When I became a mom, I received tons of advice on how important it is to breastfeed. My physician, parents, and close friends constantly reminded me of the significant role that breastmilk plays in an infant’s development.
What no one told me, though, was how challenging it would be to stop breastfeeding. There’s no question that breastmilk is a key source of nutrition for newborns and infants, but the transition from exclusive breastfeeding to mixed feeding and then to only solid foods should be accorded just as much attention.
Wondering when and how to stop breastfeeding naturally? Here is everything you need to know.
When to stop breastfeeding
A common question among breastfeeding moms is, “When should one stop breastfeeding?” According to WHO guidelines, you should breastfeed your infant exclusively for up to 6 months. Beyond this, you can start introducing solid foods while still breastfeeding until your baby is 1 year or older.
This is what should happen in an ideal world, but then there’s what happens in reality.
Some moms encounter issues and medical problems that force them to start weaning their babies earlier than 6 months. Among the issues that can force a mom to stop breastfeeding after even less than 4 weeks are sore or cracked nipples, insufficient milk production, baby not being satisfied with breast milk, or baby having difficulty breastfeeding.
For some mothers, it’s external influences that discourage them from breastfeeding. For instance, they may find it challenging to pump at their workplace, or perhaps their line of work necessitates relying solely on a caregiver. In other cases, a mom’s desire to continue breastfeeding wanes, and this is okay, too.
Here are a few reasons that help you determine when you should stop breastfeeding:
- A new medication: If you’re prescribed a new drug that can be passed onto your child through breastmilk, you may have to start weaning your baby suddenly.
- Disease, hospitalization, or surgery: Getting diagnosed with illnesses like a cold or a stomach bug doesn’t require you to stop breastfeeding. If, however, you’re dealing with a serious illness that gets you hospitalized or requires that you undergo surgery, your only choice may be to stop breastfeeding.
- Separation: Some situations—such as military deployments—warrant that you stop breastfeeding because you’ll be away from your baby for an extended period.
- Pregnancy: It’s totally okay to continue breastfeeding when you’re pregnant, but it’s not recommended when you have a high-risk pregnancy, for instance, being at risk of preterm birth. Nipple stimulation can release oxytocin, which is the hormone responsible for uterine contractions, leading to preterm labor. Besides, 5 months into your new pregnancy, your breasts will begin to produce colostrum in preparation for the birth. This element alters the quantity and taste of milk, so your toddler may no longer be interested in breastfeeding.
Just take note of the point at which you stop breastfeeding. This way, you can determine the best source of nutrients to replace breastmilk.
How to stop breastfeeding
Here’s how you should go about weaning your baby off breast milk.
1. Minimize breastfeeding sessions slowly
When you want to stop breastfeeding, a slow and steady approach is the best way to go. This mitigates the risk of your suffering unpleasant side effects, such as:
- Breast engorgement
- Nipple pain
- Psychological trauma to both you and your baby
So, rather than stop breastfeeding in one go, gradually reduce the number of feedings over a couple of weeks. Start with the session where your baby breastfeeds the least. Next, give your child a few days before choosing another feeding session to stop. Repeat this process until you’re no longer nursing your baby.
The last feeding session, which is usually the early morning or late evening one, is the most challenging to let go of. For this reason, allow you and your baby as much time as you need to adjust to the new routine.
2. Provide adequate nutrition
Once your baby reaches the half-year mark, he or she will need higher levels of specific nutrients like zinc, iron, vitamins B and D.
Unfortunately, they can’t get those solely from breastfeeding or their own reserves. It means you’ll need to ensure that they’re getting these nutrients from complementary foods.
If you’ve decided to stop breastfeeding before your baby turns 1, then you’ll need to switch to either infant formula or donor breast milk. This way, you can make up for the nutrients they’d otherwise be getting from breast milk.
Cow’s milk is not recommended for babies under 1 year old although it’s okay to incorporate in foods like mashed potatoes.
3. Comfort your baby
Once you’ve gotten their nutrition right, the next thing you’ll want to do is comfort your baby.
The thing about breastfeeding is that it’s so much more than your baby’s source of nutrition. It deepens the bond between the two of you in ways that no other activity would.
In fact, it’s the best source of comfort when your baby is going through periods of exceptional growth, pain, trouble with getting some sleep, or merely seeking affection.
Due to this, one of the effects of stopping breastfeeding is that the baby will become a little upset and fussy. To keep them calm, you’ll need to find alternative ways to comfort them. A couple of strategies we’d recommend are:
- Holding your infant in skin-to-skin contact
- Rocking your baby
- Getting them a pacifier
- Distracting your baby when they want to breastfeed by playing or taking them for a walk
- Creating a new bedtime routine, which helps them sleep easily
4. Suppress milk
When you stop breastfeeding, what happens to the milk? Unfortunately, your body will continue producing milk for the next couple of days or weeks. Experts estimate that it could take 7 to 10 days for the milk to completely dry up.
As we mentioned earlier, the best approach to dry up milk is to wean off your baby gradually. The fewer times you breastfeed, the smaller the amount of milk your body will produce. Eventually, it will stop receiving cues to make more breast milk.
Another way to stop milk production if not breastfeeding is to rely on certain herbs. One is sage, or Salvia officinalis, which you can take in the form of sage tea. To prepare this, steep about a tablespoon of dried sage leaves in a cup of hot water. Other herbs that can be used for the same purpose are peppermint, parsley, chasteberry, and jasmine. However, it’s important that you consult with your healthcare provider before trying any of these natural remedies.
5. Manage engorgement
When you stop breastfeeding, there’s a risk of suffering from breast engorgement, especially if you wean your baby hastily rather than gradually.
If a gradual approach to weaning your baby isn’t a feasible option, there are a few things you can do to ease the discomfort that comes with it. These include:
- Use a breast pump: If you opt for this solution, you have to exercise a lot of caution. The idea is to drain just a small amount of milk to ease your pain, but not to the extent that you drain your breasts completely. If you drain them, this will push your body to produce more milk, which will only lengthen the weaning process.
- Use ice-cold cabbage leaves: As this study proves, chilled cabbage leaves are another superb remedy for relieving pain that results from stopping breastfeeding. All you need to do is get a few chilled cabbage leaves and press them against your breasts as you would with a cold compress. Alternatively, you can wear a bra that holds them in place for you. Some experts believe that aside from relieving pain, this technique also causes milk to dry up faster.
- Take pain-relief medication: Breast engorgement can be quite painful. If you find the pain too much to bear, consider over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen. They are both safe to take, whether you’re breastfeeding exclusively or occasionally.
- Wear a supportive bra: Invest in a firm and well-fitting bra to ensure your breasts remain properly supported throughout this transition. Wearing one that doesn’t fit properly will only lead to more pain and uneasiness.
Body changes after stopping breastfeeding
What happens to your body when you stop breastfeeding? Well, you can expect a number of changes, namely:
Your menstrual cycle
Breastfeeding has a significant impact on fertility, though to what extent differs from one mom to another. One aspect you might have noticed is that your periods didn’t start up again when you began exclusive breastfeeding.
The reason for this is that the hormone responsible for milk production, prolactin, also stops ovulation, which is why you don’t get your period. If you’ve been enjoying this bit of freedom, expect your menstrual cycle to return once you stop breastfeeding.
No period after stopping breastfeeding? Don’t be alarmed as this is normal, too. For some, it takes several months for their menstrual cycle to resume even after nursing has completely ended.
Breast shape and size
Breastfeeding alters both the shape and size of your breasts. To prepare for breastfeeding, the breast tissue and milk-producing glands become bigger. Then, once you stop breastfeeding, they shrink back to their original size.
Your breasts then become softer and less full, leading to a droopy appearance. If you notice this change when you stop breastfeeding, it’s not unusual.
Shift in mood
When you decide to stop breastfeeding, be prepared to experience a gamut of emotions, ranging from sadness and guilt to relief. These emotions are brought about by different scenarios.
For instance, you may feel sad that your baby has reached such a crucial milestone in their life. Similarly, you may feel sad because you can no longer share intimate one-on-one interactions with your little one.
Whatever feelings you experience, know that it’s totally normal and okay. These emotions are real and should be acknowledged and supported.
Will I lose weight after I stop breastfeeding?
No, quite the opposite. Breastfeeding allows nursing moms to burn up to 500 calories daily. So, when you stop breastfeeding, you’re more likely to gain than lose weight.
How long will my breasts hurt after stopping breastfeeding?
The pain and discomfort that come when you stop breastfeeding can last anywhere from 5 to 10 days. As mentioned earlier, there are a few pain-relieving strategies you can try.
When you stop breastfeeding, what happens to the milk?
Once you stop nursing, your body naturally starts to produce less milk until the whole process comes to a complete stop. However, it’s a process that takes time, and the longer you’ve been breastfeeding, the longer it will take for the milk to dry up.
Stopping breastfeeding requires as much research and planning as you did before you started the practice.
The most crucial point to keep in mind is that it should be done gradually over a period of time. Using a cold turkey approach not only puts you at risk of getting breast engorgement, but it also makes your baby confused and a little upset by the sudden transition.
Eliminate just 1 feeding session every few days, and remember to make up for the nutrients your baby will be missing when they stop breastfeeding. It’s also advisable to find new ways to comfort your little one and create a new bedtime routine that doesn’t involve breastfeeding.
What has your experience been like when it comes to weaning your baby off breastmilk? Share your thoughts in the comments below.