Definition of weaning in the context of breastfeeding
Most parents will consider weaning to be the process by which one stops breastfeeding their child completely. However, weaning is the process by which one starts to give their baby food other than breast milk.
Weaning from the breast is a natural process for the mother and child. Most mothers can experience a range of emotions whilst weaning, ranging from sadness as the baby moves to a new stage in their development to excitement about their baby’s independence.3
When should weaning start?
There is no consensus in the literature regarding an exact time for when weaning should start. However, it is generally understood that weaning should occur gradually rather than suddenly. Most people start the process of weaning at 6 months and continue it as long as it is beneficial for the baby.
The process of weaning
Weaning from the breast can either be planned (led by the mother) or natural (led by the child).
- Natural weaning (infant led)
Weaning takes place once the baby starts consuming food other than breast milk. A child is usually fully weaned by the time they are 2-4 years old.4 In Western cultures, this type of weaning is unpopular, and there are a significant number of mothers who continue to breastfeed older children and become what is known as ‘closet nurses’.1
- Planned weaning (mother-led)
This type of weaning happens when the mother decides to start the process of weaning without receiving cues from the infant that he or she is ready. There are many reasons for using the ‘planned’ approach, including but not limited to the following: concerns regarding the baby’s development, limited milk supplies, painful feeding process, returning to work or teething.
Refusal to breast:‘nursing strike’
Natural weaning is not synonymous with the term ‘nursing strike’. A refusal to nurse can occur at any point in time. This is usually followed by complete weaning. Such phenomena are temporary and can be caused by the onset of the mother’s menstrual cycle, a change in the mother’s eating habits and/or diet, a change in soap or deodorant, teething or illness.
Here are some tips on how to manage a “nursing strike”:
- Minimise distractions during feeding
- Comfort the baby more frequently during nursing
- Offer to breastfeed at times when the infant is either sleepy or has just woken up
- Offer to breastfeed frequently, using different positions and alternating sides
- Try nursing in different rooms
If the above steps do not help reintroduce breastfeeding, take your baby to the doctor to rule out any potential illness.1
Abrupt or emergency weaning
In a situation where the mother and baby have been separated for an extended period of time or the mother is ill, emergency weaning might be necessary.
Some mothers might have to stop breastfeeding while taking certain medications. If this is your situation, please go to your doctor for more advice on what to do.
If your baby becomes sick, they should continue consuming breast milk.
Regularly storing pumped milk during this time can be an option and should be discussed with your doctor.
Weaning abruptly can be an uncomfortable experience for the mother, especially after birth. Mothers can use painkillers during this time to help with the pain and discomfort of breastfeeding..3
Sometimes, life gets in the way, and a mother can no longer breastfeed her child. This can lead to premature weaning. It is important to keep your doctor informed if this is the case. Your doctor can provide the necessary support to help you identify a suitable alternative.
A mother may experience a wide variety of emotions at the beginning of the weaning process. Mothers can feel excited about not having to breastfeed or feel a sense of loss from stopping the intimate act of breastfeeding. It is common to feel a sense of loss with the weaning process. Getting additional support is vital during the time of weaning, specifically around reminding the mother that the infant is achieving a new milestone in their development. If the process is approached with an open mind, the overall experience should be positive.3
Example of a mother weaning schedule:
- The weaning process will start with substituting the child’s feeding gradually with either a cup or a bottle. One should bear in mind that at first, this might be refused and that it is possible the baby might accept the substitute feeding easier from the other parent or caregiver. One should also bear in mind that when the baby feeds from the breast, it is difficult to determine how much the baby consumes. Mothers should be encouraged to not push the baby to finish whatever the food is in the bottle or cup. Formula should be avoided until the baby is at least 12 months old.3
- A second substitute feed can be given once the baby gets used to being fed with a bottle.
- If the baby is not yet old enough to hold the bottle by themselves, the parent must hold the bottle for the child. The bottle should not be propped against a surface as this can be a choking hazard.
- Solid foods should be offered appropriately at different phases in the child’s development. This should be discussed with the doctor. Eventually, the goal should be to gradually increase the amount, frequency and variety of food. Iron-fortified rice cereal is a good option to start with.
- Partial weaning is an option for the mother who wishes to continue with partial breastfeeding. This is usually preferred by women who is working or studying. Feedings can continue during the day even if the mother is not present with the baby, as the mother can pump milk into a bottle and store it.3
Breastfeeding weaning is the process by which one starts to give their baby food other than breast milk. This is a natural process for the mother and child and should be conducted with support and advice from the doctor. Even though this might be a difficult process for the mother, with help and support from family and trained medical professionals, there is very few reasons why the process should not go smoothly.3
- Dewey KG. Nutrition, growth, and complementary feeding of the breastfed infant. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001 Feb;48(1):87–104.
- Snowden HM, Renfrew MJ, Woolridge MW. Treatments for breast engorgement during lactation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(2):CD000046.
- Weaning from the breast. Paediatr Child Health [Internet]. 2004 Apr [cited 2023 Aug 2];9(4):249–53. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2720507/
- Sugarman M, Kendall-Tackett KA. Weaning ages in a sample of American women who practice extended breastfeeding. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 1995 Dec;34(12):642–7.