first 6 months of life without the need to for any supplemental nutrition.
Variety is key. You want to make sure they have a variety of foods – vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein – in each of their main meals as well as some of these things in their snacks. You do need to watch their salt intake as too much can be hard on their little kidneys.
Now you may ask, “What if my child is a picky eater?” This happens to just about every parent. Toddler’s taste buds are highly sensitive, so they taste things much stronger than we do. This can lead to strong opinions on certain foods you really want them to eat for their health.
Never force them to each anything. Instead, repetition is key; offer the same foods over and over until your child is ready to try it. Offer fewer choices, allowing them the power to choose between two or three healthy things rather than giving them free reign over their menu.
Finally, don’t worry too much if your child refuses to eat. As long as you offer food at each meal, they will eat when they are hungry; they won’t starve themselves.