How and When to Stop Breastfeeding

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Published On
29 Jun, 2022
Read Time
6 minutes

Babies can be breastfed from birth up to two years and beyond. But there are many personal reasons why parents choose to stop breastfeeding at any stage.

We know that choosing to stop breastfeeding isn't always easy and the process can be very emotional. So, we've gathered some tips and information to support you when you decide the time is right to transition way from breastfeeding.

When to stop breastfeeding

Breast milk has great benefits for babies. Both the WHO and UNICEF encourage breastfeeding on demand for the first six months, and in Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends exclusive breastfeeding for around six months until solid foods are introduced. They also advise that if possible, breastfeeding should continue alongside solid foods till 12 months and beyond. 

Some babies decide when they're ready and will naturally start decreasing the number of feeds they have when they start weaning. The truth is, the decision to wean off breastfeeding is a very personal one and no two parent's experiences are the same.

When and however you approach moving away from breastfeeds, it's best to take the process slowly so that your baby has time to get used to the change in their diet and routine, and so that your breast milk supply can reduce gradually.

Why you may want to stop breastfeeding early

Even though the benefits of breastfeeding are widely known, and the World Health Organization recommends that you only give your baby breast milk for the first six months, you can choose to stop breastfeeding at any time.

You shouldn't compare yourself to others, and instead, do what's best for you and your baby. Breastfeeding parents choose to stop for several reasons. For example, they may be:

  • Having difficulty breastfeeding: Their baby may have a tongue tie or be struggling to feed efficiently and not gaining weight. Some mums also experience painful nipples, or struggle with their milk supply.
  • Returning to work: Even though this doesn't mean you have to stop breastfeeding, you may wish to switch to combination feeding your baby. You can express milk and then bottle feed if you're travelling without your baby or returning to work.
  • Taking medication that affects breastfeeding.
  • Pregnant again and finding breastfeeding challenging.
  • Just feeling like it's the right time: The bottom line is it's up to you how long you choose to continue to breastfeed.

If you're unsure whether you need to or should stop breastfeeding, don't hesitate to ask a healthcare professional for further advice and support.

The emotional impact of stopping breastfeeding

Whenever you choose to stop breastfeeding, it's so important to remember that you've given your baby a great start in life. No matter how you're feeling about the process, remember to share your thoughts and emotions with others - you're not alone!

Tips to stop breastfeeding safely

When the time comes for you to wean your baby off breastfeeding, there's no right or wrong way to do so. However, lots of parents find that stopping breastfeeding happens gradually as their little one grows and begins to eat solid or pureed foods.

  • Replacing feeds: Stopping gradually by replacing some feeds with expressed breast milk or formula in a bottle can prevent painful problems like overfull or engorged breasts and mastitis. It also gives both you and your baby time to adjust emotionally and physically.
  • Going to natural term: Some parents choose to breastfeed to 'natural term' and let their little one choose when to stop. This usually happens gradually over a period of months. By following a never offer, never refuse approach, you'll notice your little one's feeding sessions become shorter and more infrequent, and then eventually stop altogether.

It's important to note that guidelines state that milk feeds shouldn't completely stop once they're eating solids.

If you and your baby have decided it's time to wean and your little one is younger than 12 months old:

  • Give them expressed breast milk or infant formula in place of direct breastfeeds.

If you and your baby have decided it's time to wean and your little one is 12 months or older:

From the age of six months, little ones can drink sips of water alongside their meals.

How long does it take to stop breastfeeding?

The timeline for stopping breastfeeding and drying up your breast milk isn't a set one and can take anywhere between a few weeks to months - the journey is different for everyone. Overall, the best advice is to tackle the transition gradually and be patient with yourself, your baby, and your body.

How to stop breastfeeding at night

By the age of 12 months, most little ones get enough nutrition for their growth and development from their meals through the day, and some parents choose to gradually phase out night-time feeds as a starting point when it comes to stopping breastfeeding.

Some babies find breastfeeding at night comforting and according to La Leche League, most evidence suggests that night-weaning is best left until after baby is around 18 months - and it may be easier to cut down on feeds at this age.

If your little one still wants to feed during the night for comfort, but you'd like to move away from directly breastfeeding, you could try using a bottle to give them expressed breast milk or formula.

Further help to stop breastfeeding

If you're looking for support to continue your breastfeeding journey, you can reach out to a lactation consultant or a breastfeeding support group. Other parents are also a great place to turn for help and advice. If you're experiencing problems when trying to stop breastfeeding, you should seek advice and support from your health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist.

How to stop milk production when you're not breastfeeding

As a general rule, the longer you've breastfed, the longer it will take for your breast milk supply to dry up. If you don't pump or breastfeed, your body should stop producing milk gradually over time, but it won't happen straight away.

You may decide to wait and let your breast milk supply dry up naturally. Alternatively, you may consider certain medications that can speed up the process. Parents who experience the loss of a baby often want to stop producing milk as soon as possible.

Birth control medication and decongestants can sometimes help speed up the process of drying up your breast milk supply, but every situation is unique. You should discuss the process and your options with a lactation counsellor or your health care provider before you choose a route that's right for you.

These additional tips can also help stop breast milk production:

  • Avoid eating lactogenic foods. These include grains like oats, cornmeal, barley like porridge or other oat-based cereals, nuts and seeds including sesame, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, and almonds, and some fruits and vegetables including mushrooms, broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, lettuce, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and cherries.
  • Avoid extra-hot showers and warm compresses. Warm water can trigger breast milk production.
  • Avoid breast and nipple stimulation.
  • Decrease breastfeeds and pumping sessions.

Some people experience discomfort and fluctuating emotions during the weaning process. These tips can help provide relief:

  • Wear a well-fitting bra
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers with advice from a pharmacist
  • Use a cold compress to ease pain and reduce swelling
  • Wear breast pads to absorb any unexpected leaks
  • Prioritise rest and nutrition to regulate your hormones
  • Talk to friends or a breastfeeding support group about how you're feeling.

Can I restart breastfeeding after I've stopped?

Yes, you can. Stopping breastfeeding doesn't have to be permanent. But starting again can take time and does depend on how well-established your milk supply is. Not everyone will be able to go back to producing enough breast milk to meet their baby's needs.

These tips can help you restart breast milk production:

  • Expressing breast milk by hand or using a pump and offering your breast to your baby can encourage your body to start making breast milk again.
  • Practising skin-to-skin contact with your baby can trigger re-lactation.

You should reach out to your midwife, health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist for help if you'd like to start breastfeeding your baby again.

It's best to stop breastfeeding gradually. Not only does this give baby time to get used to the changes to their routine and diet, but it can also be beneficial for your body.

If you stop breastfeeding too quickly, you may encounter side effects like clogged milk ducts, engorgement and an infection called mastitis. To avoid these uncomfortable conditions, it's best to wean your baby off breastfeeding gradually and seek medical advice to help you choose the best way for you.

Hormonal changes and the fact that breastfeeding can burn up to an extra 500 calories a day sometimes mean that some mums lose weight while breastfeeding, and these factors can also mean that some people put on weight when they stop breastfeeding. However, this isn't a guarantee, everyone's different and some women actually lose weight after stopping, the most important thing is that you maintain a healthy diet and stay active.

Weaning off breastfeeding is emotional for everyone involved. Here are some tips to help your mini-me cope with the transition:

  • Offer them a soother to suck on instead of your nipple.
  • Give them plenty of liquids and solid foods (if age appropriate) and check in with your doctor to make sure that they're getting all the nutrition they need.
  • Spend lots of time cuddling and bonding with them in different ways other than breastfeeding.
  • If your little one associates certain times of day - like bedtime - with breastfeeding, ask your partner or a family member to step in and bottle feed them while you're weaning.