When And How To Stop Breastfeeding?

Written by Rohit Garoo Experience: 9 years
Last Updated on

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Breastmilk is the best source of food for your baby from day one. It is the baby’s first food and will be the main source of nourishment for almost a year. But when your baby reaches toddlerhood and has solid foods, you may feel the need to stop breastfeeding.

But how to stop breastfeeding and what is the right time to do so? Here, Momjunction tells you how you can help the baby transition from a diet of only breast milk to no breast milk at all.

When Can You Stop Breastfeeding?

There is no such thing as the perfect time to quit breastfeeding (1). It is better to wait until your baby is at least 12 months old before you stop breastfeeding. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies must be exclusively breastfed until the age of six months (2).

Even after six months, solid food cannot entirely replace breastmilk. Your baby will still need to breastfeed to better digest the solids. Therefore, you may consider weaning your baby after they complete one year.

When you stop breastfeeding depends on how ready you and the baby are for it and how compelling the reasons for stopping breastfeeding are.

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What Are The Reasons For A Mother To Stop Breastfeeding?

The following are the most common reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding (3):

  1. Baby’s dissatisfaction with milk: The mother feels she is unable to deliver the right quality of milk to her infant, thus leaving the baby discontented.
  1. Insufficient milk: The baby latches to the nipple but ingests inadequate milk due to poor latching or low production of milk.
  1. Breast milk alone is not enough for baby’s growth: An older infant or a toddler has greater nutritional requirements that are not met by breastmilk alone, thus making a switch to solid food imperative.
  1. Baby lost interest and weaned: The infant likes solid food more and refuses to be breastfed.
  1. Getting back to work and personal life: Mothers who want to return to work or need more time for themselves may want to cut down or even stop breastfeeding.
  1. Mother is ill and on medication: If the mother is sick and on medication, then she may have to suspend breastfeeding.
  1. Baby starts to bite: Older infants and toddlers tend to bite the nipples during breastfeeding. Constant nipping at the breast can make the nipples sore and breastfeeding sessions more painful than maternally satisfying.
  1. Breastfeeding becomes tiring and painful: Breastfeeding can be physically taxing on the mother. New mothers often deal with engorged breasts and mastitis, which is an infection of the milk ducts. A mother may consider stopping breastfeeding to prevent the transfer of pathogens to her baby and also to ease the pain in her breasts.

If the baby is too young to be off breastmilk, seek medical and familial support to continue breastfeeding. But if ceasing breastfeeding is the only way to go, you should follow a gradual process to reduce the baby’s dependency on breastmilk.

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[ Read: Weaning A Breastfeeding Toddler ]

How To Stop Breastfeeding?

To stop breastfeeding:

1. Replace breastmilk with formula

  • Your baby is more likely to accept formula than solid foods as a replacement for breastmilk. Formula tastes closest to breast milk, so your baby is not likely to miss breastfeeding.
  • Replace one breastfeeding session every day with a feed of formula. If you have six breastfeeding sessions in a day, then reduce it to five and replace one with formula. The next week reduce breastfeeding to four times a day and increase formula feeding to twice daily.
  • Replace the desired number of breastfeeding sessions with formula and leave time slots for solid food as well.
  • A formula is also an ideal replacement for feeding in the middle of the night. It can be particularly helpful when you intend to stop breastfeeding at night.

2. Leverage the baby’s interest in solid food

  • Babies develop a keen interest in solid food after six months. The interest almost peaks at 12 months, when a baby can have different varieties of foods, including cow’s milk (4).
  • Use baby-led weaning to your advantage. When the baby is hungry, give them solid food instead of breastmilk.
  • Serve milk-based porridge and cereals that the baby can get used to faster.
  • Solid foods can provide the protein and micronutrients that a growing baby needs (5).

3. Replace comfort feeds with activity

  • Sometimes, breastfeeding is more of a comfort than a solution to hunger. Cut down on such breastfeeding sessions and see if the baby notices.
  • If your baby does not seem to be bothered with fewer breastfeeding sessions, continue with them.
  • If your baby tends to get fussy and demands to be breastfed even after a solid meal, then distract them with play or an activity such as reading a book.
  • Engaging the baby in other activities helps reduce the baby’s dependency on breastfeeding.

[ Read: How To Stop Breast Feeding Baby From Biting ]

4. Give a pacifier at night

  • Does your baby suckle? If yes, it could probably be the baby’s sucking reflex and not hunger. In such a case, you can consider using a pacifier.
  • Pacifiers comfort the baby and make them less dependent on the breastfeeding for comfort. Pacifiers can be safely used every night and also reduce the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (6).
  • Use a one-piece pacifier that is considered safe for infants.
  • Pacifiers should not be used as replacements for regular feeds. They should be used only if the baby likes to suckle to sleep at night.

5. Let formula or solids be the first choice of food

  • The next time your baby is hungry, prefer formula or solid food to breastfeeding.
  • Use baby food to deal with the baby’s hunger when you are outdoors. That way, they will soon associate formula and solid food with hunger and depend less on breastmilk.

The key is to balance the baby’s diet with solids and formula and discontinue breastfeeding completely. But that will not happen overnight.

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How Long Does A Baby Take To Stop Breastfeeding?

An infant may take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months to stop breastfeeding (7). Conscious effort to replace breastmilk with alternatives while observing your baby’s reaction to the change and following your maternal instincts can help you stop breastfeeding progressively.

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What If The Baby Still Demands Breastmilk?

Babies naturally turn away from breastfeeding and show interest in solids by 12 months (8). If your toddler wants to be breastfed long after that, here are some things you can do:

  1. Rework your approach: Try changing the feeding session that you replaced with solid food. For instance, if one day you replaced the afternoon’s feed with formula and had no success, try replacing the evening feed with formula the next day. Like that, you may have to try several permutations to finally arrive at a solution.
  1. Switch formulas and foods: Try different formulas to see which one gets a faster rate of adoption. You can do the same with solids such as fruits, vegetables, and cereals.
  1. Set a routine: If your baby likes a specific type of food, serve it precisely the same every day. When your baby knows what to expect, they will be less restlessness and not necessarily demand breastmilk when hungry. The same applies to activities. Have an activity at the same time of the day when the baby needs comforting from breastfeeding.
  1. Let someone else bottle feed: Let a family member feed formula/solid food at a set time in a day. Then the baby will stop associating food with you and will learn not to demand breastmilk when hungry.

When you stop breastfeeding, both you and your baby will be significantly affected. Read on to what exactly happens.

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[ Read: What makes Baby Fall Asleep While Breastfeeding? ]

What Happens When You Stop Breastfeeding?

You could encounter the following situations when you stop breastfeeding your baby:

  1. Breast engorgement: Breast engorgement seldom happens if you stop breastfeeding gradually. Still, sore breasts can be a problem for some mothers. It occurs due to surplus retention of milk in the breast.
  1. Depression and mood swings: The levels of prolactin and oxytocin, the hormones that facilitate breastfeeding, decrease on cessation of breastfeeding. Hormonal changes may trigger depression and constant mood swings in the mother (9).
  1. Weight gain: A breastfeeding mother should eat 500 calories more every day (10). Your appetite increases when you breastfeed, but when you stop, your appetite does not decrease immediately. This could lead to excess weight gain.
  1. Heavy periods: Generally, your menstrual cycle may not resume as long as you are breastfeeding. This condition is called lactational amenorrhea, also called breastfeeding infertility. The cause of the condition is unknown, but experts suspect it is due to prolactin and oxytocin’s interference in the secretion of the ovum (egg) in the ovary (11).

When you stop breastfeeding, prolactin and oxytocin return to the pre-pregnancy levels and ovaries resume normal functions. Some women may experience a heavy period after they stop breastfeeding, quite likely due to the larger uterine lining of the expanded uterus (12). Nevertheless, periods will return to normal after a couple of cycles.

Since prolactin and oxytocin return to pre-pregnancy levels soon, depression and periods will not be an issue a few months after you stop breastfeeding. Also, weight gain can be controlled by sticking to a healthy balanced diet. Engorged breasts, though, can be a problem for a while, since the human mammary glands continue to produce some amount of milk even weeks after cessation of breastfeeding.

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How To Relieve Engorged Breasts After Stopping Breastfeeding?

You can get relief from engorged breasts through the following measures (13):

  • Use cold pack every 15 minutes. Place a cold pack on your breasts for 15 minutes, once in an hour. It should ease the discomfort and the swelling. Do not compress the breasts. Instead, place the cold pack only where it is sore.
  • Have acetaminophen or ibuprofen: You can use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like acetaminophen (paracetamol) and ibuprofen after doctor consultation, to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Wear a supportive bra: Consider a bra that would provide better support to your engorged breasts.

[ Read: Ways To Treat Engorged Breasts ]

Do not pump the milk out of engorged breasts after you have stopped breastfeeding. It can re-stimulate the production of the prolactin and oxytocin, which can take back your milk production to the lactation levels.

Breast engorgement will not be an issue when the breasts stop producing milk. In most cases, severe pain and discomfort due to engorged breasts only persist for five days. If engorgement is consistent and lasts longer than five days, it could be a sign of milk duct infection. Also, if you feel a lump in the breast after stopping breastfeeding, then it could indicate a severe milk duct infection like mastitis and needs medical attention.

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How To Prevent Engorged Breasts?

The only way to prevent engorged breasts is to stop breastfeeding gradually and not suddenly (14). Stopping breastfeeding overnight is good neither for you nor the baby.

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Can Placing Cabbage On Engorged Breasts Make Them Better?

Yes, refrigerated cabbage leaf can be a useful home remedy for breast engorgement. Wash a leaf of cabbage, refrigerate until it is cold, and place the leaf on your breast and secure it with a bra. Keep it there till the leaf becomes warm and wilts. Replace with a fresh cabbage leaf if required.

Note that there is no scientific evidence to prove that cabbage can cure engorged breasts. However, several women reported relief from the use of cabbage leaves and experts also suggest that the remedy is harmless and worth a try (15).

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What If You Want To Resume Breastfeeding After Weaning?

When you resume breastfeeding after a gap, it is called relactation (16). Relactation only works when you resume breastfeeding not long after you’ve stopped it. It works best when the baby is six months old or less.

Relactating a baby older than 12 months would require considerable effort. At least ten breastfeeding sessions of 20 minutes each in a day are required to stimulate milk supply, albeit gradually. Even then, your breastmilk supply may not be the same as earlier. A weaned infant will also have more interest in solid food or formula and may display resistance to breastfeed.

So, consider stopping breastfeeding only when you both are ready and have no intention of returning to lactation.

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When Does Breast Milk Dry Up After Stopping Breastfeeding?

Your breast may continue producing milk for as long as two years after you stopped nursing (17). Nevertheless, there is a gradual drop in it a few weeks after you stop breastfeeding. It is normal for the breasts to secrete milk once in a while, despite stopping nursing. But if it is frequent and accompanied by pain or a burning sensation, consult a doctor.

Breastmilk is essential to keep your baby nourished and healthy. But as your little one grows older, it has to be replaced with solid food. Use the child’s interest in solid food to wean the baby. Once you have stopped breastfeeding, you may experience a sense of freedom, while also missing the bond you shared with the baby. Nevertheless, stopping breastfeed is natural when the baby grows and should not be forced.

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[ Read: What Foods To Avoid While Breastfeeding ]

Did you have trouble stopping breastfeeding? Tell us about your experiences and any tips to make the process easier for other moms.

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Rohit Garoo is a writer-turned-editor with over 9 years of experience in content writing, editing, and content marketing. He did his bachelors in Science at St. Xavier's College, Hyderabad, and masters in Business Administration at Osmania University.

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