Weaning - How you can proceed and what you should pay attention to
Weaning is a topic that occupies many women. Questions arise about the procedure. What to pay attention to, whether replacement food is necessary, what difficulties there may be and many more.
In this article I would like to describe many of these questions. I will discuss the reasons for weaning, how you can proceed, according to different age groups. In the process, I clarify various other uncertainties about weaning.
Reasons for weaning
There are very different reasons to wean. Some of them come from the baby and others are more about you as a mom. I will discuss the most common reasons for weaning from the baby's side and from the mother's side below.
A distinction can be made between primary and secondary weaning. In the case of primary weaning, the goal is to prevent milk production from starting in the first place and to avoid it as much as possible. This may be the case after a stillbirth or if the child has already been given up for adoption. Secondary weaning is about ending prematurely the breastfeeding period that was initially started.
The child weans
The natural process would be for the mother and child to decide together at some point to end breastfeeding. The actual termination is determined by the child, and no further measures are actually necessary, because the child gradually reduces the frequency and duration of breastfeeding. However, the natural age of weaning is somewhere between two and seven years, which not many people are aware of.
If your child doesn't want to go to the breast when he is only a few months old, it is for reasons other than the weaning he is experiencing.
Otherwise, there are rare diseases that make weaning necessary. These include galactosemia, for example. This is an enzyme defect with which the baby cannot break down the galactose contained in breast milk. This should always be discussed individually with your pediatrician. You can additionally consult with a lactation consultant who is knowledgeable in this area.
A common weaning reason for moms is that they don't want to be so tied down anymore. Some moms feel drained by breastfeeding and the perceived constant readiness and want to have their body and time to themselves again and be more flexible. At what point in time this is, can then again be quite different.
Other reasons for weaning on your part as a mother can be various breastfeeding problems: pain during breastfeeding (e.g. due to sore nipples), frequent milk retention or even breast infections. Even if supplementary feeding is necessary for some reason or is started in addition, sometimes a downward spiral develops, so that the mom produces less and less milk, breastfeeding is felt frustrating on both sides and is finally abandoned altogether.
For all breastfeeding problems, your lactation consultant or midwife can always help you if you would like to continue breastfeeding. By the way, you can also get support and seek help during the weaning process. The support should always be undogmatic and designed according to your own wishes, as you need and want it.
Rarely, maternal illnesses or medications can force you to stop breastfeeding. These include, for example, severe heart, liver, kidney or lung diseases. If the mother's body is very weakened by the illness, breastfeeding can become very strenuous. However, this is often a matter of discretion and, in case of doubt, should be clarified together with the doctor, who should ideally be sufficiently familiar with breastfeeding.
Drug addiction also makes weaning necessary if abstinence is not possible. Similarly, postpartum psychosis may require weaning if the mom can no longer care for her baby due to the mental illness.
Smoking, by the way, is not one of the reasons for weaning. It has been proven in studies that it is still better for babies of smoking mothers if the mother continues breastfeeding while observing some behavioral rules.
External pressure can also be a reason for weaning. If a mother only hears criticism all the time and is made insecure, this can also lead to weaning. What prevails here, however, is often a false image of breastfeeding, which comes from the ignorance of the environment.
There are several other reasons for weaning, but I have described the most important factors here.
How you can proceed and what you should pay attention to when weaning
The procedure for weaning varies greatly and depends on various factors. These include, for example, the age of the child (which is why I will differentiate further in a moment), the planned duration of the weaning process, as well as possible complications.
However, there are a few basic aspects in the procedure that I would like to discuss here at the beginning.
General aspects of weaning
If you are not pressed for time, the most gentle way for your body and your psyche is a natural, slow weaning. In doing so, you reduce the breastfeeding times and meals bit by bit. Apart from that, you do nothing else for the time being.
If you notice that your breasts are noticeably tight, it is a good idea to express or pump them until the pressure subsides. This will help you to avoid milk retention. However, you should really only do this until the feeling of tightness subsides and not longer, because otherwise you will stimulate milk production again.
You may have to express a little milk at relatively short intervals, because the breasts will seem full again quite quickly. This depends, for example, on the amount of milk you originally had. Ultimately, however, this small feeling of pressure also gives your breasts the signal to produce increasingly less milk.
If reducing the number of meals is not enough or not fast enough for you, you can also continue to support weaning in a natural way. You can apply even pressure to your breasts (similar to what you would do if your breasts were very full). This can be done, for example, with a tight-fitting top or bra. The only important thing is that you do not have any individual pressure points. There is a risk that breast milk could accumulate in these areas.
Some midwives, lactation consultants and doctors also recommend drinking one to three cups of peppermint or sage tea a day when weaning. Some moms have had positive experiences with this. However, there is no proven effectiveness, the same applies to other home remedies or any other tea.
Otherwise, gentle cooling after breastfeeding with the help of a cooling pad from the refrigerator or with a cooled grain pillow can relieve and inhibit milk production. This happens because the cold brings down blood flow.
In addition to natural weaning, as I have described, there is the possibility of inhibiting milk production with medication and thus bringing about weaning as quickly as possible. There are basically two different medications for this. You have to consider possible side effects. In addition, these medications should not be taken for a short period of time, as otherwise milk production can also start up again quickly. Whether this option is really particularly fast and painless depends on the individual. However, this treatment is only considered within the first three weeks after birth; after that, medication-based weaning is controversial and the conservative option should be preferred.
In principle, slow weaning is the better option for your breasts, but also for your hormone balance. The breasts need time to reduce the milk and if you do it slowly, it reduces the risk of milk retention. In addition, the concentration of hormones released by breastfeeding does not drop as quickly.
Breastfeeding mainly involves prolactin and oxytocin. These create a good feeling in us psychologically. If both hormones drop too quickly, this can result in mood swings or depressive moods. So if you notice that you're feeling really bad, it's probably a good idea to slow down a bit.
It may also be that you realize during the weaning process that you don't want to do this after all or that you are not ready yet. In this case, there are several options. Either you partially breastfeed as far as you can or you try to stimulate milk production again. Demand largely regulates supply and is therefore not a one-way street.
However, since breastfeeding is much more than just taking in food for your baby, it is important that you give him enough closeness even without breastfeeding, and that you cuddle a lot and extensively. When cuddling and in physical contact, oxytocin is also released, which can flatten the low mood.
But now I come to the factors that apply again specifically to the individual age groups.
Weaning shortly after birth
Even if you don't want to breastfeed, it's a good idea to give your baby colostrum shortly after birth. Colostrum is the milk that is produced at the beginning. Colostrum is especially adapted to the situation directly after birth and gives your baby exactly what it needs then.
Some mamas that I was allowed to accompany have therefore decided to put on their baby at least once in the delivery room. If you don't want to do this, you can also extract some during pregnancy and store it in small syringes so that you can give it to your baby after birth.
If milk production has not yet started, the amount of milk will reduce quite easily if it has not been stimulated by your baby's sucking. Your baby will then naturally need a replacement formula in the form of PRE-feeding.
Online course on complementary feeding and bottle feeding
Basic information about PRE-feeding and bottle feeding can be found in my online course Feeding and Bottle Feeding.
If you have already had the colloquial milk let-down, it often takes a little longer until the amount of milk has completely reduced. In general, you can then follow the tips that I have already described above for the general procedure.
Weaning for the introduction of complementary feeding
Many mothers set themselves the goal of introducing complementary feeding by the time they want to breastfeed. It is important that your baby fulfills the signs for the introduction of complementary food. You can read more about this in my blog article All about complementary feeding and the introduction of complementary foods.
Ultimately, every introduction of complementary foods is also the beginning of weaning, because your baby is increasingly less dependent on your breast milk from a nutritional point of view. However, here I am referring to accelerated weaning with the start of complementary feeding.
Your milk supply will automatically reduce when your baby really starts to eat significant amounts of porridge or finger foods. Gradually, you can then also skip individual breastfeeding meals and substitute PRE-milk or combine complementary foods with PRE-milk. By the way, it is not necessary to replace complete meals every month. It is only a small supplement to milk at first, so that the body and digestion can get used to it bit by bit.
Online course on complementary feeding
You can learn a lot of important information and background, as well as practical tips, in my online course on complementary feeding.
When babies have already been breastfed for a few months, the transition to the bottle can sometimes be a bit more difficult than moms imagined. The breast when breastfeeding is what they know and what gives them security. It is therefore understandable that there may be some protest at times.
Bit by bit, babies can be introduced to bottle feeding. Or, if your baby is already eating well and doesn't need much extra milk, he or she can learn to drink the milk from a glass or cup.
There are different ways to do this and not one right way. It makes sense, as much as you can, to take small steps and not ask for too many changes at once. There is not ONE way, but many ways. Only you can see which way is right for you. Together with a midwife or lactation consultant experienced in this area, you can find it if you need support.
Weaning after one year or later
The procedure for weaning at one year, 18 months, two years or even later, is not fundamentally different, which is why I am summarizing it here. Further below, I describe again separately the weaning at night.
According to the WHO, infants need at least two milk meals a day up to the age of two. At this age, however, it is not absolutely necessary to do this via the bottle. Toddlers can already drink very well from cups or glasses, or the milk meal can be integrated at mealtime in the form of rice pudding, semolina or similar.
Toddlers know and love breastfeeding and rarely want to give it up without protest. This means that they can and may be angry and sad. It is important that you as a mom see and accompany these feelings.
Ultimately, breastfeeding in toddlers is usually no longer primarily about feeding, but about many other needs that can be met with breastfeeding. You should satisfy these needs in other ways. For example, you can give your child closeness by massaging or reading to him or her.
Baby massage online course
You can learn which massage elements you can use, even with older children, in my online course Baby Massage.
At times, it can help to distract children in normal or familiar breastfeeding situations or to engage with them in other ways. Sometimes breastfeeding is simply due to boredom or insecurity in an unfamiliar, new environment.
You can sing to your baby, play with him or her and, of course, offer something to eat or drink.
It can also be useful to limit breastfeeding to a specific place. That is, if you say that you only want to breastfeed in bed, then you no longer breastfeed on the sofa or at the dining table. You also don't go into the bedroom, but only breastfeed when you would otherwise be in bed with your child.
By the way, toddlers can already understand a lot, which is why it's important that you explain to your child that you don't want to breastfeed so much from now on, or that you tell him what your plan is - in child-friendly language in one or two sentences.
To compensate for breastfeeding, it can sometimes help to do something nice instead: Going to the playground, eating ice cream, looking at animals, or whatever else you can think of. If you feel exhausted from breastfeeding, you can show your child that you have more energy for activities or special things without breastfeeding.
Weaning at night with infant
Weaning at night is very different - the duration of it is individual and it is felt very differently. How could it be otherwise? Nevertheless, there are of course a few factors to think about.
If you search for weaning at night via Google, sooner or later you will come across the method of weaning at night within ten days according to Gordon. This initially involves decoupling falling asleep or back to sleep from breastfeeding. It is important to note that this program is suitable from the age of one year at the earliest.
Weaning according to the Gordon Method works as follows:
During the first three nights, you decide on a period of time when you don't want to breastfeed. Classically, this is seven hours. Within these seven hours, you want to introduce a permanent break from breastfeeding; for example, between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. During the first three nights, you still breastfeed during this period, but shortly before your child falls asleep at the breast, you dock him so that he ultimately falls asleep without the breast.
For the next few nights (four to six), you no longer breastfeed during the decided period. You continue to pick up your baby, comfort him, accompany him, but put him back down when he is awake. Stroking or singing can then help them fall asleep.
On nights seven to ten, you no longer pick up your child when he or she wakes up. You pet him or talk to him, but leave him there.
Experiences with this program vary widely. It is, like any other sleep program not individual and therefore leaves out many factors. Therefore, I would always see weaning at night according to Gordon only as a rough guideline. From experience, individual phases often last longer than a few days.
Some families find it more helpful to stop breastfeeding altogether and to accompany the children back to sleep at night in other ways. Sleep bridges and new patterns must first be learned. This can take time. Anger and sadness can be part of it.
The first nights of this are often very stressful. So it makes sense to choose a time for this where you don't have a lot of additional stress. It may be a relief for you if your partner is on vacation during this time.
I often read that fathers in the weaning process should better try to accompany the children at night, because the children lack the link to breastfeeding here. In my experience, however, this cannot be said so sweepingly and you should try for yourself what you think is best.
When weaning with infants, it is important that you are sure about your decision to wean. If you are unsure or afraid of it, your child will feel it and it can be much more difficult. You can always go back if you realize that it is not working or that it is not what you want. This knowledge can sometimes be a great relief.
Frequently asked questions about weaning
In addition to the general procedure for weaning, various questions about the topic come up again and again in my breastfeeding or formula consultations. I would like to address some of these questions below.
Is there a guideline for weaning?
There is no guideline on weaning in that sense. Guidelines describe the evidence-based, i.e. scientifically proven and recommended, procedure for certain diseases, for example. Weaning does not primarily fall into this medical pathological area, which is why there is no corresponding guideline.
However, weaning is addressed in various guidelines.
Where can I get support?
Where you can get support for weaning depends partly on your needs, but also on the region where you live. If online counseling is an option for you, you are not tied to a specific location, but you will lack personal contact.
Basically, midwives, lactation consultants and pediatricians, as well as gynecologists, can help. However, the theoretical and practical knowledge varies from one professional group to another. In any case, you should feel that you are in good hands and that your concerns are being heard.
Maybe it is enough if your partner supports you and stands behind you. Maybe you just need the open ear of a friend to get rid of everything that might have built up. This is just as much support as support from professionals.
What do I do if I have problems? What problems can arise?
There are primarily two different problems that can occur during weaning. First of all, on a physical level, there is milk stasis. In case of milk engorgement, you should empty your breast regularly. It is advisable to warm the breast before breastfeeding and to cool it afterwards, for example with rolled cabbage leaves or curd. You can find more tips on treating milk engorgement in my article Milk engorgement - What helps and where does it come from? It also tells you what you can do about the breast pain that accompanies milk retention.
It is important to counteract the symptoms really quickly to prevent the situation from worsening in the form of a breast infection or abscess. The measures for this sound counteractive to weaning at first. However, your body is telling you to slow down a bit.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say in general how long you will have a full breast before you no longer need to express regularly. Some women have no problems at all, others struggle with it for several weeks.
I have already discussed another complication that can occur. Due to a rapid drop in hormones, you may temporarily feel emotionally worse, even depressed. If you are unsure whether your mood is normal, it is best to talk to your partner. He or she knows you best and will probably have noticed changes.
The association Schatten und Licht (Shadows and Light ) offers a wide range of information and support. A visit to a specialist can also sometimes be useful. Better early than late.
Can I change my mind again? Is weaning permanent?
You can change your mind at any time and start breastfeeding again. Even if you have already completely weaned, you can start breastfeeding again and stimulate milk production. This is called relactation. But be sure to seek support for this.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to make a general prediction about the extent to which milk production can be stimulated again. Not even when individual factors such as the age of the baby and the current breastfeeding period or break are taken into account. Breastfeeding and milk production are simply too complex for that.
How can I get my baby used to the bottle?
There are different ways to get your baby used to the bottle. It also depends on what actually bothers your baby about the bottle. Unfortunately, since your baby can't tell you, you will probably have to try something. It also depends a bit on how old your baby is.
If you have been breastfeeding your baby for a few months, and he or she has never known anything other than breast milk, but then has to drink PRE milk from a bottle, this may be too much change at once. It is a good idea to proceed in small steps, just as with weaning. For example, you could breastfeed for a short time and then offer your baby expressed breast milk from the bottle. Or you could offer the bottle before breastfeeding.
If this works well, you can try bottle-feeding one meal without breastfeeding. If this also works well, you can offer your baby PRE milk from the bottle.
This is just one possible way of many. Again, if you need support or have questions, it is best to contact a lactation consultant who is knowledgeable in this area. Some lactation consultants are also bottle and formula consultants for infants. This would be the optimal combination in this case.
As you could see in the article, there are many different ways to wean your baby and the reasons for doing so. There are many ways to wean without a pill.
In the article, I showed you how to wean in general and what you should pay special attention to for different age groups.
Finally, I have clarified common questions that I encounter in my consultations.
In summary, while there can be a rough plan for weaning, it always needs to be customized to you and your situation. If at any point you realize you need support, get help!
If you have any other tips for weaning, I'd love to read about them in the comments. Feel free to give me feedback on the article as well.