As difficult as it is for some women to begin breastfeeding, it's even harder for others to say goodbye to nursing.
While lifestyle and career demands can make it difficult to breastfeed as long as you would like, don't be surprised if weaning your baby presents even more challenges -- at least at the start.
"The pleasant hormonal effects of nursing, along with the satisfying emotional bonding, can make it very hard for some women to stop breastfeeding, even if their life or their lifestyle demands that they do so," says Myrtle Hodge, RN, a lactation expert at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
In addition, says Hodge, mom may find it even more difficult to stop if baby loses interest first.
"When the baby decides he or she has had enough, mom can feel devastated that her baby doesn't want or need her anymore," says Hodge. "Many women feel very sad and upset."
Weaning From Baby's Perspective
At the same time, some babies may feel rejected when mom initiates the weaning process, especially if co-sleeping was part of breastfeeding time.
"If your baby was sleeping with you because of breastfeeding conveniences, and then suddenly, no more breastfeeding means they are now sleeping on their own, they can feel a sense of rejection, which can result in some crankiness or difficulty sleeping for a short time," says Hodge.
When weaning older children from breastfeeding -- toddlers up to 2 or even 3 years old -- Hodge says moms should expect some acting out and anger from their children.
"Sometimes the child will get so angry and feel so deprived when nursing stops they can become very irritated with mom -- and really give her a hard time," says Hodge.
Regardless of your child's age, if you are having problems weaning experts say you can make the process easier for you and baby if you maintain a close emotional bond in other ways.
"There is clearly a comforting aspect to nursing, for mom but especially for baby. So you need to recognize that and to incorporate some of that same close physical bonding and comfort into feeding time, regardless of whether or not you are breastfeeding," says Adam Aponte, MD, chairman of pediatrics and ambulatory care at North General Hospital in New York.
Tips to Help You Wean Your Baby
To help your baby feel more secure and less upset by the lost of breastfeeding, try these tips from Aponte:
- Cuddle your baby often
- Make eye contact with your baby
- Coo at your baby
- Generally keep your baby close to you
Your baby may have problems learning to suck on a bottle (babies suckle at the breast, a different mouth action). If so, you might proceed directly to a sippy cup, suggests Aponte. This is an easier transition for some older babies.
"There is nothing magical about a bottle," says Aponte. "Very often going right to the sippy cup is a good solution. They are amused by the cup and somewhat entertained. Often babies who just refuse a bottle will take very well to the cup."
If your baby is a toddler already eating solid food, then you can skip the bottle altogether. Your child won't miss it, says Aponte.
Physical Changes During Weaning
Expect some physical changes that often take place once you wean your baby. Most noticeable is a change in the consistency and frequency of your baby's bowel movements.
"They will likely have fewer bowel movements on formula than they had when breastfeeding, and usually somewhat harder or more solid stools -- this is normal," says Aponte.
Hodge adds that you can also expect some minor gastrointestinal upsets. "Depending on the age of the baby, there could be some cramping and gas when you start to wean, particularly if they are between 6 and 12 months old," says Hodge.
To avoid these problems, Hodge suggests you give your child formula -- not milk -- until your child is older than one year. Once your child's digestive system is more mature, after the first birthday, introduce milk.
If you stop breastfeeding before the first year of age, experts say you can also expect some fussiness and tears now and again as your baby makes the physical and emotional transition from breast to bottle.
"Again, the answer here is to spend as much time with your baby as possible, to cuddle and have more body-to-body contact," says Hodge. "This is highly recommended so the child won't feel rejected and mom herself will continue to feel the much needed closeness with her baby."
How Long Should You Wait Before Weaning?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breast feeding should continue for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.
In fact, prolonged nursing may have some important benefits beyond maintaining a strong emotional bond. In studies conducted in Western Kenya, Africa, researchers found that breastfeeding for at least two years had a positive association with growth, particularly in impoverished areas.
Other studies show that the longer a baby breastfeeds, the greater their brain development. In fact, some evidence shows the longer the baby breastfeeds, the sooner they accomplish "milestone" tasks, such as walking and talking.
"In my experience, babies who are breastfed until they are toddlers are more sociable, they are happier and better adjusted children. Most have a very high IQ and they seem to be overall very well-rounded children," says Hodge.
As a result, many lactation experts say prolonged nursing is OK -- as long as both baby and mom want it that way.
"This is a personal decision and it should be made by the mother," says Hodge. Aponte agrees to a point. Once a toddler reaches age 2, Aponte encourages mothers to stop breastfeeding -- and most comply.
"If you're done it for two years, then you have more than given your baby an excellent start in life," he says. "At that point weaning is probably a good idea."
Note in developing countries, as well as in some European nations, breastfeeding a child until age four or five is acceptable and considered normal. Some experts in the U.S. say that this could become the norm here as well if breastfeeding becomes more widely accepted.