Want to stop breastfeeding? Here are the keys to weaning your little one.
Regardless of when it happens, weaning is a normal part of breastfeeding. It can happen naturally or be planned. When you decide to stop breastfeeding, give yourself the time you need to make the transition as smooth as possible. Stay flexible and listen to your child as much as you can.
When should you wean your baby?
There is no ideal age for weaning a baby. In fact, it’s recommended to breastfeed for as long as possible, since breastfeeding provides numerous benefits (in French).
The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the Canadian Paediatric Society recommend breastfeeding exclusively until 6 months of age. Then, from the age of 6 months to 2 years or more, it’s recommended that you keep breastfeeding along with adequate solid food.
When a mother allows her child to wean at their own pace, breastfeeding usually ceases between the ages of 2 and 4 years.
Not sure about weaning your baby?
If you’re not sure about weaning your baby, try to identify the reasons that are enticing you to stop breastfeeding and what might be bothering you. Then, consider whether there are things you can change that will allow you to breastfeed longer, for the benefit of both you and your child. You may find it helpful to consult a support group.
If you’re hesitant to wean your child because you’re going back to work, you should know that it’s possible to maintain or modify your breastfeeding schedule without having to wean completely. In fact, the older your baby is, the more flexible they’ll be. Some babies can wait for their mom to come home to feed.
How should you wean your baby?
To avoid rushing your baby, wean them gradually. To start, cut out one of the day’s feedings. If that goes well, you can cut out another feeding on another day. Gradually, you can replace as many feedings as you want. However, avoid weaning if your child is sick, as they need your comforting presence.
Cut out the morning and evening feedings last, as these are often the times children prefer. You can keep breastfeeding for a long time. Many moms are able to do this even after returning to work.
If your child has started eating solid foods, you can try the following strategies to wean them:
Without abruptly “refusing” to feed them, stop offering it.
If your child isn’t too eager, delay feedings. This will help space them out and reduce their frequency. Take your child’s mind off of it by suggesting other activities.
Shorten the duration of feedings.
Change the context of the feedings (don’t sit with them in the usual chair, at the usual times, etc.).
The weaning process might take longer than you expect. On the other hand, it could also be faster. This will depend on your child’s age, their temperament, your feelings about weaning, and your approach. It’s generally realistic to allow about 4 weeks for a complete and smooth weaning.
What should you substitute breastfeeding with?
As a substitute for breastfeeding, start by feeding your baby breast milk that’s been stored in the freezer. If you don’t have any, give them commercial infant formula fortified with iron. At around 9 to 12 months, your child can drink 3.25% homogenized cow’s milk, as long as they eat a varied menu with enough iron-rich foods. If that’s not the case, wait until 12 months to give them some.
Feed them breast milk, commercial infant formula, or cow’s milk in a glass, bottle, or cup with or without a spout. In general, breastfed babies who are older than 6 months prefer a cup.
It’s normal for your baby to drink only a small amount of milk at a time, so offer it to them often. If your child is not drinking enough milk from a glass, give them their bottle.
If your baby is older than 6 months and has started eating solid foods, you can also replace a feeding with a nutritious snack.
If your family is vegan
Before 12 months of age, breastfeeding remains the best choice, even after the introduction of complementary foods. If breastfeeding is not possible, a commercial soy-based infant formula is recommended.
It’s recommended that you wait until your child is 2 years old before giving them soy beverages. However, some parents prefer to give their children fortified soy beverages before this age. It’s safe to feed these to your child as early as 12 months of age, as long as they also eat other energy-rich foods
(in French) at every meal and are growing normally. You should also make sure the soy beverage is labeled “fortified” (low fat is not necessary) and “plain” or “original.” Before each use, shake the container vigorously (about 15 times) to mix the nutrients well.
Other plant-based beverages (made from rice, almond, hemp, etc.) are less nutritious and are therefore not recommended as milk replacements.
The nursing strike
In general, a baby who suddenly refuses to breastfeed is not weaning. In most cases, this is what’s known as a “nursing strike.” Any breastfeeding mother would agree—when your baby refuses to breastfeed, it’s definitely troubling and distressing.
Episodes of breast refusal and “nursing strikes” are not uncommon and can occur at various times during breastfeeding. If they aren’t mistaken for weaning, nursing strikes usually resolve themselves eventually. Sometimes it’s possible to find the cause of the nursing strike and remedy it. In other cases, the cause is unknown, but it’s still possible to put an end to the nursing strike by giving your baby a little more time and attention.
Why does a baby go on a nursing strike?
A baby might go on a nursing strike for a variety of reasons:
They might be bothered by something, such as a cold or a stuffy nose, a teething episode, an ear infection, thrush, etc.
They may be especially sensitive to the mood of those around them and can go on a nursing strike if the climate is too emotionally charged (e.g., family conflicts) or if the family is too busy (e.g., busy with moving).
They’re reaching a developmental milestone and are so busy learning new things that they temporarily lose interest in breastfeeding.
Their mother recently changed her diet, soap, or deodorant. The beginning of their mother’s menstrual cycle can also trigger this reaction.
How do you encourage your baby to resume breastfeeding?
Don’t try to force your baby to feed from the breast, or starve them into latching on.
Make breastfeeding a calm and special time. Keep distractions to a minimum.
Cuddle and comfort your baby as much as possible. Encourage skin-to-skin contact. Take a bath with your baby.
Try to breastfeed your baby when they are about to fall asleep or have just woken up.
Offer your breast frequently, in different positions. Offer each breast alternately or breastfeed in different rooms. Breastfeed while walking.
If the strike lasts for more than a day or two, express your milk regularly, both to avoid engorgement and to maintain milk production. You can also consult a breastfeeding expert. A health care professional can also assess your baby to make sure that there is no illness involved.
Should I stop breastfeeding if I need to take medication?
It’s very rare to have to stop breastfeeding because of a medication.
Most medications are found in breast milk, but in very small amounts. However, some medications are a better choice because there is more information about using them during breastfeeding. Many medications can be used while breastfeeding, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and most antibiotics.
Before taking any medication or natural health product, discuss it with a health care professional (a pharmacist, doctor, or nurse). Some medications can decrease milk production (e.g., decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine) or cause other problems.
If a health care provider advises you to stop breastfeeding so that you can take a certain medication, tell them that breastfeeding is important to you and your baby. Also ask if there is any other medication that can be taken while you are breastfeeding.
Weaning your baby: How do you stop breastfeeding without engorgement?
- Wean gradually to avoid breast engorgement and the risk of mastitis.
When your breasts no longer feel engorged (often after 3 or 4 days), eliminate another feeding, if you want to. The important thing is not to eliminate two consecutive feedings. Gradually, you can eliminate as many feedings as you like.
Even if you wean your baby gradually, your milk production might cause you discomfort. Express a small amount of milk (by squeezing your breasts to get some milk out) at the time of the skipped feeding for relief.
If, a few days after the last feeding, your breasts feel engorged, feel free to express a bit of milk or put your baby back to your breast for a few minutes.
- In the weeks after you’ve completely weaned your baby, a small amount of milk may come out when you see your baby or things that belong to them, or when you think about them.
Your baby doesn’t want to be weaned
If your child refuses their bottle, cup, or glass, don’t force them to drink. Instead, try to distract them and then try again a few minutes later. If they still refuse, consider postponing weaning for a few days, and in the meantime, shorten the length of each feeding. But don’t starve your baby until they take to their bottle.
Some babies refuse to be weaned or need to be weaned quickly (e.g., if their mother is sick). Here are a few tips that might help if this is the case for your child.
At first, put your breast milk in a bottle or cup.
Offer them the bottle or cup when they’re feeling good and not too hungry.
Warm the bottle nipple under hot water to create the illusion of human warmth.
Offer them the bottle in rooms, positions, and at times (e.g., snack time) that are not associated with breastfeeding. Your partner can also try to feed them.
Keep cuddling your baby so they know that just because you’re depriving them of the breast, that doesn’t mean you’re depriving them of love.
Cuddling and comfort
No matter the age of your child, feeding is much more than a meal—it’s a time of comfort and intimate contact. This is hard to replicate with a bottle. Reassure your baby and hold them close so they can receive the same affection they got while nursing. For example, you can rock and massage them to ensure they don’t feel neglected and in need of close contact. Remember, the goal is to wean them from your breast, not from cuddling!
Can you resume breastfeeding during or after weaning?
Once weaning has begun, it’s always possible to change your mind and return to breastfeeding. Just put your baby back to your breast several times a day to stimulate your milk production.
If they’re already fully weaned, you may be able to start breastfeeding again, but you’ll probably need professional support (e.g., a lactation or breastfeeding consultant).
Things to keep in mind
It’s important to wean your child gradually so as to not rush them, but also to avoid engorgement of your breasts and the risk of mastitis.
Instead of breastfeeding, you should give your baby frozen breast milk or formula if they’re under 9 months of age. After that, you can give them 3.25% homogenized cow’s milk, as long as they eat a varied menu with enough iron-rich foods.
If your baby doesn’t want to drink from a bottle, cup, or glass, don’t force them. Also, don’t starve them into settling for the bottle.
Scientific review: Louise Godin, graduate nurse and IBCLC lactation consultant
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: December 2020
Photos: GettyImages/Tassii, NickyLloyd and svetikd
Resources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Websites and services
Association québécoise des consultantes en lactation. To find an IBCLC in most regions of Quebec. www.ibclc.qc.ca
Nourri-Source Federation. This breastfeeding support movement has more than 600 breastfeeding support volunteers. It’s been providing help and information to all families since 1982. They offer a variety of pre- and post-natal activities, breastfeeding drop-in centres, and even a help line. www.nourri-source.org
La Leche League Canada. This volunteer organization, affiliated with La Leche League International, is active in more than 60 countries and offers mother-to-mother support as well as informational and educational tools. lllc.ca
Bengson, Diane. How Weaning Happens. La Leche League International, 1999.
Desrochers, Annie and Madeleine Allard. Bien vivre l’allaitement. Montreal, Les Éditions Hurtubise, 2014, 318 pp.
La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Random House, 2010, 576 pp.
Doré, Nicole and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.ca
Lawrence, Ruth A. and Robert B. Lawrence. Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession. 8th ed., Amsterdam, Elsevier, 2016, 992 pp.
World Health Organization. “Breastfeeding.” www.who.int
Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and Health Canada. Nutrition for healthy term infants: Recommendations from birth to six months. 2022. www.canada.ca/en/health-canada
Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Weaning your child from breastfeeding.” 2018. caringforkids.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Feeding your baby in the first year.” 2020. caringforkids.cps.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Nutrition for healthy term infants, six to 24 months: An overview.” 2020. www.cps.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Position statement: Weaning from the breast.” 2018. www.cps.ca
Wambach, Karen and Jan Riordan. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation. 5th ed., Burlington, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2015, 966 pp.