Weaning is when a baby transitions from breast milk to other sources of nourishment, whether it be formula or whole milk or other source. When to wean is a very personal decision and can be influenced by a host of factors like returning to work, mom’s health or the baby’s, an active baby, or simply a feeling that the time is right.

Weaning is a gradual process that requires patience and understanding.

When to Wean?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding babies only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. At six months to a year a combination of solid foods and breast milk can be given. By one, babies may begin drinking whole cow’s milk.

Most experts agree that breastfeeding should continue for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby. Many women choose to wean after their baby’s first birthday. At this age, babies are starting to walk, talk, and eat more solid foods so they may just naturally lose interest in nursing.

Other moms choose to breastfeed longer than a year (this is called extended breastfeeding). Extended breastfeeding is a healthy and reasonable option for mothers and children who aren’t ready to wean. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that moms breastfeed for the first 2 years of a child’s life.

Weaning does not have to be all-or-nothing. Some women choose to wean during the day and breastfeed at night, depending on their work situation and their schedules. Sometimes when a mother decides to wean, the child may have other ideas. Some children wean themselves earlier than the mother intended and others can be resistant. Those who are weaned later in life tend to be more resistant. It’s important to take it slow and be sensitive to each other’s needs.

Signs Your Baby May Be Weaning

Some kids are content to nurse indefinitely; others will start to show they’re ready. Here are some signs that your child may be ready to wean:

  • nursing in shorter sessions than before
  • being easily distracted
  • “playing,” constantly pulling on and off or biting (babies who bite during nursing should immediately be taken off the breast and told, calmly but firmly, “No biting. Biting hurts.”)
  • nursing for comfort only (sucking but not drawing out the milk)
  • fussiness or disinterest while nursing

Approaches to Weaning

Weaning should be a gradual process to allow both mom and baby the time to physically AND emotionally cope with the change. One approach is to drop one feeding session a week until the child is taking all of the feeds from a bottle or cup. If you are planning to continue to give your child pumped breast milk, you will need to pump in order to keep up your milk supply. If you are weaning your child off breast milk, slowly dropping feeds can help avoid engorgement.

You might begin by stopping the midday feeding because it’s usually the smallest and most inconvenient — especially for working moms. Many mothers let go of the bedtime feeding last because it’s still a special part of bonding.

Another approach is to leave the decision of when to wean completely up to a child. Once they’re eating three meals of solid food a day (plus snacking), babies will breastfeed less and less. If your child is breastfeeding less, make sure he or she is getting enough iron-fortified formula or milk. Check with your doctor about how much your child should be consuming each day.

If your baby weans before he or she turns one, or you find that you’re not producing enough milk, you will need to give your baby formula. Check with the doctor to see what formula is right for your child.

Easing the Transition

Weaning is easier if a child has also taken milk from another source. Try giving an occasional bottle of breast milk once breastfeeding is well-established. Even if you plan to continue breastfeeding, this can ease weaning later. It also lets other family members feed the baby and makes it possible to leave your child with a caregiver.

Infants over 6 months should have solid foods as well as breast milk. Breast milk alone does not provide all the nutrients a growing child needs after they pass six months of age.

As you start to wean, remember that your child needs time to adjust to drinking from cups. Be patient as your little one begins exploring the world of food. Here’s some more ways to make this change easier:

  • Enjoy a fun activity or an outing during times when you would usually nurse.
  • Avoid your usual nursing routine, favorite spots or shirts.
  • Delay weaning if your child is trying to adapt to some other change like entering day care or teething.
  • If your baby is younger than 1 year, try to introduce a bottle or cup when you would typically be nursing. For an older child, try a healthy snack, offering a cup, or maybe even just a cuddle.
  • Enlist your partner’s or family member’s help to provide a distraction when you would normally be nursing.
  • If your child begins to pick up a comforting habit, like thumbsucking or becomes attached to a security blanket, don’t discourage it. Your child might be trying to adjust to the emotional changes of weaning.

Mom’s Emotions

Many moms make the decision to wean with mixed emotions. Understand that you will experience a wide range of emotions, both mom and baby, and that it is normal. Weaning brings more freedom and flexibility, but nursing is an intimate activity that fosters a strong bond between mother and child that can be hard to let go. Don’t forget that you will have many opportunities to bond with your child as he or she continues to grow and get older – both bonding for mom and for dad.