Last updated December 1st, 2020
Breastfeeding is healthy and optimal for infant nutrition. There are lots of recommendations regarding breastfeeding duration, but how do you know for sure when your baby is done with nursing?
The World Health Organization recommends that infants be breastfed up until at least 2 years of age. However, some mothers may opt to stop breastfeeding before that time period while others extend even further than 2 years.
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Statistics on Breastfeeding Age
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 83% or 4 out of 5 of the 4 million babies born in 2015 start out breastfeeding. That number dropped to half by three months, and to one-third by the first year of life.
That means that most mothers give breastfeeding a go at the beginning. Several factors come into play as to why not all of them continue for longer.
On the other hand, some mothers are able to go far beyond in their breastfeeding journey (up to about 7 years of age!). The average age a child is weaned from breastfeeding is about 2.5 years or age.
Why Mothers Choose to Wean their Baby From Breastfeeding
As mentioned before, there are several reasons why women choose to stop breastfeeding. These are the common reasons listed from the earliest to the latest.
The very first issue that can spring up in breastfeeding is a difficulty to latch. You might think that breastfeeding is natural so it should come naturally to you and your baby. However, it takes some practice to get it right. Just like learning how to walk and talk -both of which are natural milestones but take time and practice.
Latch issues can be difficult and frustrating for some moms, which is why it can cause breastfeeding to end shortly after it has begun.
If latch was not much of an issue, another challenge is when parents feel as if their baby is not satisfied with breastmilk alone. This may tempt parents to top up with formula, which usually leads to less breastfeeding until the baby becomes fully formula-fed.
After a couple of weeks, some infants may become jaundiced (your baby may turn a bit yellowish). In these cases, your doctor may prescribe your baby with infant formula for about 24-48 hours, and then you can resume with breastfeeding.
Unfortunately, for some, they no longer resume breastfeeding and continue with formula feeding instead.
Some mothers may have other illnesses that can require medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding. Some mothers may also not be able to give up alcohol and caffeine enough to be able to breastfeed.
Lack of Support
Support plays a big part in the success of breastfeeding. If partners and family members supported breastfeeding, mom will more likely stick with it. An example of the support that you can ask from family members is help around the house or with older children
Another support that breastfeeding mothers need is that from the community. If the community is not open to breastfeeding in public or is not that baby-friendly, moms may find it harder to stick with breastfeeding and choose to stop.
Workplace support is also vital for working and breastfeeding moms. If employers provided amenities such as a pumping station and privileges’ such as lactations breaks, it would make breastfeeding more sustainable for the working mom.
As babies grow older they may learn how to clamp down while breastfeeding. This can be very discouraging, especially if the baby already has teeth. Ouch!
Most babies outgrow this phase and learn that it’s hurting mom so they stop altogether. However, this may cause aversion or fear for some moms, especially if they were injured by these baby bites.
Baby Has Naturally Weaned
This reason for weaning is called natural or infant-led weaning. This is a gradual process that usually starts when the baby starts to take in food at about six months.
As your baby eats more solid food, she may breastfeed less and less until she stops altogether, which usually happens between 2 and 4 years of age. Further on, let’s find out the signs that might mean that your baby has naturally weaned.
Signs of Natural Weaning: How Do I Know When My Baby Is Done Breastfeeding?
Here are some of the signs that your baby has decided that it’s time to stop breastfeeding:
Baby cuts back on nursing sessions
Newborns nurse about 8 to 12 times with every given 24-hour period. That means you’ll find yourself picking your baby up 4 to 6 times during the day and the same amount of time during the night.
As your baby grows bigger, her stomach is able to hold more contents, meaning the stretches between feeding will be longer and the frequency will be less.
You’ll notice this more when your baby starts eating solids after 6 months of age. She will also be able to sleep for longer stretches and may even sleep through the night, further eliminating night feeding for you.
Baby is no longer interested in nursing
When your baby is older than one year old, she may altogether start to refuse the breast if you offer it. This is yet another sign that your baby is done with nursing and that weaning is imminent.
Baby is more interested in food
Again, once your baby starts with solids, the frequency of breastfeeding will naturally decrease. There will come a time where your baby will realize the food fills her belly more than breastmilk, so she may breastfeed less and less until she completely weans off.
How Do You Stop Breastfeeding?
If you see the signs of natural weaning, you can help accelerate it with your own efforts. If you have other reasons to stop breastfeeding, you may try these tips as well:
- Do it gradually. Drop one nursing session every three days. This way, your baby will not be surprised by the change and your body will have time to adapt. Start with your baby’s least favorite nursing session, or during the sessions that you can fill her up with food or distract her with play.
- If your baby is less than a year old, try substituting a nursing session with a bottle of formula. As your baby continues to grow, you can switch the bottle with a sippy cup and start cup training.
- Increase your baby’s food intake.
- Offer a pacifier for comfort.
- If your baby is more than a year old, you can offer cow’s milk in a cup to substitute for nursing sessions.
- Change your routine gradually to include more solids and other drinks instead to substitute for nursing sessions.
What to Expect Once Breastfeeding Stops
Once you or your baby decide that it’s time to end the breastfeeding journey, here’s what you might expect:
Your baby might become extra cranky
Just as with any change, your baby might react to the weaning process. This is one reason why gradual weaning is recommended. It’s because if it’s done slowly, your baby may not even notice that it’s happening.
In the beginning, expect that your baby will protest to the change, cry and whine more, or become increasingly clingy. It is important to offer more comfort to your baby during the weaning process.
Remember that breastfeeding is not just about food. It is also a source of comfort for your baby, so bring on the cuddles and introduce a new plushie for your baby.
You may experience hormonal changes
Breastfeeding involves a special mix of hormones that stimulate your body to produce milk and bond with your baby. When you stop breastfeeding, especially if you do it abruptly, your body may feel a bit confused with the sudden change.
Some mothers may experience post-weaning depression as a result of stopping breastfeeding, especially if it happens suddenly. If you find yourself feeling a bit of the blues after weaning, know that it’s normal.
However, you feel so overwhelmed by your low spirits or finding it hard to cope, it would be best to visit your doctor to get some help.
Another thing you might experience with abrupt weaning is mastitis. It is most likely to happen if you go cold-turkey rather than gradually. Clogged ducts, engorgement, and pain can be expected.
To cope with mastitis, hot and cold compresses, massages, and pain meds can help. You can also express a little bit of milk to relieve engorgement while not stimulating more milk supply. You can also ask your doctors for pills that can help speed up drying your milk supply.
Breastfeeding has an incredible number of health benefits. However, sometimes it just does not work out for all moms and babies either by choice or by necessity.
Whatever your reason is for stopping breastfeeding, you should know that it is completely fine for as long as your baby is happy, healthy, and well-nourished.
Weaning from breastfeeding is inevitable. However, it is also a process and possibly a major change for you and your baby. It is important to take it easy on yourself and provide extra snuggles to your baby if she gets cranky. Remember that both of you are going through the changes together.