When and how can I stop breastfeeding?

Zofishan Umair
Zofishan Umair
Zofishan is a journalist, humour columnist, and a mum who has survived nappy explosions mid-air. She has over a decade of experience writing for print and online publications and is currently working on her first book.
Created on May 16, 2024 · 9 mins read

Nursing sessions can get long and hard. And as your baby gets older and sprouts that one sharp tooth, the humble act of nursing can really test your limits.


When your toddler goes through a growth spurt and wishes to nurse for hours on end, breastfeeding can take more than just patience. You now require the endurance of a long-distance marathon athlete.

If you try to compare the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, you’ll get a long list of pros in the right column and maybe a few cons in the column on the left.

Breast milk, also known as liquid gold, is super beneficial for your baby and far superior to both cow’s milk and infant formula. But at what point do women decide that they simply cannot breastfeed anymore?

How to wean your baby off breastmilk


Breastfeeding offers infants feelings of trust, support, and comfort, all of which help regulate their moods and promote healthy brain development.

World Health Organisation recommends breast milk for six months
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for 6 months before gradually weaning to solid food. They then recommend a mix of solid foods and breastmilk until the child is 2 years old.

Only YOU can decide when to stop breastfeeding
Can breastfeeding benefits ever outweigh the mental health of the mother?

No matter what the situation, the answer is always ‘no’!

Breastfeeding should be mutually desired by the mom and the baby. So, if you think you don’t have the strength, time, patience, or luxury to nurse your baby, it’s okay to stop breastfeeding.

The choice to breastfeed, and when to stop, is a completely personal decision. No mom shaming! Personal choice combined with circumstances will make the decision different for everyone. The process of stopping breastfeeding is called weaning.


When to stop breastfeeding?


Choosing how long to breastfeed your child will depend on several factors. These include:

  • Baby’s age: As babies grow they need other foods with iron and zinc to get the required nutrients for growth and development.
  • Convenience: For instance, it is easier to opt for bottle feeding if mums have to return to work
  • Problems with breastfeeding: Like cracked nipples that make nursing painful or mastitis due to blocked ducts.
  • Baby refusing feeds/self-weaning: You can’t force a baby to feed – nor should you. If your baby refuses feeds, it might be worth looking into other options.
  • Nipple Confusion: The baby prefers a bottle over breast milk, becoming confused about the different techniques between breastfeeding and bottle. Like, for instance, why milk takes longer to come through from breastfeeding.
  • Personal preference: Every family has different needs and desires for their unique journey. Breastfeeding might not fit into that equation – whether for health, emotional, or circumstantial reasons.
  • Emotional needs: Breastfeeding can take a toll on the emotional and mental health of a mother. There is growing evidence that breastfeeding can be connected to postpartum depression.
  • Pregnancy: For those trouper mums facing down pregnancy while still breastfeeding, it can be a lot on your body. Plus, it’s pretty hectic emotionally.

Remember, 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 breastfeed at all, or cannot breastfeed.


The best way to start weaning


Now that you’ve decided you want to wean your baby off breastmilk, also known as mother-led weaning, you need to try and slowly stop breastfeeding.

‘I’d rather go cold turkey like I did with the pacifier’
While tough love may seem like a viable option when you have to wake up every 3 hours for a feed, it is important to understand that going cold turkey won’t necessarily help in this matter. Babies don’t rely on breastfeeding for merely getting milk, it is more emotional and psychological than that.

That’s why the Australian Breastfeeding Association recommends lactating mothers to wean gradually. Abrupt drops in feeding sessions can result in engorgement and even mastitis. It’s best to take it slow and let your baby and your body adapt to the changes gradually.

Weaning slowly vs. cold turkey: Health benefits
While some mums swear by going cold turkey, a good lactation consultant will always recommend weaning gradually. That’s because it helps both you and your child.

  • Health benefits for mum: Reducing nursing sessions slowly over a few weeks gives your breasts time to adjust. It gets the memo that your child needs less milk, which results in a decrease in breast milk supply. This way, you avoid engorged breasts and mastitis once you decide to quit breastfeeding. It’s not easy for babies to figure out why mama has suddenly refused to give them breast milk. A slow and gradual change allows them to get used to the new taste of infant formula or plain whole cow’s milk.
  • Health benefits for babies: If your baby is under 12 months old, you 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 quit breastfeeding, 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 old, they will now be on a mixture of milk and other solid foods. But, remember, milk remains the primary source of nutrition for the first 12 months.

Weaning an older child or toddler
Many children will self-wean, however, some may need guidance. Here are some tips to help:

  • Take it slowly and explain why you are doing it, even if you think they are too little to understand.
  • Start by setting limits on times or when breastfeeding is available and gradually drop feeds.
  • Allow the child to adjust in his own time. After all, it has been their primary source of food and comfort for more than 6 months.
  • 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.

Signs your baby is ready to start weaning


While every baby is different and may wean according to their own desire and life stage, certain cues can help you assess if your baby is ready to start weaning. 

Sitting with assistance or taking an interest in others’ food are two main initial cues that your baby may be signaling their readiness to wean. These are their ways of letting you know they might be ready to explore new flavours and textures; it’s all about finding that perfect moment when they’re both physically and emotionally prepared.

When to start night weaning
As parents, we often wonder when the right time is to gently transition away from these night-time feedings, also known as night weaning. It’s a big step, and it’s completely natural to feel a mix of emotions about it. However, there are some signs you can look out for that might indicate your baby is ready for this transition.

Firstly, consider your baby’s age; around the 6-month mark is a common starting point, but every baby is different. Some might be ready a bit earlier, while others might need a little more time so it is important to trust your instincts and observe your baby’s cues.

Next, pay attention to your baby’s weight gain and overall health. It’s essential to ensure they’re thriving before making any changes to their feeding routines and consulting with your paediatrician can provide valuable guidance tailored to your baby’s specific needs.

If you’re blessed with a baby who is already sleeping for longer stretches at night without needing to feed, it could be a sign that they’re ready to drop those night-time feedings. Moreover, introducing solid foods into your baby’s diet can also play a role in assisting with this change since when they start eating more during the day, they may naturally need less at night.

FAQs: To wean or not to wean


How do you know when to give up breastfeeding?
The decision to stop nursing is a very personal one that involves many thoughts and feelings.

A point often overlooked by many when discussing this particular question is, looking at the mother’s mental health when understanding when to stop breastfeeding. People often push mothers to continue breastfeeding until 2 years to keep their baby’s immune system up and running, disregarding the fact that breastfeeding often takes a toll on a woman’s mental and physical health.

So if you, or someone you know, are deciding to give up on breastfeeding earlier than expected, it is best to consult your healthcare provider for a heads up and switch to infant formula milk or solids (whatever is deemed fit by them) to cut yourself some slack.

What is the average age a mother stops breastfeeding?
Did you know that 96% of children are breastfed at birth?

Did you also know that only 4 in 10 mums breastfeed until six months before introducing formula milk to their feeding routine?

Some women continue breastfeeding until their baby turns 2 years old while a very small number continue to breastfeed their babies way beyond the 2-year mark.

I’m pregnant. Can I continue breastfeeding?
As a breastfeeding mother, your first step should be reaching out to your lactation consultant and healthcare provider for guidance tailored to your unique situation. They’re there to provide compassionate support and help you navigate this journey with confidence and care.

Studies show that breastfeeding while pregnant poses no harm to the unborn baby or the baby being breastfed. However, if you wish to continue to nurse your child, then it is essential that you fulfill your calorie count.

Wrapping it up


Struggling with breastfeeding or weaning? Get in touch with your healthcare provider, who, along with a lactation consultant, can offer strategies while ensuring both you and your baby receive the best possible care.

Sources


Australia Breastfeeding Organisation (2023) Weaning. Available at: https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/resources/weaning

Better Health Channel, Breastfeeding – deciding when to stop. Availabe at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/breastfeeding-deciding-when-to-stop

Health Direct (2018) Why 4 in 10 mothers stop breastfeeding by 6 months. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/blog/why-4-in-10-mothers-stop-breastfeeding-by-6-months

Kroll, K. M and Grossman, T. (2018) ‘Psychological effects of breastfeeding on children and mothers,’ Bundesgesundheitsblatt Gesundheitsforschung Gesundheitsschutz, 61(8). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00103-018-2769-0

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