Breast is best, but from age 6 months, breastmilk alone can no longer support a baby’s growth adequately. The World Health Organisation recommends that babies are fed breastmilk alone for the first 6 months of life. After that, you need to give your baby modified family foods, while continuing breastfeeding, until he is 2 years old. So like it or not, you will definitely stop breastfeeding at a point. Stopping breastfeeding is called weaning. It is a process that must be managed well to avoid stress and guilt feelings. Other problems that can occur are painful breast engorgement, mastitis, and unnecessary distress to your baby.

When to stop breastfeeding

Most babies take less breastfeeds once they are able to digest solid foods. Digestion of solid foods is from around age 1 year, so if you are unable to breastfeed till your baby is 2 years old, consider waiting at until this time. Some babies may begin to reject breastfeeds much earlier. On the other hand, others may resist attempts at stopping breastfeeding till they are much older. Ill-health, pressures of work, separation from your baby and the birth of a new baby are some reasons you may want to stop breastfeeding early. When to stop breastfeeding is a decision for you and your baby alone to make.

How to stop breastfeeding

You can wean your baby from the breast to a bottle or to a cup. If you wean onto a bottle, you will need later to transition to a cup. Once you reduce breastfeeds, your body adjusts by gradually producing less milk. Stopping breastfeeding slowly is more comfortable and less stressful and also gives you time to introduce solids to your baby.

It may be easier to stop breastfeeding an older child than it is to do so for a baby. A lot of older children only take 1 or 2 breastfeeds during the day or none at all. They mostly require it during the night and at bedtime. If you want to stop breastfeeding, explain it to your child, and assure him that there are other ways in which you can bond. You may need to explain over and over again before your little one gets it. If he understands, it makes it easier to stop as he will fuss less over not getting a breastfeed when he wants it.

For a younger child who is unable to understand your explanation, decrease breastfeeds by 1 feed every few days to a week, starting with the feed that he is least interested in. Offer weaning foods before a breastfeed to decrease your baby’s interest in the breast. Feed only 1 breast at each feed to discourage your body from producing copious breastmilk. Gradually, your milk supply will decrease. This will prevent your breasts from getting engorged.

Problems that may be encountered while stopping breastfeeding

There are some situations that may require you to stop breastfeeding abruptly. These may be the sudden demise of your baby, severe illness, or separation. The younger a child is when you stop breastfeeding, and the faster you stop, the more likely it is to be painful. If it is necessary to stop breastfeeding abruptly, you can prevent breast engorgement by expressing just enough breastmilk to prevent pain, and throwing it away. If you empty the breast completely, it will get filled up again. So do not express to make the breast empty.

If despite expressing, your breasts are engorged and painful, try cold compresses. Get pain relief with over-the-counter pain medications like paracetamol, and wear well-fitted brassieres at all times. Infections can complicate engorged breasts. Suspect it when your breast becomes warm, very painful and reddened. Seek medical care for this. 

While you are weaning your baby, it is natural for you to feel guilty or sad. This is partly due to changing hormones. It may also be because it is distressing for you when your baby is crying so much. You may worry that you are losing some of the closeness with your baby. All these are perfectly normal. Try to combat these feelings by spending time playing with your baby, getting exercise and sufficient rest. You can also find a support group and engage in fun activities alone or with other mothers.

Stopping breastfeeding is a process. Ideally, it should not happen overnight but gradually over days and weeks. Feelings of sadness and guilt are normal for the mother who is trying to wean her baby. If you get overwhelmed, talk to someone about how you feel.