5 weaning tips from a lactation consultant
By Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit, IBCLC
There are many reasons a nursing parent may decide to stop breastfeeding or pumping. It can feel like a big decision or just a natural next step, but no matter why you are choosing to wean, it is really important to protect your health (both physical and mental) during the process. It might be comforting to remember that all nursing parents do eventually wean and that the body is designed for the transition.
Lactation consultants are often called upon to help people through the process of weaning. Every nursing parent and baby are unique and everyone’s journey will be individual but here are 5 strategies that may be helpful to think about as you are making your own plan.
1. Take your time
There is no “one size fits all” approach to weaning, but most nursing parents agree that doing it gradually whenever possible makes the whole experience much easier. The 3 general approaches to weaning are:
- Slowly drop nursing/pumping sessions.
- Reduce the time of each nursing/pumping session,
- and increase the time between sessions.
You might choose one approach or use a combination of all three! No matter which strategy you choose, aim to “ask” for less milk every few days as your body adjusts. For example, if you were pumping seven times a day, reduce to six times a day and stay with that for a few days before dropping down to five pumps a day.
Slowly decreasing the length of pumping or nursing sessions can be particularly helpful if you are used to spending 20 or more minutes every time you express milk. You may find you can shave off a few minutes every day, keeping in mind that depending on the age of your baby, they will likely continue to need a stable amount of human milk or formula.
You may want to hold on to a morning and evening nurse/pump session as your “last two” and then eliminate the evening one. Morning is the most common time for fullness (we make the most milk in the early morning hours) so most people find that the morning session will be the final session to eliminate.
2. Your comfort matters
While you are slowly decreasing sessions or making them shorter (or both) pay attention to how your breasts/chest feels. Some fullness is to be expected. If you use hand expression and gentle massage just to the point of comfort, you will usually feel some softening and a decrease in pressure within a few minutes. It is important to note that if you start to feel a plugged duct, pain or mastitis (a breast infection where the tissue is inflamed and you may even develop flu-like symptoms), it is important to remove the milk and reach out to a lactation consultant or your medical provider for support.
3. Get help along the way
Milk production is fueled by milk removal: more milk out means more milk made or the demand and supply system; so as you remove less milk your production should naturally decrease. For many people, a gradual decrease works well. However, many things can help the process along. Talk with your medical provider about prescription and over-the-counter support if your body is slow to down-regulate your milk supply or if you are feeling uncomfortable. There are also herbs, mainly sage and peppermint, that nursing parents have long used to help decrease milk supply and aid in weaning—you might sip sage or peppermint tea throughout the day. Lastly, the same things that help during initial engorgement can be healing during weaning. If you are struggling with fullness, try warm compresses and gentle massage with coconut oil before you nurse, pump or express and cool compresses or cool cabbage leaves afterwards (yes, they really work!).
4. Take care of your mental health
Nursing can protect your mental health and weaning can cause a hormonal shift that may manifest as a postpartum mood disorder. Even if you were looking forward to weaning, it can be surprising how many emotions may come along with transitioning out of nursing your baby. Know your options for professional mental health support and how to access that support if you are struggling. In addition to professional support, talking with other parents who have weaned can be really beneficial, as well as planning good selfcare through this time. This can mean special meals, extra rest and spending time doing things just for you. Another way to buffer the emotions of weaning is to enjoy and celebrate all the ways you connect with and love your baby. Skin-to-skin contact with your baby (as well as closeness with your partner) can help keep the oxytocin flowing and aid you in feeling good while weaning.
5. Consideration for your baby
How to handle weaning with your baby depends largely on their age. If your baby is over one year, it may simply mean slowly reducing nursing sessions while increasing solid food. You can talk with your pediatrician about your baby’s diet to ensure they are getting all their needs met. For babies under a year, plan to replace nursing seasons and bottles of freshly pumped milk with stored milk (this is a good time to offer any frozen milk you may have), donor human milk or infant formula. If your baby is new to bottles, it can take time and experimentation to get them comfortable with a new way of eating. Many nursing parents find their baby does best when learning to use a bottle from the non-nursing parent, a childcare provider or another relative. If bottle feeding is a challenge after trying several kinds, reach out to a lactation consultant—we are trained and experienced in helping babies bottle-fed and can work with you and your baby to find a solution. Rest assured, there are alternative options if bottle feeding isn’t going well right away– younger babies can feed with a syringe, spoon or cup and older babies can use a cup or sippy cup. Lastly, weaning does not always have to be “all or nothing”. Many parents start to wean and find they would like to hold onto a couple nursing sessions a day. Even though milk production will decrease with infrequent feedings, you can still continue to nurse less often. Babies still love the comfort and connection. Most importantly, find what works best for you, your baby and your own situation.
There are so many important milestones for parents in the early years of their child’s life. Weaning may be celebratory or long-awaited, upsetting or bittersweet. You have a right to experience and express all of your feelings as your body and your relationship with your baby shifts. You also have a right to be cared for and supported to be sure the weaning process is as easy on you as possible. Many new parents are quick to get lactation support at the start of their nursing journey; know that we are here for you at the end of that journey, too.