Weaning

Overview

What is weaning?

Weaning is the term used to describe the process of switching a baby from:

  • Breast-feeding to bottle-feeding.
  • Breast- or bottle-feeding to a cup.
  • Breast- or bottle-feeding to solid foods.

Your baby will go through one or more of these weaning processes. All types of weaning usually work best when they are done gradually—over several weeks, months, or even longer.

Weaning a baby from the breast is a big change for moms as well as for babies. Besides affecting you physically, it may also affect you emotionally.

Some moms feel a little sad to lose some of the closeness that breast-feeding provides. But you will also have more freedom, because others can feed your baby. Don't be surprised if you feel both happy and sad that your child is becoming more independent.

How do you know if your baby is ready to wean?

Signs that a baby is ready to wean often appear after the baby has learned to crawl or learned to walk. Your breast-feeding baby may suck a few times and then stop nursing. He or she may just start to lose interest in your breast.

Bottle-fed babies who are ready to wean may start spitting out the nipple, or throwing or hiding the bottle before it is empty. Your baby may show more interest in drinking from a cup.

When is the best time to wean?

There is no right or wrong time. And there is no correct length of time that it should take. It depends on how ready you and your child are to start weaning.

Some moms wait longer because they are not ready to give up the closeness that breast-feeding brings. Others are ready to wean sooner or have responsibilities or life changes that make it necessary.

Choose a time when your child is ready. Try not to start weaning when your child or your family is under stress. Stress can range from cutting a new tooth to moving to a new house or starting a new day care program.

What is the best way to wean a baby?

Gradual weaning is best for both babies and moms. Look for signs that your baby is ready. When you are both ready, try dropping one feeding every 5 to 7 days. This will help give you and your baby time to adjust to new ways of feeding. If you are breast-feeding, gradual weaning helps keep your breasts from becoming too full, a problem called breast engorgement.

How do you meet your baby's nutrition needs while weaning?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:1

  • Breast-feed babies for at least a year and as long after as mother and child desire. Introduce iron-enriched solid foods at 6 months of age to complement the breast milk.
  • For babies who were weaned from the breast or the bottle before 12 months of age, give iron-fortified formula, not cow's or goat's milk.

You can also give your baby breast milk from a cup or a bottle.

What if your baby does not want to be weaned?

Sometimes a mother wants to stop breast-feeding but her baby seems to want to keep it up. If you can, keep breast-feeding a while longer. Try offering your milk or formula in a cup before you breast-feed or between breast-feedings. There are also different bottle nipples you can try.

Some babies grow attached to the bottle and do not want to give it up. Don't let your baby crawl, walk around, or go to bed with a bottle. Nighttime feedings are often the hardest to give up. Try replacing that feeding with new habits, such as reading a book or looking at the stars together.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about weaning:

What to expect:

Promoting healthy growth and development:

Concerns:

What Is Expected

Weaning is usually a gradual process. It starts when you begin feeding your baby in other ways than breast- or bottle-feeding. And it ends when the child no longer breast-feeds or takes a bottle. This process may last several weeks, a few months, or more than a year.

A rough outline of this process is as follows:

  • Your baby may begin eating solid foods at 4 to 6 months of age.
  • At this point, you may want to offer cup-feeding to supplement breast- or bottle-feedings. Over the next 6 months, your baby may show signs that he or she is ready to wean.
  • Your bottle-fed baby should continue to get nutrition largely from formula until he or she is 12 months old. After that, allowing your child to continue drinking from a bottle may lead to problems such as baby bottle tooth decay.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you continue breast-feeding your baby until at least age 1 while gradually supplementing the diet with iron-fortified foods. By the age of 1 year, your baby might only breast-feed twice a day. Your baby continues to benefit nutritionally if you decide to breast-feed beyond the first year.

It is important to switch gradually to the cup. Although some mothers stop breast- or bottle-feedings abruptly, the baby may not be ready. Babies find comfort from sucking and also may need the closeness and comfort breast- or bottle-feeding provides. Always think about your baby's emotional needs, age, and readiness as well as about your own needs, when switching from breast- or bottle-feeding to a cup. Toddlers (ages 1 to 2) may tolerate abrupt weaning better than babies.

Common concerns

  • I'm pregnant. Should I stop breast-feeding my first child? No, you can continue to breast-feed your first child while you are pregnant. But talk to your doctor about your nutritional needs and other issues you should be aware of. For more information, see the topic Breast-Feeding.
  • I want to become pregnant. Should I wean my child? You can continue to breast-feed, but breast-feeding may make it more difficult to become pregnant. For more information, see the topic Breast-Feeding.
  • When I wean, should I be concerned about my baby's teeth? Be sure to give your baby adequate nutrition to build healthy teeth. And as you wean your baby from the breast or the bottle, limit sugary liquids, especially at bedtime. This can cause dental cavities. Don't put your baby to bed with a bottle. And after 12 months of age, stop night breast-feedings. For more information, see the topic Teething.
  • What can I do if I want to stop breast-feeding, but my baby does not? If possible, continue breast-feeding a while longer. If this is not possible, offer breast milk or formula in a cup and/or give extra hugs.
  • What can I do if my baby does not want to give up the bottle? Slow down the weaning process, or offer a stuffed toy or blanket for comfort, instead of the bottle.
  • Are there times when I should not wean my baby? Do not try to wean your baby before he or she is 6 months old or during times of stress, such as when starting a new day care.
  • What if I develop pain and tenderness in my breasts while trying to wean? Breast engorgement is less likely to occur if you gradually wean your baby rather than suddenly stop breast-feeding. Weaning from the breast is easier when your baby is already taking solid foods and has been breast-feeding less often. The pain and discomfort from breast engorgement improves as your breasts stop making milk. You will likely feel better in 1 to 5 days. Home treatment, such as applying cold packs to the breasts, may relieve some of your symptoms. For more information, see the topic Breast Engorgement.
  • Should I start or stop giving supplements to my child? Most doctors suggest daily vitamin D supplements for children, starting by age 2 months. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.

Promoting Healthy Growth and Development

It’s important not only for you to give your baby nutritious foods and drinks but also for you and your baby to interact with each other during mealtimes. These things help your baby's mind and body grow. Breast milk and formula give babies all the calories and nutrients they need until they are 6 months old. After that, babies need other nutrients and energy from solid foods. You can wean gradually or abruptly in order to get your baby what he or she needs for growth. When you make choices about weaning, always think of your baby's emotional needs, age, and readiness as well as your own needs.

The weaning process

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breast-fed for at least a year and as long after as mother and child desire.1

  • If you are not breast-feeding and your baby is younger than 12 months of age, use iron-fortified formula. Do not offer your baby cow's milk.1 The iron in cow's milk is not well-absorbed, and iron is necessary for healthy development. Also, some babies may be more likely to react to the protein in cow's milk. In an emergency, you can give your baby whole milk for a short time until you can get more formula.
  • If your baby is older than 12 months, you can give your baby whole milk. Do not use skim milk or 2% milk before your child is 2 years old. These types of milk provide too few calories, too much protein, and inadequate essential fatty acids.
  • Switching from breast milk to formula may cause differences in how often your baby feeds and a change in the color and consistency of your baby's stools.

When you have decided that you and your child are ready to give up breast- or bottle-feeding, develop a plan for what you will do. Talk with other family members and get their help.

In general, you can start giving your baby solid foods at 4 to 6 months of age. Feed your baby at the table with the rest of the family. Follow your doctor's advice on when and what to feed your baby. At 6 months of age, iron-enriched solid foods should be introduced.1 Usually, the more solid foods a baby eats, the less breast milk or formula he or she needs, and the easier it is for your baby to switch from the breast or bottle.

Weaning from breast- or bottle-feeding can be done gradually or abruptly. Watch for signs that your baby is ready to wean. To gradually stop breast- or bottle-feeding while you offer cup-feeding and/or solid foods, give up the least important feeding first, which is usually the midday one. Then stop the late afternoon and morning feedings. Stop the most important feeding (the one that provides the baby the greatest emotional comfort) last: this is usually the first or last feeding of the day. Whether you are weaning or not, the last feeding should gradually be moved up so that by 4 months it is no longer at bedtime and other soothing rituals can be established. Pay attention to whether your baby is sucking for comfort or hunger. If your baby uses a pacifier, think about replacing it with a blanket or a stuffed toy for comfort.

Gradual weaning

A gradual weaning slowly reduces the number of breast- or bottle-feedings. One feeding is eliminated every 5 to 7 days, giving the mother and baby time to adjust. Gradual weaning helps maintain emotional attachment, prevents breast engorgement, and allows the baby to learn other ways of eating. It is generally planned to suit both the mother's and child's needs.

Gradual weaning is best for both you and your baby. It is recommended for babies unless the mother has a medical condition that does not allow it.

Abrupt weaning

Abrupt weaning is a sudden end to breast- or bottle-feeding and can be difficult for both the mother and the child. The mother may experience painful breast engorgement and has an increased risk for a breast infection (mastitis). Both the mother and the child may miss the emotional attachment and closeness of breast- or bottle-feeding.

Your child may respond to abrupt weaning by:

  • Refusing to drink from a cup for a period of time. Prolonged refusal to drink from a cup can lead to dehydration and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Sucking his or her thumb.

Weaning a toddler

Gradual or abrupt weaning may work for 1- to 2-year-olds.

  • A toddler who breast- or bottle-feeds 3 or more times a day may do better with gradual weaning.
  • A toddler who breast- or bottle-feeds 2 times a day or less may do well with abrupt weaning.

You may find the following suggestions helpful as you switch to other types of feeding:

As your baby learns to feed himself or herself, keep in mind that your job is to provide a variety of nutritious foods, but your baby will decide how much to eat. This is sometimes called the division of responsibility.

When to Call a Doctor

Talk to your child's doctor about weaning if:

  • Your baby refuses all solid food and is older than 6 to 8 months of age.
  • Your baby has changed from sleeping through the night to waking up during the night hungry.
  • Your baby develops dental cavities (caries).
  • Your baby seems overweight for his or her age, size, or birth weight.
  • Your toddler (1 to 2 years old) focuses on breast- or bottle-feeding and does not play with other children.
  • Your toddler never wants to be away from you.
  • Your baby is older than 12 months of age and is still drinking from a bottle.
  • You are emotionally ready to wean your baby.

Who to see

Health professionals who can deal with your concerns about weaning include:

Routine Checkups

A well-baby checkup is a good time to ask questions about weaning. During this checkup, your baby's doctor will:

  • Compare the baby's current weight, height, and head size with measurements taken at birth to see if the rate of growth is normal.
  • Ask how well the baby is eating and sleeping and whether any problems have developed.

References

Citations

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, Section on Breastfeeding (2005). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 115(2): 496–506.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2004). Age eight months through twelve months. In SP Shelov, RE Hannemann, eds., Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 4th ed., chap. 9, pp. 231–264. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2004). Age one month through three months. In SP Shelov, RE Hannemann, eds., Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 4th ed., chap. 7, pp. 177–200. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Brazelton TB (2006). Touchpoints, Birth to Three: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Hoffman DR, et al. (2003). Visual function in breast-fed term infants weaned to formula with or without long-chain polyunsaturates at 4 to 6 months: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Pediatrics, 142: 669–677.
  • Wagner CL, et al. (2008). Prevention of rickets and vitamin D deficiency in infants, children, and adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Pediatrics, 122(5): 1142–1152.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Joy Melnikow, MD, MPH - Family Medicine
Last Updated June 19, 2008

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