Breastfeeding and Weaning According to an IBCLC

Mothers may choose to wean for so many different reasons. First, it can be when teething begins, as it can be painful to endure if the baby bites before or after a feeding, health, or lifestyle need. You might want to finish your breastfeeding journey without justification, which is OK! Let's discuss all things weaning and comfort measures, regardless of the method or reason.

What is Weaning?

Weaning: a term many refer to when talking about stopping breastfeeding and providing breastmilk through pumping; weaning off. This term also means adapting to something, in this case, solids. In the UK, it’s more commonly used to introduce baby food and other solids to the baby and not to use less milk. However, both uses are correct and typically correlate. As the baby learns to chew and swallow and take on new flavors and textures, less and less time may be spent at the breast and bottle.

Weaning will look different from child to child in terms of time frame, temperament, readiness, method, and reasons. While some scenarios are abrupt and unavoidable, we also have systems that can be done with gentleness to aid both parties in the process. 

A Hands-off Approach vs Intentional

Baby-Led Weaning

Some children will naturally wean with no initiation or pressure from the mom, spending less and less time at the breast; this is more accurately referred to as "baby-led weaning." Baby-led weaning is most common in babies over ten months of age and toddlers, as breast milk (or alternative infant formula) is their primary source of nutrition through their first year of age. It usually starts by dropping the number of night feeds, acting interested in solid foods, and finally distracting themselves with other activities and play. 

Mother-Led Weaning

Mother-led weaning is usually based on personal decisions, preferences, or goals, following a similar pattern. However, mother-led weaning usually does best with a plan. Some factors to consider: are the child's age, partial or full weaning, preferences of the parent, temperaments of the child, mental health, and readiness from both parties.

"As an IBCLC and a mother, it's also important for me to point out how very normal it is to feel touched-out or overstimulated having a baby to nurse in today's world."

Gradual Weaning

Gradually weaning or partial weaning is preferred for all parties, if at all possible, regardless of who initiated it. In cases of exclusive breastfeeding and that level of milk supply, taking it slow is best.
Breast milk production is based on the frequency of stimulation and feedings and the amount expressed. Slowly removing feedings/per day will signal the body to begin making less.

Breastfeeding momBreastfeeding mom
When incorporating solid foods, such as cereals, baby foods, and soft solids, offering to breastfeed first or bottle feed their breast milk will ensure they receive sufficient calories, as the baby food is not calorie-rich in comparison. We also refer to baby food as "complementary foods," They are just that, and they serve more of a motor-skill building function and nutrient buffer during the first year. Depending on when weaning occurs, you may need to supplement to replace the child's need to obtain enough milk through the first year. Donated milk (from a milk bank) or infant formula are the appropriate options through their first birthday, as cow's milk and nut milk should not be given before then. 

Start Slow

First, start with bedtime feedings, and work on more opportunities week-to-week. Keep your own emotions and body language in check. Take deep breaths when feeling frustrated and ask for help. We weren't meant to tackle motherhood alone! Implement other comfort measures during the breastfeeding session, such as hand holding, singing, talking, and rocking, so those things can take the session's place down the road. Fluctuations in frequency are NORMAL! Some days they may ask to feed more than others, especially during the first year, as breastfeeding helps with their emotions and comfort, growth spurts, and teething pain. Keep providing time in mind, notice the difference in active feeding and soothing, and practice safely unlatching them manually. Distract, distract, distract! Communicate as necessary to family members about your decisions and your methods.

"Don't Offer, Don't Refuse"

This particular method has been beneficial for many who want to take the weaning process slow. When you get to the point where you are ready to start cutting down on feedings at the breast, try to wear a non-accessible top that would make requests to nurse more enticing or easy, especially with older babies and toddlers who avoid regularly offering to feed. Instead of offering, allow them to "ask" to provide; however, they do so normally. Hand-express your milk to ease discomfort and prevent plugged ducts when phasing out full nursing sessions or pumping.

Personal Comfort Measures

Exploring comfort measures for yourself and your baby is especially crucial in times of more abrupt weaning, regardless of the needs and reasons. We want to minimize the risk for breast infections from lack of milk flow while your nipple pores are open, breast discomfort and engorgement, over-stretching the tissues, and keeping hormones in check from sudden dips and changes.

  1. Express Milk: Hand expression or using a manual breast pump as needed to only remove some of the milk, keeping the breasts softened but not telling the body to keep producing at the current threshold or level.
  2. Warm compresses help tremendously for clogged ducts and relief, blood flow to the area, and softening of the tissue.
  3. For swelling and after feeding or pumping sessions, applying cold packs with a protective layer on your skin will contract the blood vessels and slow the breast milk's refilling, which will also help reduce milk supply.
  4. Continue any supplements, such as postnatal vitamins, to support your health and vitality during this time. Good nutrition is a great first line of defense from disease and infection, which is especially important when risks for blocked ducts and breast infections are increased.
  5. Cuddling and skin-on-skin time with your little one are great ways to promote healthy bonding and oxytocin flow and decrease the risk and severity of PPD and PPP.
  6. If you experience a fever or other symptoms of infection, contact your care provider and an IBCLC, as lactation consultants can further provide assistance based on your circumstances and needs. Your care provider may suggest NSAIDs such as ibuprofen as well as antibiotics for infection.
  7. Seek support from breastfeeding groups, such as the la Leche league and community resources. 

About the Author

Ashley Georgakopoulos is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) that specializes in the clinical management of breastfeeding and an expert in the field of lactation. Ashley is from Knoxville, TN, and is a mother who has dealt with the obstacles and joys of breastfeeding. As the owner of Genesis Lactation, she educates families, connects them to resources, and helps the next generation be as healthy as possible: nutritionally and sustainably.

Information provided in blogs should not be used as a substitute for medical care or consultation.

Information provided in blogs should not be used as a substitute for medical care or consultation.


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