How to Wean and Why It Doesn't Make You a Bad Mom

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It seems that moms can’t catch a break when it comes to feeding their babies. They are judged when breastfeeding doesn’t work out for some reason, and choose to formula feed. They are judged for nursing their baby too often—or not nursing their baby enough.

They are judged when they need to supplement, or when they ask for extra time to pump at work. They are judged for breastfeeding in public, and they are judged for feeding their baby a bottle of pumped milk at the park. But it seems that breastfeeding moms face the most scrutiny at the very end—the time when they decide to wean from breastfeeding.

The decision to wean your baby—whether it’s at three weeks or three years—is a deeply personal decision. It’s a decision each mom has to make given her personal circumstances and emotional reality. It’s not a decision that others should judge a mom about at all.

Yet so many moms face extreme judgement on all sides when it comes to weaning from breastfeeding. Let’s look at what that experience is like, what to do about it, and how to wean on your own terms, and in your own time.

Weaning Is a Deeply Personal Decision

The time when a mother decides that breastfeeding is over for her is one that is extremely personal, and based on her life details—details that she may or may not wish to share with others. Some mothers choose to wean because breastfeeding is exasperating mental health struggles.

Some mothers choose to wean because they are faced with an unsupportive work environment. Some mothers choose to wean for medical reasons. Some mothers choose to wean because breastfeeding just isn’t what they want to be doing right now.

You can’t always know why a mom is making this choice, and the truth is that it’s not really any one’s business but the mother’s, her family’s, and her doctor’s. Usually the reasons why a mother has made this choice are personal, and she may not want to share them.

Remember, this is about this mom’s body, and what she wants to do with it. It’s about her relationship with her child and how she wants to navigate that. It’s about what food and health choices she wants to make for herself and baby in consultation with her doctors.

Just as you couldn’t judge someone for what clothing they are wearing, or what foods they are consuming, you should not judge a woman for when and how she decides to wean her child.

How To Deal With Weaning Judgment

Weaning doesn’t mean you are a bad mom!

When you are considering weaning from breastfeeding, it may seem like everyone and their mother (literally!) has an opinion about how long you should breastfeed, and when and how you should end the breastfeeding relationship. This can be extremely stressful and make any already fraught decision that much more difficult.

It can be hard to silence others’ opinions, but for your own mental health, it may be important to politely tell others that you don’t wish to hear their opinions right now. You are allowed to express this sentiment if the people around you are overstepping their boundaries. Some people may not realize that sharing their opinions about your weaning process is not welcome or appropriate.

If you are a mom feeling that judgement, you should know that what others’ think about your decision is really something they are going through. Their judgment may not be comfortable for you to listen to or be exposed to, but they can’t decide what you are going to do about weaning. Remember: it’s your body, your baby, and your choice.

Reasons Why Moms Wean

If you are considering weaning at any time during your breastfeed tenure, you may be asking yourself if you have a valid reason for weaning. You should know that there are many reasons why someone weaning from breastfeeding, and that any reason is valid if it’s a reason that resonates with you, and that applies to your life situation.

Here are some of the reasons moms choose to wean from breastfeeding:

  • If breastfeeding continues to be uncomfortable, even after working on correcting any latching or positioning issues
  • If you are feeling “touched out” by breastfeeding
  • If you are finding that breastfeeding is triggering mental health issues for you
  • If you are having trouble balancing working, pumping, and breastfeeding
  • If you are just feeling “done,” and ready to move on to the next chapter in your life
  • If you are pregnant again, and don’t want to breastfeed while pregnant (breastfeeding while pregnant is considered safe most of the time, but that doesn’t mean all mothers want to do it)
  • If you are unable to produce a full supply of milk and breastfeeding and supplementing is exhausting
  • If you have a history of sexual abuse and find breastfeeding triggering
  • If you need to wean to take a medication that is contraindicated for breastfeeding (most medications are compatible with breastfeeding, or have substitutes that are, but sometimes this is not the case)
  • If you need to receive cancer treatments
  • If you will need to be separated from your baby for a long period—for example, for military service

How to Wean From Breastfeeding

Making the decision to wean can be difficult enough, especially if you are feeling pressure on all sides regarding your decision. But once you have made the decision to wean, actually figuring out the best way to do it for yourself and your baby can feel tricky. So let’s talk about ways to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.

The best way to wean is to do it gradually, so that your baby has time to get used to their new feeding method, and that your body has time to adjust. If you wean too abruptly, you risk becoming engorged, and possibly getting clogged ducts or mastitis (a breast infection that can be brought on by too much milk left in the breasts). You also risk having your hormones crash suddenly, which can lead to post-weaning depression.

The method you use for weaning will also depend on factors like the age of your baby, what other foods or milks your baby consumes, and your life circumstances—such as whether you work, pump, or have other people to help you with baby care and feeding.

Weaning Abruptly 

Occasionally, moms need to wean suddenly—for example, if they are experiencing a medical emergency or other unforeseen event. In this case, pumping or hand expressing for a few days might be necessary. You can pump just enough to not become engorged, but not so much that you keep your supply going.

You may want to use cold cabbage leaves or ice packs to help with swelling; some herbal teas may be helpful in helping you abruptly decrease your supply. You can consult your doctor for herbs or medicines that might help decrease your supply.

How to Wean a Baby Under Six Months Old

If your baby is under six months old, their diet is still 100% milk-based, or close to that. So if you were breastfeeding exclusively or almost exclusively, you will need to replace all of your baby’s breastmilk with formula.

Cow milk or other milks are not appropriate substitutes for babies under 12 months; and babies under six months are not eating enough solid foods for those to substitute their breastmilk feedings. You can ask your doctor for a formula recommendation.

Before weaning a baby, you will want to make sure they are comfortable feeding from a bottle. You may need to try several different bottle nipples before you find one that works for you. It may be helpful to have someone other than mom do these feedings, if possible.

Usually, what you will want to do is drop one feeding every few days, or one feeding a week, depending on how your body adjusts to the decrease. You can do this one of several ways:

  • You can choose a feeding to simply drop and replace that with a bottle of formula.
  • You can gradually decrease your baby’s time nursing until that feeding goes away, and is replaced by a bottle of formula.
  • You can try to stretch the times between feedings out so that one of the feedings naturally drops.

How to Wean a Baby Over Six Months Old

Weaning older babies is similar to weaning younger babies, in that you want to drop one feeding every few days and replace it with something else. For babies over six months old, a solid food meal might suffice for at least some of the dropped feedings.

But keep in mind that babies under 12 months will still also need to be consuming formula in addition to solid foods. Older babies don't need to transition from breast to bottles; you can try a sippy cup, a cup with a straw, or an open cup.

How to Wean If You Are an Exclusive Pumper

Weaning as an exclusive pumper can be hard, because you know that stopping pumping cold turkey will lead to very full and uncomfortable breasts. As with all weaning, it’s about going gradually. For example:

  • Aim to drop one session every few days
  • Check in with yourself: if you are becoming engorged, you may have to slow down; if you aren’t becoming engorged, you can speed up a little
  • You can also try spacing out feedings gradually until you are able to drop pumping sessions, one by one
  • You can start by decreasing the number of minutes you pump or the number of ounces you pump

How to Wean If You Nurse and Pump

If you are someone who pumps and nurses, you can decide whether you want to wean from a pumping session or a nursing session first. Some people find the pumping sessions easier to wean from emotionally; others prefer to wean from direct breastfeeding. Do what works for you, but go gradually whenever possible.

How to Wean Your Toddler

Weaning a toddler is different from weaning a baby, because you are dealing with someone who doesn’t need nursing quite so much for nutrition, but who may be very attached to nursing and very vocal about this! Weaning a toddler involves some gentle conversations, substitution of nursing sessions with other foods and fun activities, distractions, and extra snuggles for the missed times of closeness that nursing provides.

Weaning Doesn’t Have To Be All Or Nothing

Keep in mind that with all weaning decisions, it’s not all or nothing. At any point, you can decide that partial breastfeeding is where it’s at for you. If you are working, you can supplement with formula while you are gone and breastfeed while you are with your baby (as long as you breastfeed regularly, you will keep up the supply that your baby demands).

If you are dealing with an older baby or toddler, sometimes just dropping the nighttime sessions or confining to nursing to once or twice a day is enough to take off the pressure and make you feel comfortable continuing to nurse.

Mental Health Impact of Weaning

You may find that you are only able to fully bond with your baby after weaning, because breastfeeding was such a stressful experience for you. It’s okay if that’s your reality, too. Remember, there is no one right way to do this, or one right way to feel. It’s all about what works for you, your baby, and your family.

If the decision to wean, or the weaning process is triggering feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, make sure to reach out to your doctor or a therapist. Postpartum mood disorders can last through the first year or more after you’ve had a baby, and sometimes life events like weaning can intensify postpartum moods.

Really, any difficult feelings you may be having about weaning may be too difficult for you to navigate alone—it’s always best to reach out to a professional if your feelings are hard for you to manage. You deserve compassionate care at times like these.

A Word From Verywell

Even if weaning was a decision you felt clear and confident about, it’s common to have mixed feelings about weaning your baby. After all, breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby; when that ends, you might feel sadness.

That’s normal. It’s almost important to remember that your shifting hormones may make you feel emotional at this time. Even a slow weaning causes a hormonal shift that many mothers experience as a wave of heightened emotions.

Keep in mind that whatever closeness you felt with your baby isn’t lost. If breastfeeding helped you bond with your baby, that’s wonderful—but that was just the start. There will be many opportunities for you to bond with your baby in the future. Babies continue to love to be snuggled as they bottlefeed or as they fall asleep or wake up. You will continue to be that special, safe place for your baby.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.