The process of stopping breastfeeding for a baby is called weaning. In general there is no concensus as to when a mother should stop breastfeeding their babies. Some cultures see it as something that should be continued as much as is possible sometimes past the baby’s first birthday while others try to make it only as long as is essential (mostly less than a year)
It is up to you and your baby to decide when the time is right. The World Health Organization recommends that all babies be exclusively breastfed for six months, then gradually introduced to appropriate family foods after six months while continuing to breastfeed for two years or beyond.
Some babies decrease the number of breastfeeds as they begin to be able to digest solid food. The first foods are really tastes and not much is digested or able to be used by the baby. It is often not until nine to 12 months or later that babies are able to actually ingest (swallow) and use the solid foods that they eat.
Breastmilk in the first year
Breastmilk contains all the nourishment needed to promote normal healthy growth and development in babies in their first six months of life and remains the most important food during their first year. Babies weaned from breastmilk prior to their first birthday will need to be given infant formula. Please consult your maternal and child health nurse for further information on this.
Infant formulas are generally not necessary after the first 12 months, as your child should be then receiving a large range of family foods including dairy products.
Stopping breastfeeding early
Sometimes, weaning needs to happen earlier or more quickly than planned. It is normal for a mother to feel sad when she weans, especially if it is earlier than expected. A mother may feel she has no choice but to wean. However, most breastfeeding difficulties can be overcome with help. An Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor, lactation consultant or maternal and child health nurse can offer you information and support.
Returning to the paid workforce need not mean having to wean. Many women combine breastfeeding with part or full-time work, study and other commitments.
Take your time to wean your baby
Depending on your baby’s age and need for sucking, you can wean either to a cup or bottle. If you decide on a bottle, eventually your baby will need to be weaned from that. Start with whichever breastfeed of the day your baby seems least interested in. Then cut out another breastfeed every few days or even each week, depending on your comfort and your baby’s willingness to cooperate.
The concentration of antibodies to bacterial and viral diseases is increased as weaning progresses and milk supply reduces. This ensures that your baby is protected as they are being introduced to new foods and exploring new surroundings. Remember to give your baby plenty of cuddles during the weaning process so that you and your baby still have plenty of close time together.
Slowly reducing the number of breastfeeds protects your baby during the weaning period and will also help you avoid problems such as mastitis. If you need to wean your baby quickly, talk to a healthcare professional or a lactation consultant about caring for your breasts.
When to introduce solid foods
Breastmilk or infant formula should be your baby’s main source of nutrition for around the first year of life. Health professionals recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with a gradual introduction of appropriate family foods in the second six months and ongoing breastfeeding for two years or beyond.
Babies show they are ready to start solids when they:
- Start showing interest when others are eating
- Start making gestures that seem to say ‘feed me too’
- Stop pushing out any food put in their mouth (disappearance of the tongue-thrust reflex)
- Start being able to hold their head up and sit without support.
Talk to your maternal and child health nurse about your baby’s readiness to eat.