The decision on when and how to stop breastfeeding is personal to every mother and should be based on whatever works best for you and your baby. Baby expert and parenting mentor Rachel Fitz-Desorgher discusses how to deal the situation, when the right time comes along.
For all breastfeeding mothers there comes a point when they wonder how long they will continue to nurse for and how their feeding relationship will come to an end. Will she be the one to draw it to a close, will it be baby’s decision or will it be a mutual ending to this special relationship. For each mother and baby the answer is different and very personal.
Current recommendations are that babies should be breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of their life. All their hydration and nutritional needs can be met by mum’s milk alone and in my opinion, there are no advantages to supplementing with formula or family foods before this age.
Mothers who choose to formula feed or find that, for whatever reason, they are unable to give their baby their own milk can start giving formula at any time from birth. However, health professionals will counsel you that formula milk may increase the risk of certain conditions such as ear infections, tummy bugs and allergies and lacks the long-term health benefits that breast milk gives to your baby.
Once a mother starts to formula feed, her breasts will quickly react to the change in supply and demand and her milk supply will dwindle. So do think carefully before introducing formula and if, for whatever reason, you do lose your milk supply and wish you hadn’t, it can be regained with good help from an infant feeding specialist.
When should I stop breastfeeding?
Breast milk is all a baby needs for the first 6 months of life and current recommendations are that, even after weaning has started, mum’s milk should continue to be part of a baby’s diet into the second year. There is no need to stop breastfeeding just because you have started offering family foods – babies continue to need their mum’s milk all through the long weaning process. Breastfeeding can carry on for as long as mother and baby want, and many mothers enjoy the closeness this brings as well as being able to quickly soothe at difficult times such as starting nursery or during teething.
Women decide to stop breastfeeding before their baby’s first birthday for many reasons and, indeed, some babies actively self-wean from the breast before they turn one. If your baby is under the age of one and is no longer having any breastmilk, ‘first’ formula should be given alongside family foods. There is no evidence to support the use of ‘follow-on’ formula or ‘goodnight’ formula – they do not provide any benefit to babies. Once a baby has celebrated their first birthday, they can have full fat cow’s milk or fortified, unsweetened soya milk as a drink and formula can be stopped.
For every woman who decides to stop breastfeeding earlier than planned, another will find themselves nursing their little one for longer than originally expected. Some mums choose to continue breastfeeding an older child after their next baby has arrived (this is known as tandem feeding) and some mothers breastfeed their children until four years or older. There really is no reason not to carry on enjoying your breastfeeding relationship with your child for as long as you both wish.
Common reasons for stopping breastfeeding
Worries about breast milk supply
One of the most common reasons women give for stopping breastfeeding earlier than originally planned is a perceived lack of milk. In truth, lack of milk is very uncommon but a baby’s normal behaviour of wanting very frequent and prolonged soothing at the breast is often mistaken as hunger. If your baby is having at least six good, wet nappies a day, you can be sure that you have an ample supply of milk. Remember: babies need to spend a lot of time just being soothed in arms and this generally also means being on the breast. This is normal and not a sign of a poor supply.
Developmental changes in the baby around the age of four months leads to them behaving quite differently at the breast and this often causes mums to think their supply has dropped. This is rarely the case. A woman’s body is very able to adapt quickly to the daily changes in her baby’s feeding behaviour and, as long as baby is free to suckle on demand, milk will be made. Even after a mum has stopped breastfeeding all together, it can take many months for her milk to disappear completely.
If you feel like your milk supply is dwindling talk to an infant feeding specialist and, in the meantime, offer your baby the breast frequently – quite simply, the more you breastfeed the more milk you will produce.
Sore or painful breasts
Another reason woman give for stopping breastfeeding is sore nipples or breasts. Breastfeeding really should never be painful, not even in the early weeks so, if you are in pain, seek advice. A trained infant feeding specialist will be able to tell you why you have pain and show you what to do to prevent it. More often than not you will just need a little help in cuddling your baby in a way that makes it easier for them to get onto your breast. Trying too hard to help your baby to get on can actually make it more awkward for them (and you) so relax, cuddle your baby and let them use their reflexes and innate ability to get on comfortably.
If your nipples have become so sore that they have cracked, avoid letting them dry out as this can cause scabbing which can delay healing. Instead, gently rub a little of your own milk into the nipples after every feed and get help from a specialist as soon as possible to discover why you are getting damaged. If you cannot press out any milk to soothe your nipples, a thin smear of Vaseline will do. Do not suffer in silence assuming that sore nipples and breasts are a normal part of breastfeeding – get help!
Going back to work
Lots of women start to fret about how to stop breastfeeding as their return to work date looms. If your baby six months or older and has started on family foods then, in truth, there really is no need to worry or to start introducing formula or bottles. If you are able and happy to express then do but most women find it a difficult chore. Rest assured that your little one will self-regulate beautifully in your absence. They will take more milk when you are around at the start and end of the day and then have weaning foods and water from a beaker or cup whilst you are at work. They simply won’t associate their carer with breastfeeding and so won’t expect it.
Your body will adapt quickly and you won’t even need to worry that some days you don’t breastfeed for eight hours whilst, on days off, you barely go two hours without feeding your little one.
If you need to return to work before weaning has started then your baby will need milk to drink in your absence and your own milk is ideal for protecting against the inevitable bugs that your little one will encounter in the wider world. Express your breast milk with a pump or by hand and leave it for your child minder or family member to feed to your baby whilst you’re at work.
The familiar smell and taste of your milk will soothe your baby, and you will be able to relax at work knowing that they are continuing to get protection and perfect nutrition while you are away.
How to stop breastfeeding
Wherever possible, phase out breastfeeding slowly to give your body time to adjust. Cutting down too fast can lead to you getting engorged and uncomfortable. Cut out just one feed a day (maybe the lunchtime one) for a week and then another the following week and so on until breastfeeds have stopped altogether.
If cutting down breastfeeding quickly is inevitable, don’t worry – your body will adapt after a few uncomfortable days – but, if you do get over-full, take simple painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen and have a warm bath or shower and just let your breasts drip. It can also help to do reverse pressure softening – using a flat hand on your breast, firmly massage from the nipple back towards the ribcage.
Go all around the breast massaging backwards firmly – this will reduce the engorgement and ease the swelling and tenderness without stimulating more milk to be made. There are videos online showing how to do reverse pressure softening so take a look.
Remember that, if you remove the comfort and soothing that your baby gets from breastfeeding, they will need soothing in other ways such as rocking or patting.
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Breastfeeding brings comfort and health to mums and babies alike. Continuing through weaning and when you return to work provides your baby with ideal nutrition, protection from infection, soothing through difficult days and security when temporary separation is unavoidable. And … it really can continue for as long as you both wish to enjoy the snuggly closeness it brings.
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