A Complete Guide for When to Stop Breastfeeding Babies & How to Wean
When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?
If you are typing, “When to stop breastfeeding?” or “Should I keep breastfeeding my baby?” into your search bar, chances are you’re feeling conflicted about your decisions around breastfeeding. It is okay to struggle with breastfeeding and it is okay to stop when you need to. Women stop breastfeeding for a number of reasons, like returning to work, latch and breast issues, mental wellness, and more. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, the length of time a woman chooses to breastfeed varies greatly from none through toddler-years. No one can tell you the appropriate time to stop breastfeeding, as it is a personal choice for each mother.
The Pressure and Guilt of Breastfeeding
Preparing for birth, I learned about labor and delivery… and I learned about breastfeeding. In retrospect, I realize there were so many parts of caring for a newborn and caring for myself that were overlooked, but breastfeeding was talked about a lot. Do not be mistaken, breastfeeding has a number of benefits, and personally, I had an overall positive experience breastfeeding my children, but I also felt the guilt and shame from social pressure.
Phrases like “breast is best,” “liquid gold” and “breastfeeding goals” filled my mind and made me believe that much of my worth as a new mom was wrapped up in my breastfeeding performance. I remember putting off showers, errands, and sleep in order to be readily available for breastfeeding. I was unwilling to accept help because I internalized feeding as my job. I went to numerous lactation appointments and worked through painful feeding experiences because I thought I “had” to exclusively breastfeed in order to be a good mom and have a healthy baby. There was always something new to try: a new cream or gadget for my breast, and there was always a new tip from someone for prolonging breastfeeding. With all of that, I felt guilty when it was not working as expected, and I really felt the pressure to set and exceed breastfeeding goals.
Reasons Women Stop Breastfeeding
The right time to stop breastfeeding is different for each woman. It is important to evaluate your health, your baby’s health and your family circumstances.
01. Breast/nipple pain
A woman may choose to stop breastfeeding because of breast or nipple damage that is causing her pain. This could be from difficulty with latch, tongue-tie, engorgement, thrush, or even nipple shape and size. Women who want to continue breastfeeding are encouraged to see a lactation consultant in their area to help assess the problem and come up with a solution to painful breastfeeding.
02. Mental health
Women suffering from a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder may stop breastfeeding if it is causing mental stress or is not compatible with their prescribed SSRI medication (many SSRIs are shown to be breastfeeding–safe, but always talk with your doctor). Lisa Tremaye, RN, PMH-C, of The Bloom Foundation, tells mothers struggling with the decision, “If it’s a choice between how you feed your baby and mama’s mental health, either lack of sleep, hormone fluctuation, or pressure, mama comes first. It’s like the emergency oxygen on an airplane analogy. Mom first. Baby will never remember how or what she was fed, but mama will probably remember how dark she felt trying to keep doing it.”
03. Return to work
Although the majority of workplaces in the US are required to have adequate pumping spaces for a working mother, that is not always the case. Women have shared with me that they were told to use closets, bathrooms or worse as they returned to the workplace. Many women also feel the pressure to minimize their need for taking adequate time for pumping while working. For other women, the change in routine and setting feels like a natural transition out of breastfeeding and is welcomed.
04. Food Sensitivity
Sometimes babies show sensitivity to certain components in mom’s breast milk. The most common allergies, according to La Leche League, are dairy, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy. In the case of allergies/sensitivity, the mom can try cutting different foods out of her diet to see if it improves her baby’s breastfeeding.
While there are many tips and ways to try to boost your milk supply, sometimes the body is unable to due to issues such as insufficient glandular tissue and sometimes the stress of having adequate supply compromises a mother’s mental wellness which then in turn reduces supply.
According to American Pregnancy, women can still continue to breastfeed when becoming pregnant again. For some women, there are few changes. For other women, pregnancy can create new challenges for breastfeeding such as nausea and sore nipples.
07. Touch out
At some point, many women want their body autonomy back. ‘Touch out’ is the feeling of your body being needed over and over. For some, it manifests as the desire to go to run errands for longer than a 3-hour limit. For others, it’s the desire to feel intimately connected with a partner and needing body autonomy in order to choose to do that.
Making the Choice to End Breastfeeding
When deciding to stop breastfeeding, you must consider the time it will take to signal your body to stop making breast milk. If you need to stop quickly, due to medical or other reasons, talk with a medical provider about safe ways to dry up your milk supply such as using cabbage leaves, herbs, or medication. If you would like to gradually wean, you can start with night weaning and/or cutting out feeds until your baby is fully on bottles (or solids, if your child is older) and your body is no longer producing milk. Sometimes, your baby will send you clear signals and weaning happens fairly easily. How to stop breastfeeding should be a combination of your personal preference and safe medical advice.
For many women, the end of breastfeeding is not only a physical change, but a mental and emotional change as well. It’s important to make space to process the shifts and changes, and give yourself room for your emotions. You may experience joy and relief. You may experience guilt and uncertainty. You may experience a mix of many emotions.
Personally, each time I ended breastfeeding, I felt both joy and guilt. Here are three things that helped me:
- Journal about your breastfeeding experience.Include the highs, the lows, and the growth you experienced, no matter how long your journey was.
- Have honest conversations with other moms who can understand the emotional and mental toll you may be feeling. Seek out support groups in your community.
- Find a new, fun way to connect with your baby. This might be starting a new “mommy and me” class together, reading a special book during the times you previously breastfed, listening to your favorite music during bottle feeds, or another fun connection activity of your choice.
Breastfeeding does not define your success as a mother. When you’re ready to stop breastfeeding, celebrate what you have accomplished, and move into a new season with confidence and support.