As a lactation consultant, I have been told time after time that there is a lot of information available online about how to establish and maintain breastfeeding, but very little on how to stop. Mamamade has invited me to write this blog for those of you who have reached the end of your breastfeeding journey at whatever stage that is.
When to stop breastfeeding?
There is no "right time" to stop breastfeeding other than stopping when the time is right for you. Reducing or stopping breastfeeding is something you can do at any time once YOU DECIDE to stop. If you are reading this because you are struggling with breastfeeding right now and feel like you HAVE TO STOP or that you can't go on because of the breastfeeding challenges you are facing, then please consider seeking out some breastfeeding support - there are some useful helplines at the bottom of this blog.
When stopping breastfeeding, there are a number of things you need to consider. Not surprisingly, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to stopping. The amount of breastfeeding you are doing, your baby's age, and to an extent, your individual milk supply and lactation history all need to be considered. You will need a plan of action to reduce and then stop feeds, to give your baby milk in another way (age dependent) and replace the comfort and attachment your baby may have with coming to the breast. This blog aims to cover all these elements to help get you started.
It is always best to stop breastfeeding gradually to protect your breast health and make the transition easier for your little one. Stopping suddenly increases the likelihood of getting blocked ducts or developing mastitis. Ideally, you would stop one feed at a time. Which feeds to stop in which order is completely up to you and a very personal decision. You can choose to stop the feeds that you find the least convenient, the ones you would prefer someone else to do, e.g. daytime if you’re going to be at work or nighttime if you are struggling mostly with lack of sleep. Alternatively, you can follow your baby’s lead and go with a feed that they show the least interest in.
Step by step guide to stop breastfeeding
Stop one feed at a time.
If you feel full or engorged at the missed feed, you can hand express to relieve engorgement. You may need to do this for a few days until the feeling passes. You can also take an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen if you feel tender. Avoid pumping as this continues to send messages to your breasts to make milk.
Once the breasts have adapted to that missed feed, you can drop the next one and so on until you cut down to the feeds you want or stop altogether.
If you are prone to blocked ducts or mastitis, you may need to move more slowly between stopping feeds.
One of the advantages of stopping breastfeeding a feed at a time is that you can pause whenever you want. Once the formula is introduced, you will be combination feeding. I have supported many women who wanted to stop but who then actually ended up just stopping the less convenient feeds or the ones they found more challenging. At that point, they felt happy with the remaining breastfeeds and continued to combination feed until they were ready to stop completely. This is also an option.
Whilst stopping slowly is recommended, there may be times or reasons when you have to or want to stop quickly:
When you stop feeding your baby at the breast quickly, you will still need to tend to your breasts as they will still be producing milk.
Depending on how much you were feeding your little one, you may have to pump and/or hand express to relieve engorgement and soften the breasts to avoid developing mastitis.
Gradually space out the time between pumping/hand expressing and also reduce the time spent on the pump until you stop feeling full/engorged.
If you feel uncomfortable and your breasts are tender, you can take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen, wear cold cabbage leaves in your bra (change every 2 hours) and/or use cold compresses.
Some herbs have been associated with reducing milk supply; they include sage and peppermint.
Replacing breastfeeds in younger babies
If your baby is under six months old, they will need to transition to formula feeding from a bottle. Between 6-12 months, breastfeeding can be replaced with a combination of formula feeding and solid foods. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to stopping breastfeeding can be getting your breastfed baby to take a bottle.
Stopping breastfeeding with older babies and toddlers
If you are stopping breastfeeding an older baby/toddler then it is worth recognising that breastfeeds are not just for nutrition but for other reasons too. They include comfort to help with sleep, attachment, pain management, upset and other feelings. These things cannot be replaced with milk! Therefore, it isn’t surprising that when they are offered a cup of milk in place of a bedtime feed, they aren’t interested. In these instances, you need to replace the comfort of breastfeeding with another form of comfort. This could be cuddles, rocking, singing or all of them together. You will find which works best for your baby/toddler.
If you are looking for breastfeeding support, then here are some options:
Hospital/community: infant feeding lead/infant feeding team, breastfeeding midwives, peer supporters
Community: drop-in breastfeeding groups, local breastfeeding Facebook support groups
National Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 100 0212. Phone lines are open 9.30 am to 9.30 pm 365 days per year and calls are answered by trained volunteers. Live online support via web chat is also available via www.nationalbreastfeedinghelpline.org.uk
Other helplines include:
Association of breastfeeding mothers: 0300 3305453
NCT charity: 0300 330 0700
La Leche League: 0345 120 2918
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who can come to your home and offer private 1:1 support: https://lcgb.org/find-an-ibclc/
This blog was written by Stacey Zimmels, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Feeding and Swallowing Specialist Speech Therapist. You can find out more about Stacey and the services and resources she offers on all aspects of feeding little ones on her website www.feedeatspeak.co.uk and Instagram @feedeatspeak