Whether you're bummed to put a stop to blissful breastfeeding sessions, or aching to end being a slave to the bottle, weaning can be challenging—and the long, gradual process is different for every family. But when should you start? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends relying solely on breast milk (or formula, based on your situation) for your little one's first six months of life. However, a recent study in the British Medical Journal suggests that parents consider weaning as early as four months.
There's no "ideal moment" to wean—wait until you're ready to say bye-bye to the breast or bottle. "It's a personal decision," says Pediatrician Dr. Jen Canter M.D. "Usually, baby will let mom know when she's ready! My recommendation is try (not easy!) breast milk alone for 5-6 months and slowly introduce foods...[there's] no 'black and white' lines—each baby and parent is different."
Factors such as returning to work and your baby's health can weigh into your decision, but one thing is certain—you want to wean your baby off the bottle or breast in the best way possible. Here are a few tips to make the process easier.
- Choose the right time. Timing is everything, so it helps to have a plan. Moving, a new job, or a teething tot are all good reasons to wait to start weaning. If you're focused on other activities, weaning can make things even more stressful. Most mothers give themselves an entire month to wean their baby, so schedule the process during a four-week period when you have the time and patience to dedicate to helping your little one with this transition.
- Offer a smorgasboard. Offer a variety of foods to reduce your tiny eater's hunger and thirst such as fruits, veggies, rice, pasta and meats. "You can get a suitable list of foods for babies of different ages from your health visitor or doctor," says Dr. Penny Stanway, author of Feeding Your Baby and Breast is Best. "To make a puréed food for a baby who can't yet chew, either mash the food or push it through a sieve or mouli, or whizz it in an electric blender." Adding expressed breast milk can help a savory purée go down a bit easier, since the familiar flavor will make the new food attractive. Unsalted water from cooked vegetables, salt-free vegetable or chicken stock, or water in which you've cooked fruit are other suitable additives.
- Make mealtime fun. Serve foods in colorful, baby-friendly bowls to spice things up, and let take the reins in feeding herself. She'll make a mess, but she'll have fun in the process and look forward to her next meal. Dr. Canter says, "Work on a colorful plate of age appropriate safe foods and your baby WILL eventually take that cup and be fine."
- Change your routine. Rolling with the punches is part of the parenting process. Switch things up with a walk or a book during times that you'd normally feed, and you'll be able to distract your baby from wanting to nurse.
- More bonding time. If you're already feeling sad about losing out on the bonding time that nursing provides, find other ways to stay close to your baby. Play games, read a book, take a walk, or just sit on the floor together. "It's natural to miss the times you used to have together during breastfeeds, but remember you can still cuddle your baby closely, look into your baby's eyes, smile, talk, and laugh with your baby as she feeds," says Dr. Stanway. "Stopping breastfeeding is a natural progression for a baby, and she is lucky enough to have you with her to ease her way as she takes this big step forward in her life."
- Make sippy cup appealing. If you're breastfeeding and your baby is 9 months or older, consider weaning straight to a cup, so you don't have to transition from a bottle later on. Choose sippy cups that are colorful, durable and enticing to your little one—she's got to love it, so consider toting her to the store to pick one herself. If you're transitioning from the bottle, begin by watering it down. Chances are she'll prefer the 100 percent milk in a cup rather than the watered down milk in the bottle.
- Go slow. Weaning takes time, so don't rush. If you suddenly stop nursing, you'll find your breasts engorged and your baby stressed. Instead, cut down one nursing session at a time, so she can transition smoothly to her new diet. Most moms remove the most inconvenient feeding first—usually in the morning. The last feeding to go is often the one at night, since it's part of your baby's bedtime ritual. Do what works best for you until she's strictly using a cup.
- Rely on others. Weaning is emotional, so it's wise to have a solid support system. Enlist your spouse's help for feedings. If your baby wakes in the middle of the night, have Dad can put her back to bed so she's not enticed to nurse. Having somebody else help offers a much-needed distraction.
Above all, don't sweat the small stuff. "Be patient and give you and baby time to adjust," Dr. Canter suggests. "Don't let weaning be stressful. Transitions in parenting take time and may happen naturally when they are supposed to. If it's not working perhaps regroup and try again in a few weeks." Your baby may refuse a sippy at first, but eventually she'll warm to the idea. Stay patient, and soon your "big kid" will be bottle or breast-free.