Weaning your Baby or Toddler from Breastmilk

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 6 minutes

What to know about weaning your baby or toddler

  • What is weaning and why might weaning from happen?

  • Steps to wean your baby or toddler from breastmilk

  • Tips to help make weaning from breastfeeding go more smoothly

What is weaning?

Weaning is when breastfeeding is reduced and replaced with formula and/or solid foods.1 If your baby is around six months old, this process will begin to happen naturally as you introduce solid foods. It will also happen if you begin to supplement with or switch to formula.

Why would someone wean their baby off breastmilk?

A variety of factors can influence the decision to wean:

  • Returning to work

  • Starting a new medication that would be unsafe for your baby

  • You or your baby becoming uninterested in breastfeeding

  • Sudden illness of you or your baby

  • Low milk supply

  • Societal or family pressures

  • Feeling that your baby is “too old”

  • Becoming pregnant again2,3,4,9

Know that many of these factors do not necessarily prevent you from breastfeeding. With a little bit of planning, continuing to breastfeed may be possible if that is your goal.

For more information:

How to Nurse While you Work

Breastfeeding During Illness

Breastfeeding While Pregnant

Dealing with a Low Breastmilk Supply

Regardless of the motivation, weaning is a personal decision for you and your child. One that hopefully you’ll be able to make without the pressure or influence of others. Take some time to carefully consider what you feel is best for you and your baby when it comes to weaning.

Should breastmilk be replaced with formula or cow’s milk?

If your little one is younger than 12 months, breastmilk should be replaced by formula. Include solid foods if your little one is older than 6 months.

If your child is older than 12 months, formula is not needed and you can go straight to cow’s milk or a milk alternative. At this age, only 2 to 3 (8oz) cups of milk are needed per day as a compliment to a well-balanced diet of solid foods.5

Learn about:

Introducing Formula to a Breastfed Baby

How Do I Introducing Milk to my Toddler?

How to wean your baby

When the time comes, weaning is best when done gradually over a few weeks or months. Your body will produce less and less milk over time as it responds to less suckling or pumping. A slow wean will help prevent painful engorgement and clogged ducts.3 It will also help your little one get used to formula or cow’s milk in a nice slow transition.

If you cannot wean slowly, perhaps due to illness, medication, surgery, or being away from baby suddenly, it may be helpful to pump or hand express if possible.4 You can either pump just enough to stay comfortable without draining the breast, or pump for each feeding and then gradually reduce pumping over time.4 This will help your body gradually reduce milk production.

Learn about: How and When to Hand Express

Mother-led weaning (planned weaning)

If you are leading the weaning process, you can often control the timeline and speed. This method is usually a little tougher, as not all babies may be ready and willing to wean.6

There are two main ways to go about weaning from breastfeeding:

  • Eliminate one feeding or pumping session at a time every 3-7 days, or

  • Shorten the length of each feed by a few minutes every few days until you’ve eliminated all feedings6

Aim to begin the weaning process by taking out baby’s least favorite feeding first, or the one for which you are not around (such as a midday pumping or breastfeeding session).3 Continue to skip this one feeding session until you are no longer engorged, then take out the next one.

The bedtime feeding is often the last session to be eliminated.4 If you choose, you can keep just one or two breastfeeding sessions for as long as you and baby would like.

Child-led weaning (natural weaning)

With child-led weaning, your child will indicate when they are ready by slowly decreasing the number and length of feedings on their own, usually over the course of a few months. This type of weaning may begin when baby starts solid foods around 6 months but happens more commonly between ages 1 and 4 years.9

If, however, baby suddenly refuses to breastfeed, this could be a nursing strike. It is often caused by something else going on such as baby being sick, maternal menses coming back, a change in maternal diet, teething, or a mother returning to work, among other things.4,9

Read more: Navigating Nursing Strikes

Your child might resist weaning

If you’re the one initiating weaning, your child may resist.6 It is not uncommon for toddlers who don’t want to wean to have tantrums or other outbursts, or for babies to refuse the bottle of formula. Breastfeeding often creates a strong emotional link, and it may take some time for your little one to fully adjust to stopping.15

To help get through this resistance, try:

  • Having quiet one-on-one time with your little one to help ease the transition

  • Offering more loving physical contact such as hugs, snuggles, and kisses

  • Avoiding favorite nursing spots

  • Having your partner or caregiver offer bottles of formula

  • Having your partner step in to help with calming, comforting, or distracting your child3,6,15

Read more about how to get through bottle refusal: Introducing Formula to a Breastfed Baby

You might have an emotional and physical response to weaning

Emotional response to weaning

Whether it is you or your child who is instigating weaning, you may feel sad, guilty, intensely exhausted, or have a sense of loss over this changing relationship with your baby.9 Many moms feel a combination of nostalgia and relief, which can be confusing.

These feelings, which for some women may lead to post-weaning depression, are thought to be caused by the shift of hormones that occurs as your body stops producing milk.7

The good news is that these feelings are usually short-lived. Many mothers begin to feel more like themselves as their hormones stabilize, usually after about 2 weeks.7 If you are feeling poorly beyond a couple weeks, reach out to your doctor to chat about your symptoms.

Read about: How Can I Ditch the Mommy Guilt?

Physical response to weaning

You’ll likely have a physical response as well. You may experience engorgement and related issues such as plugged ducts.9 Manually hand expressing a small amount of milk can help provide relief from engorgement as well as keep milk flowing just enough to help prevent clogged ducts.3,9

Do not pump or express to the point of emptying your breasts if your goal is to stop breastfeeding. Pumping too much will keep your body making milk.

Read more: Managing Blocked Ducts

Tips to help wean your baby from breastfeeding

How to deal with engorgement

Engorgement is actually important to the weaning process. Breasts full of milk tells the body to stop making milk.8 However, there are things you can do to help feel more comfortable during this process.

  • Hand express a very small amount to help you feel more comfortable

  • Apply ice or cool gel packs to help reduce swelling

  • While not proven, some professionals recommend placing clean, cold cabbage leaves between the breast and the bra, then replacing them when wilted.

  • Massage the breasts

  • Wear a firm but non-binding, no under-wire bra for support.4,9,10,16

Learn more about dealing with engorgement: When You Can’t Breastfeed: How to Dry Up Your Milk Supply

Set limits around breastfeeding if you are weaning a toddler

Toddlers are sometimes more difficult to wean because they know what they want and can let you know! Your child at this age understands a lot, so set boundaries. Let them know when and where breastfeeding will be allowed. This might start with breastfeeding only at home, and it may transition into only before bed or when they wake.

Tips for weaning a toddler

  • Replace the breastfeeding session with a new routine. Example: Cuddling, singing, reading a book. You may also offer a snack instead if they are hungry.

  • Limit sessions. Set a timer and let your little one know that once the timer goes off, nursing is over. Gradually shorten the sessions. Some moms will allow their child to nurse for the length of a short song.

  • Have a don’t offer, don’t refuse approach

  • Distraction. If your toddler is asking to nurse, distract with another activity such as building blocks, playing outside, or cuddling and singing.14,15

If your child is old enough, try offering a new toy or other surprise to celebrate their weaning.

Avoid weaning during big life changes

When emotions are high and schedules disrupted already, weaning may cause more trouble than good.3 This may mean holding off on weaning if you are moving, switching daycares, your child is sick, you are transitioning your child from a crib to a bed, or other big changes.

To help prevent extra fussiness, tantrums, or even refusal to eat, keep breastfeeding while your little one becomes accustomed to any other life events.

Do medications and herbal supplements work to dry up milk?

There are some medications that may reduce breastmilk supply but are not formally used to help dry up milk.11 Speak with your doctor about these possibilities.

Some moms report that herbs such as sage, peppermint, jasmine, and parsley may help to reduce milk production; however, studies are inconclusive.12,13 Always speak with your doctor before taking any supplements or medications.

Have a strong support network around you

Weaning can be an emotional time for both mom and baby. Try to keep busy with plans you can look forward to, whether it’s a fun activity with your child or a night out with your partner or friends.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Should I Feed my Baby On Demand or on a Schedule?

Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues

How Much Formula does my Baby Need?

Choosing the Right Bottles and Nipples

How Do I Supplement my Breastfed Baby with Formula?