Navigating the world as a first-time mother can be daunting, but definitely fulfilling. Many mothers agree that breastfeeding is an intimate act that helps them form a closer bond with their child. While breastfeeding is optional for mothers, studies show that breast milk is more nutritious than formula milk. This is why more than 80% of mothers in the US choose to breastfeed their newborns. Nonetheless, formula milk is still a nutritious alternative to breast milk. All baby formulas in the US are regulated by the FDA to ensure they are nutritious and safe for babies.
One recent study shows that women vaccinated against COVID-19 while breastfeeding pass antibodies to their children through their breast milk. So, indeed, one can never understate the sustenance and nutritional value that breast milk gives to an infant.
Despite the numerous advantages, mothers have to ask: “When should I stop breastfeeding?”. Often, the answer isn’t very simple. So here is a quick guide to help you know when you should stop breastfeeding, and debunk myths surrounding it.
When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?
See What the Experts Say
There is no definite age on when to stop breastfeeding. Some journals and studies by health care organizations only set out general guidelines and recommendations suggesting a particular age.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a child be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Weaning is a slow and gradual process, so it’s important to introduce safe complementary food into the baby’s diet while you are still breastfeeding. This can continue for up to two years and even beyond. Behind this recommendation is the fact that breastfeeding is one of the surest ways to keep a baby from diseases and even death.
A long-term study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that breastfeeding lowers the risk of developing life-threatening illnesses in infancy and childhood such as respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal tract infections, Necrotizing Enterocolitis, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), allergies, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, childhood leukemia and lymphoma, and neurodevelopmental disorders.
The AAP also recommends the newborn be exclusively breastfed in the first six months with continuation for a year or as long as the mother and the child want.
According to YOU
An important takeaway from experts is that you have the final say as to when to start the weaning process after the 6th-month mark. The decision to stop breastfeeding is highly personal, and the answer is different for everyone.
Breastfeeding is beneficial not only to your baby but to you as a mother, too. The benefits of breastfeeding do not expire so mothers can continue breastfeeding as long as the supply exists, as long as the child wants, and, most importantly, as long as you want.
The decision to breastfeed in the first place is ultimately yours to make—your body, your child, your choice.
Is Breastfeeding for me?
Naturally lactating mothers produce enough milk to support the needs of their baby at every stage of growth. So even if the baby is already a year old, if the mother has continuously breastfed them since birth, then she will still produce enough breastmilk to support her baby’s appetite.
Look into these signs to make sure that breastfeeding is well suited for both you and your baby:
- By four days old, they should have used at least six diapers in 24 hours. Three out of six should be yellowish, poopy diapers.
- You should be breastfeeding your baby at least eight times during a 24-hour period.
- You should be able to hear and see that your baby is swallowing during feeding time.
- Your baby should have established a rhythmic suckling pattern already.
But remember: if you observe that there is something abnormal in your child’s lactating habits or your milk production, consult with a pediatrician or a qualified lactation consultant to get this checked out.
Balancing Work-Life and Motherhood as a Breastfeeding Mother
Of course, the decision that brings the most bearing lies on you as the mother. You have your reasons for wanting to stop breastfeeding. Most of the time when mothers decide to return to work, they run into a workplace that does not accommodate the needs of breastfeeding moms, which compels them to stop nursing.
They often think that going back to work will hinder them from providing enough milk supply for their child, so they opt to stop completely. If you’re a mother who is still on the fence and would still want to continue breastfeeding at work, check out this article on seven ways companies create a breastfeed-friendly work environment with tips on how you can make a workplace friendlier for breastfeeding moms.
I want to stop breastfeeding, but I want my baby to continue on breastmilk. How should I manage this?
Yes, breastmilk’s sustenance and nutrition are a really tough one to beat. Because of the nutritional value breastmilk packs, it is some mothers’ ideal source of nutrition for their children. But sometimes, mothers need to stop breastfeeding due to personal reasons. Therefore, even though you have stopped lactating, there are still ways for your child to keep having breast milk.
Check out Breastfeeding and Other Choices for Mamas for more information on breastfeeding and your other alternatives if you want to continue feeding your child with breastmilk.
What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Breastfeeding?
At some point, most mothers naturally stop wanting to breastfeed, because you want them to be a bit more independent as they grow. But without the proper guidance and expectations, you might be surprised at how weaning can affect your baby and your own body. So, to help you with this transition, here is a quick run-through of the different stages of weaning.
Weaning: Before 6 Months of Age
Weaning before 6 months of age is generally seen as a much more “natural” weaning period these days. At this period of your child’s growth, your baby is still dependent on milk as a source of nutrition.
This means that you’ll be substituting breastmilk for baby formula during your feeding sessions. Begin by slowly decreasing their time of breastfeeding and increasing the number of bottles you feed them.
Do this gradually and see how well your baby’s digestion reacts to the formula. Keep in touch with your doctor to seek out recommendations for formulas that will not upset your baby’s stomach. This gradual shift prevents your breasts from engorging too much.
When weaning before the 6th-month mark, make sure that you have access to healthcare providers as studies show that depression is more common among mothers who do not breastfeed longer than six months.
Weaning: After 6 Months of Age
The general difference between weaning before and after 6 months of age is that after 6 months, your baby may be capable of digesting other forms of solid food. However, there isn’t much variety of solid food that your baby can intake, and a complete feeding session of only solid food isn’t possible yet.
So, just like weaning before 6 months, you need to decrease their breastmilk intake and increase baby formula gradually. You can take turns in feeding baby formula and solid food. You can also try adding baby formula in their solid food for added nutrition.
Keep in mind that your child’s primary nutritional source will be formula during this period, so keep track of their feeding time and try increasing the increments you feed your baby during sessions.
For you, weaning after the 6th-month mark can cause weight loss. AAP has found in a study with more than 14,000 participants that mothers who exclusively breastfed for longer than 6 months were 3.04 lb lighter than those who did not breastfeed. They also found lower risk of type 2 diabetes by 4%-12%. That’s something to consider to keep your health and wellness in check.
Weaning: After 1 Year of Age
But if you consider weaning after 1 year of age, that is still totally fine. Although, in the US, breastfeeding for an extended period (which is generally 1 year and beyond) is often longer than the average breastfeeding duration. In other cultures, nursing your child for more than a year is considered normal, so don’t let this pressure you into stopping your breastfeeding journey. After all, it is a personal choice.
There is a widespread belief that the mother’s milk may “turn into water” during this stage, which is entirely false. In fact, the mother’s body responds to this need to supply a sufficient amount of nutrients for their growing child.
No changes were observed in the breastmilk’s lactose, fat, iron, and potassium content, but the amount of protein significantly increased.
For the mother, this can be much more beneficial. A longer duration of breastfeeding reduces maternal diseases and increases their protection, inherently reducing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and heart attack.
What Happens if I Suddenly Stop Breastfeeding?
Abrupt weaning is not recommended. For months, your body has been routinely producing milk for your child. So sudden weaning can affect your health, increasing the chances of breast engorgement and infections. This is what happens to your body when you stop breastfeeding abruptly without a gradual transition. It can be emotionally tough on you and can even be emotionally tolling to your baby.
Under certain circumstances, abrupt weaning is necessary. Some mothers may have to start medication that isn’t compatible with breastfeeding or in instances where they are called into service (such as military duty).
Quick Remedies for Sudden Weaning Engorgement and Pain
Engorgement, pain, and sometimes infections are what can happen to your body when you suddenly stop breastfeeding. But no worries, if you need to wean abruptly, here are some quick remedies to help ease off the pain:
- Cabbage Leaves or Cold Compress – Place them in your bra before you go out. If possible, change during feeding or pumping sessions. The coolness can ease the discomfort while still allowing for your breasts to produce milk.
- Ginger – Drink ginger tea regularly. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling, which will also facilitate milk flow.
- Massage – Massage your breasts gently can help relieve the pain. Try this for about 10 minutes.
- Lecithin Supplementation – Take 1-2 lecithin capsules before each meal. This can help remedy engorgement and formation of milk cysts so it reduces pain and inflammation too.
- Nursing Bra – Using a nursing bra can help increase comfort and may also ease lactation.
For your comfort, you may be advised to continuously discharge just enough milk for a few days, but not too much, or you’ll continue lactating. Another quick remedy is putting a cold compress over the engorgement for a few days.
Constantly keep in check with how you feel, too. If the swelling persists for more than 2 weeks, schedule an appointment to get them checked out.
So, When Should You Stop Breastfeeding Your Baby?
As a general rule specified by the AAP, anthropological data notes that natural self-weaning age is about 2.5-7 years old. This means that mothers can breastfeed their babies up to this age bracket, but the child will naturally come of age and opt-out of breastfeeding themselves.
But if you want to stop and ask what to expect when you stop breastfeeding, the short answer is adjustment. Weaning, or the transition from breastmilk to other forms of solid food, is a vast process. It is a careful process with many considerations, given that it can affect your body.
Breastfeeding creates a deep bond between you and your baby. But sometimes, due to highly personal reasons, mothers have to stop. This shift between nutritional sources for your child may not only affect them but you as well. Keep in mind the effects of sudden weaning on your body and follow this guide if you want to wean your baby without causing so much stress on you and your baby’s bodies.