Weaning a Breastfeeding Child

How can I make the transition from breast to bottle as smooth as possible for my baby and me? What's the best way to wean a child, and when should I begin the process?

Let’s start with the question of “when.” As you’re probably aware, the answer you’ll receive depends to a great extent on who you ask. Some authorities discourage nursing as a frequent daily activity after a toddler reaches twelve to fifteen months of age. Others, especially members of breastfeeding advocacy groups, encourage a completely open-ended approach, noting that in some cultures mothers may nurse a newborn on one breast and a child as old as five on the other.

To put it simply, only you can decide exactly when to wean your child. In considering this question, however, you should keep in mind there are both behavioral and nutritional aspects to consider.

On the one hand, prolonged nursing can play an important social and emotional role in the life of mother and child. It can be a source of ongoing nurturing, closeness and even relaxation. If all is going well, you may feel that there is no compelling reason to stop it in the immediate future.

On the other hand, if frequent trips to the breast are substituting for solid foods, a toddler may become anemic or undernourished. And that’s not to mention some of the other problems that might be aggravated by nursing an older toddler for an extended period. For example, it might make a child overly “clingy” and discourage independent activity. Moms, too, need to be careful about slipping into a frame of mind in which their personal identity and sense of worth is too closely linked with nursing. Then there’s the issue of modesty; a small child burrowing under Mom’s blouse may elicit some double takes at the mall or in a neighbor’s living room. Marital problems can arise, too, if your husband begins to feel that physical intimacy with you is hampered by the continual presence of one or more children at your breast. These are just some of the considerations you’ll want to bear in mind in reaching a decision.

Once you’ve decided to make the break, how should you go about it? Fortunately, this is a much easier question to answer. Depending on how soon you’d like to make the change, you may choose to switch to formula feedings rather than simply moving from breast to cup. Many mothers have reasons of their own for weaning a baby from nursing to formula feedings somewhere between six and twelve months. They may feel that they need to devote more time and energy to other people and activities, whether at home or in the outside world. They may also come to the realization that an inevitable passage is arriving – that the totally helpless newborn who derived all her sustenance from mother is beginning to take the very first steps toward independence. Whatever the timing, and whatever your reasons may be, here are some simple steps you can follow when you’re ready to make the transition from breastfeeding to a bottle or cup:

  • Start by substituting the bottle or cup during a feeding time when your child usually tends to be most distracted or uninterested. Usually this is the one in the middle of the day.
  • Each week add a bottle or cup substitution for a different feeding. Bedtime nursing is usually the last to go.
  • Eliminate nursing for reasons other than nourishment. If you need to comfort your baby, caress and rock her rather than using the breast as a pacifier.
  • Cut down the duration of nursing sessions. If your baby wants a hit-and-run session, don’t try to keep her at the breast longer than she seems interested.
  • If your breasts are becoming engorged and uncomfortable as your baby nurses less often, express just enough milk to stay comfortable. If you empty them fully, they will produce larger quantities of milk.

A final note: if you have second thoughts during this transitional phase and decide to maintain your nursing relationship for a few more months, you can always reverse the process by having your baby nurse longer and more often. Your milk supply will increase accordingly.


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