The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and numerous infant health organizations recommend that your baby be exclusively breastfed through the first six months of life. Now that you’ve reached this milestone in your baby’s life, there are a lot of questions you may have about switching your baby from exclusive breastfeeding to a mix of breastfeeding and solid foods.
While the introduction of anything other than breast milk is weaning, it’s important to note that these recommendations don’t necessarily mean you have to stop breastfeeding your baby entirely. Although most Americans wean their babies by age 1, there are many moms who may practice extended breastfeeding beyond the 12-month mark, and in fact, this is the norm in many countries other than the U.S. The right approach truly depends on you and your little one, so be sure to do what works for your family.
Baby-led versus mother-led weaning
Some babies may be ready to gobble up everything that is offered to them at the age of 6 months, while others are less excited about solids. Some signs that he or she may be ready include sitting upright without needing any assistance and reaching for foods when you or other family members eat them.
There are two approaches you could choose to take when it comes to introducing solid foods: baby-led weaning and mother-led weaning.
Baby-led weaning is when your child can regulate his or her eating by showing interest in solid foods. Examples of baby-led weaning practices include:
- Giving your baby foods that are served at your family table, such as soft-cooked foods cut up into easy-to-grasp pieces. Examples include avocado, banana, well-cooked eggs, cheese, and soft-cooked vegetables.
- Letting your baby regulate how much he or she wants to eat.
- Offering a variety of foods to let your baby determine what he or she likes to eat.
Mother-led weaning involves starting to limit nursing while offering your baby a bottle or cup and foods and/or drinks besides breast milk. Some methods to engage in mother-led weaning include:
- Approaching weaning gradually, by dropping one feeding at a time. Remember that the weaning process can take months, but doing so gradually can help you and your baby make the transition with less distress.
- Consider dropping feedings in the middle of the day first. Morning and bedtime feedings are more strongly tied with your infant’s routine and also provide good bonding opportunities, so these tend to be the last to go.
- When dropping feedings, replace that session by offering a serving of solid food instead, with breast milk or formula (if less than one year) or cow’s milk (if older than a year) in a bottle or cup.
Tips for success
Weaning can be a surprisingly emotional process for moms, a challenging one for baby, and sometimes an uncomfortable one for you as well. In short, it’s a lot to prepare for and execute, especially if you need to do it sooner than you wanted to or planned for! One of the key tips for success is to refrain from refusing feedings while you are attempting to wean. Refusing the breast may only cause your child to focus on it more, which may also increase resistance to eating solid foods.
Whenever possible, find new ways to love and cuddle with your child so that you can bond in ways that extend beyond breastfeeding. While this may be hard if your baby sees this snuggle time as a cue to nurse, you can separate this from nursing by starting new routines: snuggling in a different place than where you fed, reading books, or singing songs.
You can expect to feel some surprisingly strong emotions personally when stopping breastfeeding. Some mothers experience guilt and even sadness. If your emotions become very strong, talk to your partner and/or doctor. Remember to take care of yourself, as well, through a healthy diet, making getting enough sleep a priority, and finding new, special activities you can share with your child.
Practicing good breast care
Your breasts may begin to feel full during the weaning process, which can be uncomfortable, especially if you stop nursing very suddenly. Since breastfeeding is an on-demand practice, refrain from expressing or pumping as much milk as you normally would and instead express only what you need to relieve the discomfort. You may also try:
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen.
- Applying cool compresses to your breasts.
- If you are still very uncomfortable, talk with your doctor or lactation consultant about medications you can try to decrease your supply.
- Keep in mind that tight wrapping of the breasts to help milk “dry up” is an old wives’ tale and is unnecessary.
You are at risk for mastitis and plugged ducts during the weaning process, so call your doctor if you notice your breasts are reddened, hot and tender to the touch, and you have a fever and/or flu-like symptoms.