The decision to breastfeed, and when to stop, is a completely personal one. Personal choice combined with circumstances will make the decision different for everyone. The process of stopping breastfeeding is called weaning.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for six months before being introduced to solids foods or weaning. They then recommend a mix of solid foods and breastmilk up to the age of two years old or beyond.
No matter whether you breastfeed your baby for two days, two months or two years, they will benefit from its nourishment and nutrients. But there is no shame if you choose not to at all, or cannot breastfeed. Fed is always best.
Choosing how long to do it for will depend on a number of factors, such as:
- Baby’s age
- Convenience – eg. returning to work may make it too hard to continue
- Problems with feeding
- Baby refusing feeds/self-weaning
- Personal preference
- Emotional needs
How to wean your baby off breastmilk
If possible, you want to try and drop the feeds gradually so that your breasts have time to adjust and your milk supply decreases accordingly. You want to avoid engorged breasts and mastitis wherever possible.
If your baby is under 12 months, you will need to substitute their breastmilk with formula. If your baby hasn’t taken milk from a bottle you may want to establish this before you stop feeding, to make sure they are going to make the transition. It can be useful to get someone else to do this, as often the baby won’t take a bottle from the mother if they are used to the breast.
If your baby is over six months, they will now be on a mixture of milk and solids. Milk should remain the main source of nutrients for the first 12 months.
Weaning an older baby or toddler
Many babies will self wean, however, some will need some guidance if the mother has decided she is ready to wean. Take it slowly and explain why you are doing it, even if you think they are too little to understand.
If they are struggling to let it go, start by setting limits on times or when it’s available and gradually drop feeds.
Give them time to adjust to the change, and try not to do it around any other big changes in their life such as moving house or toilet training.
Whether it was your choice to wean or your baby self-weaned, the end of breastfeeding can be an extremely emotional time for many mothers. It is normal to feel quite down, but this should pass within a matter of days or weeks.