Managing weaning including thoughts and feelings
In 2001, the World Health Organisation issued a global public health recommendation that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is normally physiologically possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production.
Weaning is the process of stopping breastfeeding. It is generally thought to begin with the introduction of solid foods (see 'Introducing solid foods') or infant formula, especially if a baby has been exclusively breastfed, and may take weeks, months or even years from then to the point of completion when the baby is no longer receiving any breastfeeds. It is a complex process related to the age of the baby and his/her readiness to accept other foods, whether weaning needs to be fast (in case of sickness or family crisis, for instance), or can be done at a more leisurely pace.
For the women we talked to, weaning from the breast took a variety of forms. For some women it was gradual, flexible, baby-led and usually mutually agreeable for them and their baby. They talked about it being natural, non-traumatic and something that just happened. For these women, weaning usually occurred when their baby was older and suckling more for comfort than nutrition (see Interview 48 below) and having only one or a very few breastfeeds in a day, such as early in the morning and at night time before bed. Sometimes their baby indicated that he/she did not want to breastfeed anymore and sometimes the women gently reduced the number of breastfeeds and encouraged their baby away from their breast by offering other distractions and substitutes or setting up special bed time routines such as a drink or supper, a cuddle and a story. Several women said that their baby weaned when they became pregnant again, perhaps because of a change in the taste of breast milk. Some women with older babies were able to talk to and reason with them about stopping breastfeeding.
She says that she does not know how to wean a baby from breastfeeding as each of her children...
So talk to me a little bit about weaning.
Well I don't know how to do that, I have no idea how to wean a baby from breastfeeding, I just have waited until they've been ready, in fact probably the second child was, was easier because of this situation with me falling pregnant and the milk consistency obviously changing and it just wasn't right for him anymore and it just was an overnight thing, just didn't want it anymore. But the first baby, we thought by the time she was four and a half that it was probably about time that she could stop. So it was mainly just the bedtime feed that she was having so, so what we did actually was we introduced a, sort of a more of a different bedtime routine including a hot chocolate and a supper, and we said, 'Well, you know, mummy can't actually make the milk for you anymore because you're such a big girl and you can now have this special supper and this is for you' and you know, and that she took to that very quickly. I think it's harder for me, you know, actually so but yes that's how we weaned those two and I've got no idea with [son] how we will wean him, I'm just going to wait and see, he's still very attached to feeding and I have no intention of physically or forcefully removing him from that so I don't know how to wean a baby.
Some women said that they thought that their baby was aware of their presence (and perhaps the smell of their milk) which made him/her reluctant to give up that last breastfeed. At this point several women went away for the weekend or longer leaving their baby in the care of relatives and their absence marked the end of breastfeeding. However, a few came back and began breastfeeding again.
She stopped breastfeeding when she left her toddler and her husband with expressed breast milk...
What about weaning him?
What at the end of the year and a half? That was kind of, that kind of happened just sort of naturally really, he in fact what happened was, I think I was going to go away for a weekend and he was a year and a half old and I just thought well let's just see what happens, I won't, you know there was still a little bit of expressed milk left that I think my husband was going to use up and I left it and then when I came back after I had been away for a couple of days I thought actually that's it you know, I think we'll leave it now, because it was easier then to kind of stop because I'd sort of been away for a couple of days and yeah so we just kind of just, I just stopped.
How often was he feeding at that stage do you think?
At that stage he was feeding first thing, he was feeding last thing and then probably, oh I don't know he was maybe only having another couple of feeds during the day because he was you know, he was eating a toddler diet basically so he fed more if he was ill or you know grumpy or whatever, but probably not that much so he was kind of self weaning himself anyway, kind of you know wasn't terribly bothered about it, so it just seemed the most natural thing just to stop.
Did he ask for it when you got home?
Ah, so he'd had enough anyway?
Yeah so I think he was probably you know ready to.
You had no problems with milk building up or anything like that?
No, I didn't, I didn't at all I just, I just dried up and I think because he hadn't been taking, he probably hadn't been taking a great deal I think it had dropped off anyway so yeah I didn't even have to express a little bit, just so it was fine, really fine.
She has mixed feelings about finishing breastfeeding as it is her baby's way of connecting with...
I have such mixed feelings. I will be, I would be delighted on one level, on a rational level, I would be thrilled any time in the last year if he decided he wanted to stop, there will always be that little loss, that, because it's something very, very special for the both of us and once it's gone it's gone, and I know we're not going to have any more kids. So I will be happy but I will also, there'll always be a tinge of sadness, but that would have happened even if he'd have weaned before. And I, it's interesting I've been away for him, from him, I have left him at my parents on an occasion, and with my mother-in-law on occasion for three days, that's three nights, and he was fine without me, he managed fine without any breastfeeding. But the moment I came back he needed a feed, it was almost like his way of connecting back with me, so it's going to be interesting to see how it gently spreads out, I mean, I realise I didn't feed him this morning. And will that happen then tomorrow? Will there be a time when I'll suddenly look back and think, 'My goodness we've not fed for a week'.
What was the impact on your milk supply and you when you were away for three days?
Not an issue at all. I think, because, we, I don't know how much milk there is now, I don't know how much, he sometimes now is quite quick, you know, have a bit of feed it's almost like he needs to connect with me, it's his way of sort of connecting with me and he'll say, 'Nugger side, nugger side'. And then he goes on the other side and then, and then he's happy he's off. If I try and reduce it and try and get him to come off sooner then he's not happy it's almost like his little something, if he's, you know, he's only two and a half, he's in, he's got the whole of his life ahead of him, he's at nursery now, he's exploring the world, he's incredibly adventurous and confident, but if he needs that little bit of something still from me in the morning, then that's fine.
For others, because of circumstances (such as the mother's return to work or unsatisfactory breastfeeding for one reason or another) weaning from the breast was more abrupt, structured and sometimes traumatic for either mother or baby or both. This was particularly the case if their baby was young, being weaned onto infant formula and was reluctant to take a bottle (see 'Variations of the breastfeeding experience'). For some of these women, however, the transition to infant formula was a relief from the anxiety produced by a lack of confidence in breastfeeding (see 'Monitoring baby's growth').
It was a relief to wean her daughter onto infant formula but she had to deal with her own...
Possibly selfishness after all those years having a baby and then finding out that I really would like to nip to the loo when I wanted to go to the loo and I would like to sit down and eat a meal and, probably, I would like to hand her over to somebody else for five minutes, it would be nice.
Whose decision was it made, was it to stop?
Mine, mine completely.
How did you do it? You had a fully breastfeeding baby at this stage?
I think we brought in, we were told to bring in a bottle, the advice bring in a bottle of the evening and then, try and bring, them slowly in but I think within about three days she was on bottles, she took very quickly to bottles unlike my son she did take to the bottles okay.
What about your milk supply and your comfort?
I think the cabbage leaves came into play again then. I wasn't bad, I don't remember being, I remember being in a bit of pain, maybe a bit engorged for some, for a couple of days or so, but I don't remember suffering for, it was probably like the overwhelming relief of I mean I just wanted her.
So it was relief?
I was relieved when she went on bottles yes. And partially because I knew how much she was drinking and I think she was more settled.
And that was important to you to know how much she was'
Yeah I think it was.
'getting in her feed?
I did want to know how much she was getting, yes, and I couldn't tell that and as I said, because I was constantly engorged I don't think, I had the feeling that she wasn't emptying the breast, she wasn't feeding properly, and she didn't seem settled, saying that in retrospect a lot of the wandering around with her trying to get her to sleep and stuff like that continued way months after she went on bottles so I think a lot of it was just her nature but.
So you think the bottles didn't settle her any more?
I don't, no I don't think they settled her, any more, no I think I just felt more comfortable with maybe that bit more freedom.
What about her weight did it make any difference to that?
No I don't, her weight seems, I think her weight was very similar to my son's, there doesn't seem to, maybe a bit heavier, not really, no major difference, no.
So she just continued to gain in the same'
She just continued fine.
'way as she had on the breast?
Absolutely fine yes. So it was, it was probably more for, more for me than her looking back, just felt a bit claustrophobic so.
She had doubts about her milk supply and no support for breastfeeding her premature baby at home....
That was at that stage?
How do you feel about it all now looking back?
I got, I go through different per, well I used to go through different periods, I would think that, I felt a failure in certain aspects and I felt that I'd let her down and I, and I went through a mixture of emotions, you know, disappointed, upset, angry but now when I look back especially as our daughter is older and quite happily, you know, and well developed and, you know, doesn't seem any, any the worse off for it, I think I did, I did what I could, and I'm just glad that I tried, because the other lady that I met in the Kinder Clinic didn't want to at all and wasn't, and wasn't forced to and just didn't and I, for no other reason than she didn't want to and I don't disagree with that, you know, that's personal choice but I think well I did, and I did what I could and it maybe never went how I wanted it to, but.
How did you deal with those emotions at the time as they came up?
I don't know how I dealt with it, you just, I think you just do, and I think once you have a baby in Special Care every, everything else seems to just go out of the window because you focus solely on them and everything else just becomes irrelevant. I was quite lucky being in Germany because when you've had a section in Germany you can drive straight away afterwards. So I don't think you get in the mindset of, 'Oh gosh'. You know, 'I can't drive, is it because my scar is going to pop open? Or I'm very vulnerable, or?' You, you don't feel vulnerable at all because you, you know, you can get in a car and I had to drive to the hospital to see Amy daily, and I think that just takes over anything else, I think it catches up with you later on after the event, when I look back now I think, I'm surprised how well I coped.
Of those women who had not yet reached the weaning stage, some were thinking about it and planning how they might achieve it without discomfort or upset for themselves or their baby. One woman thought that it would be “the biggest challenge in our breastfeeding career”. A few young women were planning to breastfeed exclusively for six months, as recommended, and then wean their baby onto infant formula so that they could go out again. However, others who had already reached that stage had changed their minds, deciding that their baby's needs were more important and that going out could wait until later. Flexibility appeared to be the overwhelming issue for most women as thoughts, feelings and situations with regard to weaning were constantly changing.
She was planning in great detail how she would gradually wean her daughter between nine months...
What are they?
You know, I think breastfeeding first thing in the morning sets her up for the day, you know, she'll get some milk from me, it'll get her going, you know, downside I suppose it'd be easier to have her waking up and then coming down and just going straight into breakfast with ourselves, so it would cut out the, I mean the breastfeeding in the morning probably takes me anything from sort of ten to twenty minutes so it would either give me a little longer in bed or just her routine in the morning where if you're rushing away to do something or whatever it would, it would be better. Or then you've got the night feed where do you want to continue, you know, giving your child milk before they're going to bed from yourself, at the moment she'll sometimes, she'll more often than not fall asleep feeding and then I can carry her up to her cot and put her down, and she normally, she'll stay settled. Sometimes which she's started doing again, she'll be awake after her feed and I'll just have to read her a story and she'll go down to sleep no problem, but do you want to get into the routine of, you know, is she actually feeding because she wants it or is she going to feed because it's a comfort for her before she goes to bed? So I'm running through all those things in my head at the moment to try and make a decision as to, to which one's going to be the better and I think around about the year old would be a good time where to completely stop the breastfeeding, I know some people go on a lot longer.
Her priorities changed as she adapted to motherhood and her baby's needs became more important...
I was, I initially said that I'd feed for four months, me and my partner like going out quite a lot and I said I'd feed up until Christmas when [son] was four months and then we'd go out New Year's Eve. I think I was living still as the person that I was before and now obviously my feelings are to do the right thing by [son]. And four months wasn't long enough so he's now four, he's just coming up five, but I'm going to feed till he's six months and get him weaned and then I will give up but I will still, I will give him formula feeds after six months, but I think the first six months are very important for breastfeeding.
And he's exclusively breastfed?
He's exclusively breastfed and he will be up until he's six months. I'm quite proud to say.
Even when weaning went smoothly, women talked about it being a difficult time of heightened emotions and anxiety. It included feelings of sadness and even devastation as something so pleasurable was coming to an end. Some women who weaned prematurely talked about regret, feeling guilty and as though they had failed. Some women, especially the longer-term breastfeeders, spoke about beginning to feel tied, resentful and a bit claustrophobic so that weaning came as a relief (see 'Changing family relationships with a breastfed baby' and 'Breastfeeding an older baby'). Some spoke about wanting their body back. On the other hand, some women never felt like this. One woman decided to embrace weaning as another stage in her daughter's development.
Her daughter's weaning was very flexible but she felt that their whole relationship had changed...
Yeah she were only doing that one feed and if she didn't sort of remember about it, it was only when I would prompt, but some nights she would've quite happily just gone off to bed, and not had a feed. And I sort of, I were aware that there were things called nursing strikes but she'd not just stop, she would if I asked her and then one day I asked her and she said, 'No' she didn't want it so I said, 'okay' and off she went to bed and then the next day she did and, this went on for a while and then she just started to say no all the time, and after about two weeks of her saying no, and me keep offering, I discussed it with my husband and he said, 'You know, maybe if she wants it she'll ask' so I thought, 'well I'll not offer and I'll see what happens', and since that day she's never mentioned it again, and I would rather have continued for longer, but, and I worry sometimes that were it a nursing strike, and I found it very difficult to cope with what happened and I spoke to a breastfeeding counsellor about it because I felt my whole relationship with her had changed. And I think it linked with my illness and breastfeeding starting as the thing that I could take control of and other people couldn't and it was ending, and I think that I, felt that, quite deeply, because I had stopped being the one and only person that could do this thing for her, because anybody could make you know, fish fingers and mashed potato, and I really struggled for a few months to come to terms with it and then I spoke to a breastfeeding counsellor and she talked to me about how it, to embrace it as another stage of my daughter's development and not so much a rejection of me, that, you know, she was growing and I was her mother and would always be her mother and would begin to sort of bring new things to her life as she became more independent. And I did, so I did work with that but still there's some sadness deep down that I think, 'Should I have, should I have kept asking for a month? Should I have tried a little bit harder to keep that going?' But then I question who would that have been for really, would that have been for me? Because it was never a time when she was told that she couldn't have it, she could've asked.
She was relaxed about weaning but does feel a bit guilty about weaning her first baby to get her...
How do you deal with those sorts of comments?
I've just tended to say, 'Well I'll just see how things go' and, you know, there's no particular reason to do it now and I don't want to cause a lot of distress to the, the baby when, or the toddler when, when they're obviously wanting it and enjoying it still and it's not really any big deal to me to I mean as I've said the only time when I thought, 'Right I'm really going to wean this toddler now' my first daughter was when I wanted another baby, and I know this is not the case for all women but I hadn't had the return of periods at that point, I imagine because I was breastfeeding, and so I thought, 'Well I want a sibling for the baby so'.
Were you aware of the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding at that stage, did you know anything about it?
I realised, yeah that breastfeeding was going to suppress my periods for at least for, for a short while but it carried on and on and I didn't, and I suppose that was the reason I didn't, they didn't come back for as long as they didn't, but I was still feeding a lot at that point, I mean that it wasn't just one feed a day I was still feeding six times a day or something probably, on and off.
Okay so how did you handle the weaning?
I think it was, it was something she didn't want to do so there was a little bit of guilt, I felt a little bit guilty doing it and I was very much saying, 'Well you're a big girl now' and, you know, obviously by this point she was also drinking all sorts of things and eating everything and, you know, and I really got the feeling that it was more for comfort than for nutrition at this point, so I think I just sort of distracted her really, when she would come to feed I would say, 'How about a story?' or we would, you know, get up and off the sofa and go and go off and do something and, but I remember our last breastfeed quite clearly and I, you know, I feel sort of quite, you know, emotional when I think well that was the last time that she fed.
Did you cut out one feed at a time or anything like that?
I don't think it was as kind of planned as that, I suppose by that point she was more snacking than having really great gulping feeds apart from at bedtime when she still would, and no, first thing in the morning actually was the biggest feed for a long while and I think it was when I got rid of that one it's almost like all the other ones fell away by themselves.
And any problems with milk supply at that stage as you're slowing down?
I think I must have been cutting down gradually because I didn't find any engorgement or mastitis or anything then, it must have just sort of happened quite slowly and without any kind of massive cut off.
She was fed up with breastfeeding her two-and-a-half year old daughter and decided to stop but it...
Some women talked about resisting pressure, from family, friends and health professionals, to wean their baby from the breast and “get back to normal” (see 'Breastfeeding an older baby').
Her friends were encouraging her to wean before her daughter became very ill and required surgery...
This is while she was ill?
She was ill. And I went through quite a lot of, I suppose guilt, I spent hours saying the same to my husband, 'Oh do you think I ought to be stopping now?' and a lot of my friends were saying to me, 'You really ought to get back to normal now and it's time for you to have time, the two of you to be able to go out for dinner and, and I think it's time you need to stop breastfeeding now and get her onto a bottle and, you know, off so anyone can feed her' and I think having been through what I've been through just you really ought just to do what suits you, suits her, I have a very nice couple of hours with her in the evenings and my husband's quite happy we just kind of, you know, the three of us are quite happy together and if we go out for dinner then we'll go out for dinner that little bit later and I think I would, if we have another child which hopefully we will, I will breastfeed from the start and continue to breastfeed as and when it suits us so that we can get her onto a bottle and wean her as we have with our little girl at one, maybe without the extreme three months [laughs] in-between then we'll have had a very, very good experience really. We've had, I've had a good experience feeding her. As I say three months of not the most, not the easiest time in-between but we got through it and with a lot of help and with a lot of encouragement and she's breastfeeding, she's drinking from a cup, she's semi-weaned and she's on her way to being very healthy, and she is very healthy now, so I think anybody out there who's child needs to go through surgery and is breastfeeding to start with, if you can keep it up it, it helps you, it's, in my view, really good for them, and just it also gives you the options at the end that it's nice, the comfort of being together and, as I say, we've managed to breastfeed and bottle feed and wean all at the end of a fairly harrowing three months, if you can, if you can go through it, it really is worth it and you come out the other side.
Some women acknowledged their sadness at finishing breastfeeding, particularly if it was their last baby, while others spoke of overcoming that sadness with the thought of being able to have more children. One woman had breastfed almost non-stop for nine years and was sad that her breastfeeding days were coming to an end because it had been such a big part of her life.
She was devastated when her daughter rejected breastfeeding at one year but knew that she could...
Yes she'd lost, she came off me at a year, I was devastated after a year. She didn't want me on her first birthday she just said, 'No' just kept pushing it away. I said, 'no you can have more' 'no' and she just kept pushing away, so I pushed, I mean I pushed it at, at the ten months she didn't really want it but I kept pushing and pushing, but by her birthday no, she just said, 'No', I said, 'please, I need it' but no she didn't want me at all. But I'm hoping that he'll go a little bit longer than a year, if he gives up at ten months I'm going to be devastated because I need it.
How did you deal with her rejecting you at a year?
It was really upsetting, really upsetting, I was, because it's that moment of special time where you look into each other eyes and you just have that second it's lovely. I'd have it twelve times it wasn't so bad, if I wasn't so sick in my pregnancies I'd have it twelve times, I love it. It's just a really lovely feeling no one can take, no one can give it to you, no one can take it way from you it's lovely, it does hurt, but because I know I could have more it wasn't an end thing I knew I could have more children so it wasn't, although it hurt at the time I knew I could go on and have more children and I knew that it was best for her to give up like she did because I'd heard of a lot people that were three still trying to get them to wean so, and I didn't want to do it that far. So I mean although it was upsetting I knew that I could have more children and I knew that it was best for her, do you get my meaning?
One woman said that she was “frightened” of weaning her daughter from breast milk and repeating a family history of inappropriate eating.
She was getting pressure to wean her four year old but needed help with what to feed her. She was...
She was happily breastfed and she's still happily breastfeeding and, you know, this doesn't seem like there's any, you know, we've talked about her stopping when she's four, on her birthday, and that's what we talk about now, all the other drinks she's going to have instead.
So this is a conscious conversation…
…that you and she have?
She's a party to this?
In deciding that this is what you will do?
Yeah, so come her fourth birthday we'll see what happens, I hope, that's what happens.
Are you frightened of weaning?
I'm frightened because I've tried, I've tried to wean and if I have a puff of joint or whatever then I think, 'Oh God [daughter] can't drink for another twelve hours' but [daughter's] going, “what do you mean I can't drink? I can't drink milk for another twelve hours, what are you talking about?” that's why it's difficult for me, that's why I can't say on camera that, you know, over the past three and a half years I've used anything and [daughter's] drunk my milk. Even though within the medical profession it's well-known that's what happens at birth is you, you know, if you get a mum to breastfeed then you can wean that way rather than give the baby a low, a load, a script or whatever of drugs whatever. I've also not gone back onto Prozac because I don't want her to get, you know, antidepressant's, but I'm in a dilemma because I've managed three and a half years and I'm falling apart, I need antidepressant's, you know, I need something to help me, particularly to help me, you know, stop using anything, you know, that I shouldn't use it. I mean I don't use anything bad, I have like, there's been bad ups and downs but there's been, it's been three and a half years, I've been a fucking saint compared to what I used to be, because, for the sake of [daughter]. But that's one strand, the other strand is what's going on is an eating disorder business. So you wean from milk to food, so you wean from some kind of regulated, you know, I don't know what the sort of biological, I don't know what the word is, you know, your emotional regulations and your biological and how it all knits up together to eating solid food at mealtimes or in some other environment that's regulated. And I'm finding it very difficult to get [daughter] to eat anything, and I find it very difficult for her to eat any of the healthy things I try and get her to eat. And, all I remember from my mum is her eating too much all the time, and all I remember from being three is being really fat and being fed loads of chocolate and coke by my nanny, and that being how you got looked after. And, you know, my dad's, my dad's mum died when he was five and, he's never had a sort of regular eating childhood of like, you know, that kind of regulation, that kind of like nurturing and love. And my mum obviously didn't have it because she had a problem all her life so, for some people the whole idea of like, you know, first of all I did try to get into it and during babyhood we'd do all the things like steamed vegetables and mash them up, puree fruit, do all the little finger food and stuff like that, and somehow or other she's kind of like gone through a phase of that during her babyhood and then into her toddler hood and then into her young kid hood and gone, “I don't like any of that stuff I just want the breastmilk, and plain pasta, and if you're lucky a baked potato, but apart from that I'll eat all the sweets that you
*Footnote: A small percentage of at-risk babies will develop dental caries in spite of breastfeeding not because of it. Good dietary and oral hygiene practices will help with prevention. A dentist should be consulted about treatment.
Last reviewed November 2018.