Breastfeeding your baby even for a short time is beneficial. Breast milk contains all the nourishment a baby needs to promote normal healthy growth and development in their first six months of life and remains the most important food during their first year. Breast milk is the perfect balance of nutrients, easily digested, tolerated and is all most babies need to grow.
You may stop breast feeding anytime you need and want to, as formulas are available that closely mimic the qualities of breast milk, however cow’s milk doesn’t have the same benefits as breast milk or formula in the first year of life, so babies weaned from breast milk prior to their first birthday need to be given infant formula. After this your child should be then receiving a large range of family foods meaning follow on formula shouldn’t be necessary after the first 12 months as at this stage babies are able to swallow and use the solid foods that they eat.
Weaning Your Baby
Stopping breastfeeding or weaning is the progression from a mother breastfeeding to giving formula or milk in a cup or bottle. The right time to stop can depend on a number of factors including your lifestyle and your baby’s needs, it is up to you and your baby to decide when the time is right. The World Health Organization recommends that all babies be exclusively breastfed for six months (this means no foods or fluids other than breast milk during this time), then gradually introduced to appropriate family foods after six months while continuing to breastfeed for two years or beyond. Despite these recommendations in Western culture the term extended breastfeeding is used when a mother is breast feeding beyond 12 months, yet the world average age for weaning is suggested to be 4.2 years and it has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between 2-7 years.
Benefits Of Breastfeeding
Breast feeding has many benefits for both you and the baby. A baby born at full term has a store of iron passed on from the mother during pregnancy which can run low at around six months of age. A mothers breast milk contains small amounts of readily absorbed iron, as a result of this some studies have shown that the risk of iron deficiency being very low in full-term healthy breastfed babies who continue to breastfeed past six months as solids are introduced into their diet. Not only is breast milk packed with nutrients, there is ample evidence that babies who are breastfed for the first six months of life may not suffer from as many (or as severe) episodes of common childhood illnesses including gastrointestinal and respiratory infections and middle ear infections as well as a lower incidence of allergic disease in comparison with formula-fed babies. The practice of extended breastfeeding gives continued immune protection to your baby during this time. Psychologically, the breast feeding experience is said to enhance the bond between mother and baby, giving a wonderful sense of security for the baby and an emotional high for mothers.
For women the longer they breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer. Some research suggests that women who breastfeed for a lifetime total of two years reduce their risks of developing breast cancer by 50%. The breast cancer risk for mothers who breastfeed for a total of six years or more in their life is reduced by two-thirds. Breastfeeding mothers also statistically experience less osteoporosis in later life.
There have also been some studies into breastfeeding and its impact on brain development and social behaviour in children. A study has demonstrated that children who were breastfed as babies performed better in school and scored higher on standardised maths and reading tests, and the longer they were breastfed, the higher they scored. Breastfeeding may impact social adjustment also. In another study the babies who were nursed longer than a year, down the track as children aged 6-8 yrs old showed fewer behavioural problems and the longer the children had been breastfed, the better they tended to behave.
It isn’t all about the social, immune or intelligence benefits, breastfeeding is also about comfort, pleasure and communication for both the mother and her baby. Worth noting here is that there is no evidence extended breastfeeding is harmful to either party.
How To Start Weaning Your Baby
It is possible that some babies will make the decision to stop themselves but if they don’t it is suggested not to start the weaning process when your baby is unwell and make sure you allow enough time when weaning. Slowly reducing the number of breastfeeds protects your baby during the weaning period and will also help you avoid problems such as mastitis (that can result from the build up of too much milk).
- Start by eliminating one feed only and substitute this feed with cow’s milk or formula in a cup or bottle (depending on your babies age). Start by eliminating whichever breastfeed of the day your baby seems least interested in.
- After eliminating the first feed and depending on your comfort and your baby’s willingness to cooperate try to cut out another every few days or a week. Some women can take longer than others for their breasts to become comfortable enough to do so. When eliminating subsequent feeds try not to eliminate a consecutive feed.
- Continue replacing one breastfeed every two to seven days with a cup or bottle, until all breast feeding ends. Generally a lot of mums will choose the last feed to go as the early morning feed because it is when they have the most milk however so choose the last as the evening feed because it helps them settle their baby at night.
- You can wean your baby onto either a cup or a bottle, but if you wean to a bottle then eventually your baby will need to be weaned from that too. By 1 year some babies are able to go straight to a training cup and at this age, you can use cow’s milk providing baby is having three meals a day of a well-balanced diet.
The concentration of antibodies to bacterial and viral diseases in your breast milk increases as the weaning process progresses and your milk supply reduces, this ensures your baby is protected as they are being introduced to new foods. If you need to wean your baby quickly, then it is best to talk to a healthcare professional or a lactation consultant about the best way to care for you, your breasts and your baby during this time.
Remember babies weaned under 12 months will need to switch to an infant formula given in a bottle or cup.
Helping Your Baby Adapt To Weaning
Weaning begins a more independent relationship for both of mother and baby, both are likely to find this change somewhat difficult initially. If your baby is old enough to understand then consider discussing other ways with them about how you can be close when you stop breastfeeding, if they are too young for such a conversation then:
- Remember to give your baby plenty of cuddles during the weaning process so that you and your baby still have plenty of close time together.
- Also hungry babies can become easily agitated making them more difficult to feed so try feeding your baby a little bit earlier than usual.
- Your baby will have come to expect to be breastfed when you hold them in that way in your arms, so those first few times you give the bottle, try using a new position. Consider using a baby rocker and this way you can feed them and maintain eye contact with them.
- Your baby may refuse the bottle from you, try having someone else that the baby is comfortable with attempt to give the bottle feed.
- If your baby is used to feeding to sleep or settle then try to decrease the time at the breast, placing the emphasis on the settling in other ways like singing or patting their head…
Helpful Tips For The Weaning Mother
- If your breasts are very full and uncomfortable, try expressing a little milk to reduce some of the pressure.
- If you do express milk to use for their bottle feeds then keep the milk cold and use it the next day, or freeze it.
- If you express and your breasts are still painful, you could try taking paracetamol tablets as directed.
- During weaning it is especially important to wear a properly fitted firm bra for extra support.
- Going back to the paid workforce doesn’t mean you have to wean. Many women manage to combine breastfeeding with part or full-time work, study and other commitments. You can express at work and you may prefer to breastfeed morning and evening at home and give formula or expressed breast milk to your baby during the day.
And don’t forget that boobs are there for breastfeeding that’s why women have them. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about letting your body fulfill it’s purpose!
NOTE: The information given here on “What Age Should You Stop Breastfeeding?” is meant as a guide only and does not replace professional medical advice and information.
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