Early Weaning From Breastfeeding

Reasons, Consequences, and Prevention

Baby Being Bottle Fed

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Weaning from breastfeeding means starting to breastfeed less and replacing breastfeeding with another source of nutrition, such as infant formula or solid foods. When a baby fully weans, he or she is no longer getting any nutrition from breastfeeding. The natural weaning process typically begins when a baby starts solid foods at about six months of age. Early weaning is when a baby stops breastfeeding before natural weaning begins.

The Reasons Women Wean Early

Some mothers choose to wean early, and others have to stop breastfeeding before they want to. Here are some of the many reasons a mother may wean sooner than expected:

  1. Pain: Pain is perhaps the most common reason for early weaning, and it’s understandable. However, breastfeeding should not hurt. Many of the usual breastfeeding problems such as sore nipples, breast engorgement, plugged milk ducts, and mastitis can lead to pain. If you can find and treat the underlying cause, it can help you to keep breastfeeding longer.
  2. Concern over a low milk supply: It is rare that a mother cannot make enough breast milk for her child. Most moms can make enough even if they think they can’t. If you feel you have a low breast milk supply, talk to your doctor or a lactation professional before you give up.
  3. Lack of support: It is difficult to continue to breastfeed if you don’t have support. Studies show that the approval and encouragement of a partner is one of the most important factors that predict the duration and success of breastfeeding. A breastfeeding woman’s mother and her friends are others whose support or lack thereof can influence early weaning.
  4. Fatigue: Healing from childbirth and making breast milk takes up a lot of energy. If you also have other children and responsibilities, you may feel even more drained. It can be difficult to breastfeed when you’re always exhausted.
  1. Return to work or school: Some moms have to return to work or school within weeks of having their child. It can be tough and time consuming to pump at work.
  2. Breastfeeding difficulty: When a baby is born with a medical issue such as a tongue-tie or a cleft lip, breastfeeding can be frustrating and challenging to continue.
  3. The need to begin medication or treatments: Many prescription medications are safe to take while you’re breastfeeding, but some are not. For example, chemotherapy drugs for cancer and radioactive iodine for an overactive thyroid are not compatible with breastfeeding, so weaning is necessary.
  4. Embarrassment: Breastfeeding tends to expose part of your breast. While some women aren’t bothered by it and can breastfeed anywhere at any time, others are more modest and may even feel anxious about breastfeeding around others especially in public. It’s possible to practice and become very good at breastfeeding discreetly, but even then, some moms are just too embarrassed and prefer to stay covered. As the baby grows, staying covered can become even more difficult, so some moms choose to wean.
  1. The desire to have another child: It can be more challenging to get pregnant again when you’re breastfeeding. Even more so during the first six months if you’re breastfeeding exclusively. Some women, especially older moms or moms who have struggled with infertility and fear it may take a long time to have another child, may decide to stop breastfeeding after six weeks or a few months to try to get pregnant again right away.

The Reasons to Try to Avoid Early Weaning

Research shows that breastfeeding provides your child with many health benefits. Breast milk is easily digestible, and it contains all the nutrients a baby needs as well as antibodies and immune properties to prevent infections and illness. When a child is weaned early, he may miss out on some of these benefits:

  • Babies who breastfeed are less likely to get some of the common childhood illnesses such as ear infections, diarrhea, and upper respiratory infections.
  • Breastfeeding can decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Breastfeeding can help to prevent digestive issues that can develop from infant formulas or the start of solid foods too early.
  • A breastfed baby has a lower risk of developing health problems such as eczema and certain childhood cancers.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood obesity and the issues that go along with it including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Studies also show that breastfeeding is favorable for mothers. By continuing to breastfeed longer, moms may receive these health advantages:

  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in later life.
  • It can lower the chances of ovarian, uterine, and breast cancer.
  • It may decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

How to Prevent Early Weaning

Not only does breastfeeding provide a variety of health and developmental benefits for your child, but the longer you breastfeed, the greater they will be. The benefits of breastfeeding can also last into adulthood. So, it is good for you and your child if you can continue to breastfeed longer. Here are some of the things you can do to prevent early weaning.

  1. Find your support. If you feel as though you’re not getting enough support from family and friends, join a local breastfeeding group.
  2. Maintain a healthy supply of breast milk. Breastfeed your baby often, and avoid bottles and pacifiers, if possible. If you’re worried that your milk supply is low, there are ways you can work to increase it.
  3. Find out about the common breastfeeding problems. By learning about the typical issues that breastfeeding mothers face, you will understand how to treat them and prevent them. You will be more likely to continue breastfeeding through them instead of giving up.
  4. Take care of yourself: If you can get some rest, drink enough fluids, and take in enough calories, it can make all the difference. And, when you’re feeling exhausted and need a break or a nap, it's OK to ask your partner, family, and friends for help.
  5. Wait to introduce solid foods into your child’s diet. Wait until your baby's doctor recommends adding baby foods at approximately six months, and begin to add them slowly. If you give your child too much solid food, she may not breastfeed as well. Also, during the first year, you can breastfeed first before offering solids. Then, after one year, additional foods can become a more substantial part of her daily diet.

    Weaning Before You’re Ready

    Early weaning could also mean having to wean before you planned. Weaning before you’re ready can be disappointing and stressful. You may feel guilty that breastfeeding didn’t work out or sad and cheated out of an experience you had hoped for. Weaning, in general, can lead to feelings of sadness and depression, even more so if you weren’t ready to stop. If you need to take time to grieve the loss of the breastfeeding experience, that's OK.

    As difficult as it may be, try to focus on the special time you were able to spend breastfeeding and remember that any amount of breast milk that your child received is beneficial. Breastfeeding is only one small piece in a lifetime of parenting. There will be so many other wonderful things you will experience with your child as she grows.

    What Is the Right Age to Wean From Breastfeeding?

    There is no right or wrong age to wean a child from the breast, but there are recommendations. The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months, and the continuation of breastfeeding along with the addition of new foods for one year. After that, the AAP states that you should continue to breastfeed for as long as you and your child wish to do so. The World Health Organization advises mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months and continue to breastfeed along with complementary foods for two years or longer. In many places around the world, women breastfeed their children for over two years.

    Recommendations are general guidelines and suggestions that experts come up with based on research and the current information available. If possible, you are advised to try to meet the recommendations. However, that is not always easy or what you wish to do. On top of that, you may have outspoken family members and friends who have their own ideas about how long you should breastfeed. But, after weighing all your options, only you and your partner know what’s best for your family. It is certainly OK to choose to wean when you feel the time is right for you and your child.

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