How to stop breastfeeding and when, may look different for everyone. And Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, mother-of-four with a 30-year-long career as a specialist midwife and infant feeding consultant, shares her expert take.
Breastfeeding comes with its own issues, from mastitis (opens in new tab) and breastfeeding pain (opens in new tab), so the decision to stop is yours alone. And remember that everyone’s breastfeeding journey is different, even if you have all the breastfeeding accessories (opens in new tab) going, choosing to stop is your choice.
Some mothers, the help of good nursing pillows (opens in new tab) carry on breastfeeding for as long as they and their baby want, others have never really joined that journey.
Goodto.com’s Family Editor Stephanie Lowe (opens in new tab) said: “I lasted four days breastfeeding. It was so painful. I remember the turning point was when my son, Ted, cried for a feed and I actively didn’t want to do it. I knew then I had to switch to formula for both of our sake.” Breastfeeding might be too painful for you to carry on, or maybe it’s not quite right for your work-life balance or mental health, or maybe your baby has made the choice.
No matter the reason, you are here because you are interested in how to stop breastfeeding. And Rachel Fitz-Desorgher (opens in new tab) is here to share all the information to help make that decision.
How to stop breastfeeding
1. Recognise signs in your baby
Many mothers go on to nurse their baby well into toddler years, and that’s great, if it’s working for you then go for it.
However, it might be worth paying close attention to your baby in case they want to stop nursing. Active signs could be trying to hold their head in an upright position, sitting up with support, and expressing interest in what you're eating; reaching out, staring.
In addition, as they grow their active tongue-thrust reflex will disappear, and they may act indifferent or cranky during routine breastfeeding sessions.
2. Go slowly
Wherever possible, phase out breastfeeding slowly to give your body time to adjust. Cutting down too fast can lead to you getting engorged and uncomfortable, which may lead to mastitis.
You might want to try cutting out just one feed a day - maybe probably the most inconvenient feed, or the one your baby's least interested in - and gradually drop feeds until they're solely having bottles and solids.
Might be worth noting that if your baby is older than 9 months, you may want to wean directly to a cup. By going slowly your body will produce less and less milk. Making weaning a progressive adjustment.
If going slow isn’t an option, that’s okay. Your body will adapt after a few uncomfortable days – but, if you do get over-full, take simple painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen and have a warm bath or shower and just let your breasts drip.
It can also help to do reverse pressure softening – using a flat hand on your breast, firmly massage from the nipple back towards the rib cage. Go all around the breast massaging backwards firmly – this will reduce the engorgement and ease the swelling and tenderness without stimulating more milk to be made.
3. Provide comfort in other ways
Breastfed babies are used to the close physical comfort with their mothers, so when you are trying to stop breastfeeding try to be there to comfort in other ways.
As much one-to-one time as you can do, with lots of touch and closeness.
4. Respect the resistance from your baby
Your baby has only ever known the one way to feed. So when the decision to stop has been made, try to be patient with their reactions.
Rest assured that, after a day or two without the breast, most baby’s will begin eating solid foods and drinking liquids from a cup. Healthy babies eat when they're hungry enough, no matter how badly they like to breastfeed.
5. Maybe try child led
Like all humans, some babies like to be in control. For a slow and steady weaning strategy try the “don't offer, don't refuse" method.
Basically, you nurse when your baby shows the signs they want it, but you try not to initiate it. While not the fastest, this method ensures your baby's needs are met while slowly making adjustments to the feeding schedule.
When should I stop breastfeeding?
There really is no hard and fast rule on this. It really is down to you; your baby, your choice. Breast milk is all a baby needs for the first 6 months of life and current recommendations are that, even after weaning has started, mum’s milk should continue to be part of a baby’s diet into the second year.
There is no need to stop breastfeeding just because you have started offering solids – babies continue to need their mum’s milk all through the long weaning process. Studies by the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (opens in new tab) show that the average age that breastfeeding stops is anywhere from six months to five years. And that breastfeeding beyond infancy is considered 'the norm'.
Women decide to stop breastfeeding before their baby’s first birthday for many reasons and, indeed, some babies actively self-wean from the breast before they turn one.
If your baby is under the age of one and is no longer having any breast milk, ‘first’ formula should be given alongside family foods. There is no evidence to support the use of ‘follow-on’ formula or ‘goodnight’ formula – they do not provide any benefit to babies. Once a baby has celebrated their first birthday, they can have full fat cow’s milk or fortified, unsweetened soya milk as a drink and formula can be stopped.
For every woman who decides to stop breastfeeding earlier than planned, another will find themselves nursing their little one for longer than originally expected.
Some mums choose to continue breastfeeding an older child after their next baby has arrived (this is known as tandem feeding) and some mothers breastfeed their children until four years or older. There really is no reason not to carry on enjoying your breastfeeding relationship with your child for as long as you both wish.
Common reasons for stopping breastfeeding
A study (opens in new tab) shows that there are various factors influencing the reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding, including fatigue and concerns with milk supply.
Worries about breast milk supply
One of the most common reasons women give for stopping breastfeeding earlier than originally planned is a perceived lack of milk. In truth, lack of milk is very uncommon but a baby’s normal behaviour of wanting very frequent and prolonged soothing at the breast is often mistaken as hunger.
If your baby is having at least six good, wet nappies a day, you can be sure that you have an ample supply of milk. Remember: babies need to spend a lot of time just being soothed in arms and this generally also means being on the breast. This is normal and not a sign of a poor supply.
Developmental changes in the baby around the age of four months leads to them behaving quite differently at the breast and this often causes mums to think their supply has dropped. This is rarely the case. A woman’s body is very able to adapt quickly to the daily changes in her baby’s feeding behaviour and, as long as baby is free to suckle on demand, milk will be made. Even after a mum has stopped breastfeeding all together, it can take many months for her milk to disappear completely.
If you feel like your milk supply is dwindling talk to an infant feeding specialist and, in the meantime, offer your baby the breast frequently – quite simply, the more you breastfeed the more milk you will produce.
Sore or painful breasts
Another reason woman give for stopping breastfeeding is sore nipples or breasts. Breastfeeding really should never be painful, not even in the early weeks so, if you are in pain, seek advice. A trained infant feeding specialist will be able to tell you why you have pain and show you what to do to prevent it. More often than not you will just need a little help in cuddling your baby in a way that makes it easier for them to get onto your breast.
Trying too hard to help your baby to get on can actually make it more awkward for them (and you) so relax, cuddle your baby and let them use their reflexes and innate ability to get on comfortably.
If your nipples have become so sore that they have cracked, avoid letting them dry out as this can cause scabbing which can delay healing. Instead, gently rub a little of your own milk into the nipples after every feed and get help from a specialist as soon as possible to discover why you are getting damaged.
If you cannot press out any milk to soothe your nipples, a thin smear of Vaseline will do. Do not suffer in silence assuming that sore nipples and breasts are a normal part of breastfeeding – get help!
Going back to work
Lots of women start to fret about how to stop breastfeeding as their return to work date looms. If your baby six months or older and has started on family foods then, in truth, there really is no need to worry or to start introducing formula or bottles. If you are able and happy to express then do but most women find it a difficult chore.
Rest assured that your little one will self-regulate beautifully in your absence. They will take more milk when you are around at the start and end of the day and then have weaning foods and water from a beaker or cup whilst you are at work. They simply won’t associate their carer with breastfeeding and so won’t expect it.
Your body will adapt quickly and you won’t even need to worry that some days you don’t breastfeed for eight hours whilst, on days off, you barely go two hours without feeding your little one.
If you need to return to work before weaning has started then your baby will need milk to drink in your absence and your own milk is ideal for protecting against the inevitable bugs that your little one will encounter in the wider world. Express your breast milk with a pump or by hand and leave it for your child minder or family member to feed to your baby whilst you’re at work.
The familiar smell and taste of your milk will soothe your baby, and you will be able to relax at work knowing that they are continuing to get protection and perfect nutrition while you are away.