Sudden Weaning From Breastfeeding

Mother comforting crying baby
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Sudden weaning, also called abrupt weaning, is the quick end of breastfeeding. Sometimes weaning has to happen quickly because of an unexpected situation or a medical emergency. Whether it's deliberate or can't be helped, sudden weaning can have more of an effect on you, your body, and your baby than you might realize.

Sudden vs. Gradual Weaning

With sudden weaning, you may not have the time to prepare yourself and your child for the physical and emotional changes that you're likely to experience. When your body doesn't have a chance to adjust to the quick changes, weaning can be more difficult, even painful.

Sudden weaning is the opposite of gradual weaning, a slow transition from breastfeeding to another source of nutrition. If you have the option, gradual weaning is recommended. Tapering off of breastfeeding is easier on your body, so you may not experience some of the breast problems or other weaning-related issues that can develop.

Plus, gradual weaning is often less traumatic for children. Breastfeeding provides nutrition, but more than that, it's a source of comfort and security. While some children can give up breastfeeding without a fuss, others will have a much harder time, especially when it happens too quickly.

When Does Sudden Weaning Happen?

There are definitely circumstances that require sudden weaning, such as medical emergencies. However, in many situations, sudden weaning can be avoided. Talk to your doctor or a lactation consultant to find out if it's really necessary or if there's another option. Some reasons for sudden weaning include:

  • A new medication: There are certain prescription drugs that you cannot take while you're breastfeeding. If your doctor prescribes a new drug that's not compatible with breastfeeding, ask if there's an alternative that is safe. Of course, if your health depends on a medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding, such as chemotherapy drugs to fight cancer, then you will have no choice but to wean.
  • Illness, hospitalization, or surgery: If you get sick with a mild illness, such as a cold or a stomach bug, you can continue to breastfeed. But if you have a serious illness, you have to be hospitalized, or you need surgery, you may have to stop breastfeeding abruptly. If it's your baby who is sick, breast milk can be very helpful. If possible, continue to breastfeed or pump for your baby.
  • Separation from a child: When you have to be away from your baby for an extended period, such as for a military deployment, you won't be able to breastfeed. If you plan to breastfeed again when you return home, pump to maintain your supply. You can even send your breast milk home to your baby. Of course, this can be challenging and time-consuming, so many people choose to stop breastfeeding instead.
  • Pressure from others: Criticism and pressure from a partner, family, friends, or even a health care provider who doesn't support or understand breastfeeding can cause a parent to decide to wean suddenly, especially if the child is a little older.
  • A new pregnancy: It is not always necessary to stop breastfeeding because of a new pregnancy. But since breastfeeding can cause uterine contractions, if you are at a high risk of miscarriage or premature birth, weaning may be the safer option.

How Sudden Weaning Affects Parents

Weaning has physical, hormonal, and emotional effects on the breastfeeding parent. When you wean gradually, you can prepare and adjust to the changes over time. But when weaning is sudden, it can have a greater impact on you and your body, with effects such as:

  • Painful breast engorgement
  • Breast infection, plugged milk ducts, or a breast abscess due to engorgement
  • Milk fever, a flu-like condition with symptoms such as fever, chills, and muscle weakness
  • Leaky breasts (it could take many months for milk to dry up completely)
  • Return of your period and your fertility

Sudden Weaning and Depression

When weaning is sudden or unexpected, it can be disappointing. If weaning was not something that you wanted, it can bring about a sense of sadness, anger, or guilt. Even if you were looking forward to the end of breastfeeding, you may be surprised to find yourself feeling a down when it ends abruptly. The sadness may be even greater if you have suffered from depression in the past.

Talk to your partner, family, and friends and let them know how you're feeling. You can also join a local breastfeeding group or reach out to other breastfeeding parents in an online support community. If you've experienced depression or a psychiatric issue in the past, talk to your doctor. Since the hormone changes can affect you in many ways, you may need to be followed more closely during this time.

Coping With Sudden Weaning

While sudden weaning can be uncomfortable and sad, there are some things you can do to help you get through it. To ease physical discomfort, remove a little breast milk. Hand express or pump to relieve the pressure and ease the pain. But only pump enough to feel better. If you remove breast milk too much or too often, your body will continue to make even more.

Wear a bra that's supportive but not too tight. Gentle, even pressure on your breasts can feel good. Choosing a bra that's too restrictive or trying to bind your breasts could lead to plugged milk ducts or a breast infection.

Cold cabbage leaves, cold compresses, or ice packs can relieve the inflammation and pain of swollen engorged breasts. With continued use, cold compresses can also help to decrease milk production. Talk to your doctor about taking Motrin or Tylenol to help relieve the pain. Milk-reducing herbs, such as sage, parsley, and peppermint, may help to decrease the supply of breast milk.

Keep breast pads handy. The engorgement from sudden weaning can build up the pressure in your breasts. That pressure can cause leaking at random times, especially when you hear your baby cry. Be prepared and prevent stains by wearing breast pads in your bra to soak up any milk that leaks.

How Sudden Weaning Affects Children

Gradual weaning allows a child to slowly adjust to a new source of food and the loss of the comfort and security that breastfeeding provides. So when breastfeeding ends quickly, it can affect your little one in many ways.

Babies may refuse to take a bottle, especially if their breastfeeding parent is the one trying to give it t them. They may have a difficult time giving up breastfeeding and understanding that breastfeeding has to end. They may be fussy, sad, or even angry at you for not letting them breastfeed.

Babies may be more likely to get sick. Breastfeeding helps to prevent some common childhood illnesses, so the sudden weaning of a newborn or young infant can put them at greater risk for ear infections and respiratory infections.

Helping Your Child With Weaning

If you aren't against using a pacifier, you can offer it to your baby to satisfy their natural need for sucking. Also see if your child likes a security item such a special blanket or a teddy bear.

If your child refuses to take a bottle from you, let someone else try to give it to them, especially if they have never had a feeding in a bottle before. If your baby is closer to 6 months old, skip the bottle and transition straight to a cup instead.

Distract older children during the times you would normally be breastfeeding and start a new routine. Take a walk, play a game, or offer a big kid snack and drink.

No matter your child's age, give extra attention in other ways. Replace breastfeeding sessions with other tender moments of cuddling, singing, reading, and just being together.

What to Feed Your Child When You Wean

You'll need to provide another form of nutrition. If you have stored breast milk in your freezer, you can continue to give your child breast milk. But if you don't have breast milk available, what you feed your baby will depend on your child's age.

For babies under 1 year old, your child's doctor will recommend an infant formula. A child around 6 months old can begin to eat solid baby food along with the infant formula. You can continue solid foods along with infant formula for one year.

After your child's first birthday, more of their nutrition should be coming from foods, so you can usually transition from infant formula to cow's milk. However, some children use toddler formula instead of cow's milk. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about your feeding options and your child's needs.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weaning.

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Women's Health. Weaning your baby.

  3. Grueger B. Weaning from the breast. Paediatr Child Health. 2004;9(4):249-63. doi:10.1093/pch/18.4.210

  4. Ystrom E. Breastfeeding cessation and symptoms of anxiety and depression: a longitudinal cohort study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2012;12:36. doi:10.1186/1471-2393-12-36

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When, what, and how to introduce solid foods.

Additional Reading
  • Lawrence RA, Lawrence RM. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2015.

  • Riordan J, Wambach K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2014.

By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Honor Society of Nursing.