Abrupt Weaning

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated July 10, 2018.



Weaning begins when a baby is given anything other than breast milk.  For a breastfeeding mother, this typically begins somewhere around the middle of the first year of life when solid foods are introduced and will take place gradually over months or years until a baby is completely weaned from the breast.

Sometimes, however, a mother is in a situation where she must wean abruptly. This can be a very emotional time, especially if this is not what she was planning.  Perhaps there is a medication that is completely incompatible with breastfeeding, a baby has died, or there is another difficult situation.  Whatever the case, there are several things that you should know and do.

  1. Consider mother and baby’s feelings.
    Weaning abruptly can not only be physically painful (due to engorgement, etc.) but it can also be very emotional.  A breastfeeding mother is usually the center of an infant’s world and he will not understand why suckling at the breast is no longer possible.  A mother needs time and support from those around her to grieve, as well as help to make the transition as smooth as possible for both her and her baby.
  2. Change up the daily routine.
    The quick transition to bottles rather than breast will be easier for your baby if you can change up the daily routines, especially where breastfeeding is concerned.  If mom always put baby to bed at night by nursing, for example, it may be helpful for mom to instead give baby a bath, sing songs, read books, and cuddle in another room, and then have dad lie down with baby to go to sleep.  During the day, if the mother is primarily the one at home and baby comes to her throughout the day for nursing, it would be helpful to have a friend or dad home to help with the bottles.  Have plenty of fun foods for baby to eat (if he is over 6 months) and plan some fun things – going to the park, zoo, play group, playground, etc.  Keep him busy and distracted from breastfeeding for a few days.  If your baby is still really young, holding her in a sling can help her feel the closeness that came from breastfeeding.  Ultimately, you are helping your baby understand that there are still lots and lots of love, fun, and cuddles with mom – all throughout the day – but that milk is different and can be fed by another.  Make sure to talk and reassure baby often that mother is still the center of his life; it’s just breastfeeding that is gone.
  3. Watch your breast health closely.
    The possibility of developing engorgement, clogged ducts, and mastitis is strong when abrupt weaning takes place.  You can watch your body’s cues and proactively take precautions to help make this less likely.  Applying ice packs wrapped in cloth to engorged breasts can soothe the pain as can taking an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen.  Wearing a comfortable (larger) bra that is supportive is very helpful.  Chilled cabbage leaves worn inside the bra can provide relief, and be sure to change them every few hours.  Also, many women find drinking sage tea helps to decrease milk supply.
  4. Expression for engorgement may help.
    At any point, if your breasts feel full and uncomfortable, you can hand express just enough to relieve your pain.  You don’t want to get in a cycle where you are expressing too much, but you also don’t need to walk around engorged and in tears either!  Remember, if your breasts are too full for too long you increase your chances of plugged ducts and mastitis – the very thing you want to avoid as you are weaning.
  5. Be proud of the breast milk you gave!
    Every drop of breast milk makes a difference.  You may not have nursed your baby as long as you had hoped, but you gave him the best start to his life possible.  Breastfeeding develops a wonderful bond between you and your baby that can last a lifetime.  You may now be moving into a new stage in your relationship but you have a strong bond at the core.  Celebrate what you were able to give and look forward to watching and being mommy to this sweet little one you have been blessed with as he continues to grow!