Breastfeeding can be a very pleasant part of new motherhood, with wonderful benefits for both mom and baby. But at some point, it’s time to bring the nursing relationship to an end. Knowing when and how to do that, however, is more challenging than just closing up the milk factory one day and never looking back.
The biggest indicator that it’s time to wean is that the baby is not interested in nursing anymore, says Beth Meeker BSN, RNC, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at Beaumont Hospital – Troy. “They get disinterested, because they are more interested in the world around them,” she says.
However, there are plenty of reasons a nursing mother might think she has to wean, but she doesn’t need to.
Mistaken reasons to wean baby
If a new mom is heading back to work, pumping and storing milk can help maintain supply and provide breast milk while she is away from her baby. Most health insurance plans are required to cover the cost of a pump, and some also provide counseling on breastfeeding. Employers are obligated to give moms a place to pump (that is not a bathroom) and regular scheduled breaks to do so.
If a mom needs to have surgery, she simply needs to “pump and dump” for a few days until the anesthesia clears her system, pumping ahead for a few days or supplementing with formula (or both) to keep the baby fed, says Meeker.
Fear of being forced to wean should not interfere with seeking treatment for postpartum depression, as well. Many medications do not pass into breastmilk and are perfectly safe to take, Meeker adds.
Finally, attempting to get pregnant does not mean an end to breastfeeding if both mom and baby want to continue; sometimes baby will stop on his or her own when mom becomes pregnant because the breasts begin producing colostrum again, which can taste unpleasant to the baby. Oftentimes, however, moms can nurse up to and even past the birth of the new baby.
Top tips for weaning baby
Weaning can be uncomfortable for both mother and baby. Meeker suggests taking it very slowly, dropping a feeding every few days (or up to a week), so the body gets the signal to stop producing milk. Be patient, especially if you have nursed for a long time. “A slow wean is always better,” Meeker says. “The longer a mom breastfeeds, the longer her body will keep producing milk.”
Taking it slow will help your milk supply drop naturally and avoid engorgement or plugged ducts. If that does happen, taking ibuprofen for the pain can help (although moms should stay away from aspirin, as it can get into the milk and cause Reye’s syndrome in babies).
And the old wives tale about cabbage leaves? It actually works! They are effective because they are cold, which soothes engorgement, and can conform to the breast and be worn inside a bra. Some studies have found a chemical component in the leaves that can help ease engorgement, but that’s not definitive, Meeker says.
You can also pump just a little, just enough to relieve any engorgement, but be careful, Meeker warns. Pumping too much just signals the body to continue producing milk and will perpetuate the problem.
Helping your baby adjust to weaning
Easing the impact on the baby is easier than you might think, Meeker says. If mom and baby have established a routine – always nursing before naptime, for instance – mom should continue that close, quiet snuggle time, but with a pacifier or bottle instead of nursing. It’s that closeness and connection that build the bond between mom and baby, not the milk itself (although the milk itself does have plenty of health benefits).
And, Meeker says, moms need not feel they must address every whimper by immediately nursing their baby.
“You can try and get them to self soothe in other ways,” she says. “It’s OK to have them self-soothe with a special toy or a pacifier.”
Ultimately, the decision to wean is one between the mother and the baby. It’s not the mother-in-law’s, partner/spouse’s, employer’s, or anyone else’s to make. New motherhood is a sensitive time as a mom adjusts to her new role, often on top of hormones that have far from settled down. Any criticism can hit especially hard.
“It just takes one negative comment to start a mom thinking she needs to stop,” Meeker says.
Weaning can be a difficult process, but with the right techniques it can be a much smoother transition. Take it slow, take care of yourself and your baby, and you’ll find that the weaning process can by surprisingly easy on you both.