Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the first six months of a baby’s life recognizing the benefits for both the parent and the baby. They recommend the initiation of breastfeeding begin within the first hour after birth. Introduction of solid foods that are nutritious should be introduced at six months, being complementary to breastfeeding with continued breastfeeding up to two years old or longer if mutually desired.(1)
Weaning begins when your baby takes anything that is not their mother’s milk. When a baby is taking donor milk or formula instead of breast milk, weaning is considered to begin with the introduction of complementary foods as well.
When is the right time to begin weaning?
This question can only be answered by you and will look different for everyone. There are different styles or methods of weaning, but ultimately the decision of how to wean and when to wean is up to you.
During the first six months of life, babies take an average of 24-30 ounces of breastmilk every 24 hours. When your baby shows signs of readiness and you begin to consider introducing solids, your choice of weaning method will influence how you go about feeding your baby. It is important to remember that no matter your style of weaning whether it is led more by you or more by your baby, during the first year of life, breast milk remains your baby’s primary source of nutrition. All other foods or beverages are not the nutritional powerhouse that breast milk is and should be fed after breast milk, complementary to it, not in place of it.
Choosing parent-led weaning
Parent-led weaning involves the parent taking the lead for introducing and feeding solid foods to their baby. During the second half of your baby's first year of life, parent-led weaning begins with the parent choosing when to feed their baby solid foods, giving the baby food by spoon or with their fingers. Parents also have greater control over how much the baby eats at one time and how many times per day.
Parent-led weaning often begins with introducing pureed foods to your baby and feeding them with a spoon. We know that a baby's jaw and oral cavity continues to grow and develop best when they are fed foods that they gnaw and chew, working their jaw muscles which can encourage teeth to erupt properly aligned. A diet of only soft foods and purees is associated with more narrow dental arches as well as more cavities and gum disease later in life.(2)
With parent-led weaning, you can keep track of the foods your baby eats and make sure to include a wide variety of colorful, nutrient-rich foods as well as introduce them to lots of textures to expand their taste buds and grow their jaws.
I’m ready to fully wean, what now?
If you have decided to no longer give your breast milk prior to your baby being one year old, you will need to give them donor milk or formula to meet their nutrient and energy needs as well as continue to introduce more solid foods and increase how many mealtimes they have during the day.
After your baby turns one year old and you are ready to end your nursing journey, you want to make sure that your baby is taking a variety of foods that will meet their nutritional and energy needs. Between 11-16 months of age, babies are likely still taking 14-19 ounces of breastmilk in a 24 hour period which s between 30%-50% of their total energy intake.(3) As you wean your baby from nursing, these caloric and nutritional requirements need to be made up for with foods and beverages including water. Babies often love smoothies and you can pack a lot of nutrition into their smoothies. Don’t forget to make extra for you! Because cow’s milk is a common allergen, you can opt for nut or seed milks as an alternative. Avoid sugary drinks, even 100% fruit juice has a lot of sugar in it.
Practical weaning tips
- Take it slow, don’t go too fast - your body will thank you for taking the time to wean slowly. Going too fast can result in plugged ducts or mastitis.
- Communicate with your baby - you can reduce the time spent at each nursing session by talking with them saying, “almost done” after they have nursed for a little while, and then unlatching them. Of course, they may want to latch again right away, but over time, they will stop re-latching and can be soothed by rubbing their back or cuddling. This is helpful, especially for nighttime or nap time.
- Distraction is a helpful tool, especially during the day. You may find you can not sit in the same place you typically nurse or your baby will crawl or walk over to you and ask to nurse. Change up your routine and have lots of toys available to distract your little one or begin singing a song to engage your baby in a new way. If they are not able to be distracted and insist on nursing, then listen to their needs and try distraction again next time.
- Eliminate one nursing session at a time - the first nursing sessions to go are ones that are during the day and last to drop off are before naps and before bedtime. The nursing times when your baby is sleepy are hardest to eliminate since it is a time your baby often needs extra comfort to relax and fall asleep peacefully.
- Be flexible - just like us, your baby has days that they will be fine with you distracting them or not nursing for a session and other days that they just need that extra cuddle. Each day will look a little different, but you can see your weaning progress when you look at several days at a time or week by week rather than focus on each time you nurse.
- Offer snacks and beverages - small meals and snacks can help make sure your baby is getting the energy and nutrition they need to keep them healthy and satisfied.
- Get fresh air - go for a walk or play outside with your baby - this can help change the environment and distract them from your typical routine and places you typically nurse. It can be a nice change of pace or activity before a nap to get some fresh air.
- Baby massage - learn how to do baby massage before bedtime. This is relaxing and sleep-inducing for your baby. It’s a nice way to connect and bond with your baby in place of nursing to sleep.
- Involve other family members - partners can help out here by helping change routines, distraction, or taking over putting your baby to bed.
Weaning can be a great adventure as you honor the time you spent nursing your baby and move onward to the next stages. Being patient and flexible with the process yields more positive outcomes for you both as you navigate weaning together.