When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?

As a breastfeeding mother, you may have run into your share of people who are shocked to find out you are still nursing and others who can’t believe you are thinking about weaning already. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but who’s right?

The truth is that each mother and each baby are an individual, and every nursing relationship is unique. The only people who get a real say in when you should stop breastfeeding are you and your baby. Since there are no hard and fast rules for when you should wean your baby, you may be feeling confused or unsure about how to approach the decision. Taking a look at your own particular set of circumstances is often the best way to start.

When to stop breast feeding

Here are some points to consider that can help you assess how ready you and your baby might be to stop breastfeeding.

What is the Professional Recommendation?

The World Health Organization offers a three-part recommendation:

1. Exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months.
2. Until the age of two, continue breastfeeding to a lesser extent as solid foods gradually make up more of a baby’s diet.
3. Continue nursing for a longer period of time if the mother and the baby both desire.

However, just because this recommendation exists doesn’t mean it is realistic for your specific situation. You are the one who is in the best position to make the decision that works for your family.

Signs You May be Ready to Stop Breastfeeding

Even good things must come to an end, and feeling ready to move on from the breastfeeding stage is nothing to be ashamed of. If you are experiencing these signs, you may be emotionally ready to start weaning your child.

  • You Want a Little More Freedom. Nursing a baby is a huge commitment of time and energy, and it can require a mother to make a number of sacrifices along the way. As you see your child becoming more self-sufficient, getting back to hobbies, projects, traveling or whatever you have had to put on hold looks like more of a reality. You have dedicated a large portion of yourself to your child as you nursed them, and you should feel proud of your accomplishment! Is your child is thriving on solid food and drinking well from a cup? If they are, it may be time to pick up some of those lapsed interests again.
  • You Feel That It’s Time for a New Chapter. As your child grows, your relationship with them will grow and change as well. Part of the growing-up process is allowing your child to gain some independence and find ways to soothe and care for themselves. It’s likely that you are ready to begin weaning if you are looking forward to new ways of relating to your child outside of nursing, and you feel an overall sense of peace that the breastfeeding chapter of life may be drawing to a close.

Signs Your Child May be Ready to Stop Breastfeeding

All children will mature and hit certain milestones in their own time. Be on the lookout for the following clues that your child is reaching the stage where they are ready to move beyond breastfeeding.

  • They are showing less interest in nursing. This is probably the biggest sign you should look for. Your child could be ready to wean if they are asking to nurse less often, can be distracted from nursing or if missing a usual feeding session doesn’t cause a big disruption.
  • They have other comfort techniques. Since weaning is just as much about your child being emotionally ready as physically ready, it is important to follow their cues as much as possible. Can your child be soothed with a hug or sitting on your lap rather than needing to nurse for comfort? If so, they may be displaying emotional readiness to wean.
  • They are eating solids well. If your child is taking in a variety of protein, carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, it’s likely that they are able to get all the nutrition they need from solid foods. If you have any concerns about your child’s diet or whether they are getting enough nutrients, make an appointment with your child’s doctor. They can provide reassurance that your child is growing well and help you make a plan for including any nutrients that might be missing.
  • They are able to drink from a cup. Since breast milk contains a high percentage of water, you need to make sure your child is able to get enough liquid from another source before you begin weaning. If your child uses a cup to drink the recommended amount of fluids for their age, they should be ready to move beyond breast milk.

Weaning Reasons That Aren’t So Good

While there are totally legitimate reasons a mother may want to wean her child, some other factors are definitely NOT good reasons to stop breastfeeding.

  • Pressure From Other People. While you certainly can and should share your thoughts and feelings about weaning with your partner, family and friends, their opinions should remain just that: opinions. You are the one who needs to have the final say in the decision of when to stop nursing.
  • Difficulties That Usually Prove to be Temporary. Most babies will go through phases of decreased interest in nursing. Some of these phases could happen when your baby is teething, learning a new skill or they are just too fascinated with the world around them to focus on nursing. Especially when these incidents occur in babies that are younger than one year, they usually do not mean your baby is telling you they are ready to wean. If you are persistent in offering the breast, it’s likely that your baby will resume their normal nursing habits soon.
  • Fear of Social Judgement. Decisions made out of fear often don’t turn out well. If you fear that strangers may think your child is “too old” to be nursed, you might be giving people you don’t even know far too much power over your life. You are the one who knows your baby and what they need best. Even though it’s easier said than done, do your best to ignore any negative comments or disapproving looks.

Weaning Methods

Once the time feels right to begin weaning, you have some options to choose from.

  • Self-weaning. Some babies will initiate weaning on their own and will start to refuse to nurse even after the mother repeatedly offers. Babies who self-wean are almost always over 12 months of age, are eating solid food and drinking well from a cup. Even if they do not self-wean early on, all children will eventually wean themselves, usually somewhere between the ages of two and four. For most families, that time frame is simply not practical and weaning will be initiated by the mother.
  • Slow Weaning. This is by far the most common method of weaning. Some women take several months to complete the process. Nursing sessions are eliminated one by one, allowing the mother and the baby to have the time they need to adjust emotionally and physically.
  • Rapid Weaning. Choose a date to have your last nursing session and then follow through. While this method may be appropriate in certain extreme cases, it is usually not recommended. Sudden weaning could prove to be a very difficult transition for your child to make and could also have some negative impacts on your health, such as engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis.

Changes You Might Experience When You Stop Breastfeeding

The hormones oxytocin and prolactin are responsible for milk production, and your body releases these hormones in response to your baby’s nursing.

As your baby breastfeeds less often, your body will produce smaller amounts of oxytocin and prolactin. The result will be less milk production.

Due to these changing hormone levels, you may experience some emotional highs and lows as your body adjusts. Gradual weaning allows your body to slowly regulate these levels and can help you avoid the sudden drop in hormones that fast weaning can bring about.

Unfortunately, you may find some extra weight creeping on after weaning. Milk production requires about 300 to 500 calories a day, so you may want to either eliminate some calories daily or increase exercise time to make up the difference.

How Long Will Your Body Produce Breast Milk After Weaning?

Every woman’s body will vary in the time it takes for her breasts to completely stop making milk. However, your nursing habits prior to weaning can make a considerable difference.

The more time you spend gradually reducing feedings, the more time your breasts have to gradually reduce milk production. If you were nursing very little before the last feed, you can usually expect your milk to be completely gone in a few days to a couple of weeks.

If you stop nursing more suddenly, your breasts won’t have the chance to reduce production very much and you may still be making milk for several weeks.

Is it Possible to Stop Breastfeeding Too Soon?

Breast milk consists of an incredible mix of nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, enzymes and immune cells. It goes without saying that the longer a baby gets this nourishment, the better.

However, no matter how long you have nursed your baby, you have done an amazing job of providing these vital nutrients, and nothing can ever take them away from your baby. If you have reached the conclusion that weaning is the best choice for yourself, your baby and your family, the time is right.

Whether your experience with breastfeeding has been smooth or you have had some bumps along the way, the nursing relationship between a mother and baby is special and should be cherished for as long as you and your baby both want to.

When you are trying to come to the decision of when to stop breastfeeding, taking the time to learn about some common signs of weaning readiness and what you might be able to expect can help you reach the decision that is best for you.