Feeding Your Baby: Weaning

Weaning is changing from one form of feeding to another

Weaning is the change a baby makes from one form of feeding to another. If your baby is breastfeeding, weaning will occur naturally when the baby starts to develop skills in eating and drinking with spoons and cups. Some mothers may choose to wean their babies from breastfeeding to bottle feeding or, for an older baby, directly from a breast to a cup with a spout (sippy cup).

Weaning can either be partial or complete

Partial weaning would be, for example, if a mother is returning to work and wants to breastfeed in the early morning and bedtime, and the baby is bottle-fed by a caregiver during the day.

Some mothers wish to stop breastfeeding completely. Depending on the age of the baby, they will wean to a bottle or cup for all feedings. This is called complete weaning.

If your baby is bottle-fed, weaning to a cup is usually achieved when the baby is able to hold the cup in his hand and raise it to his mouth.

Feed your baby breast milk for the first 6 months

It is best to feed your baby only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. Many health organizations, inlcuding the Canadian Paediatric Society and Health Canada, suggest breastfeeding for at least 6 months and then slowly introducing solid foods, while continuing breastfeeding for up to 2 years and beyond.

For more information, please read  Introducing Solids.

It is important to start giving your baby solid foods after 6 months. Babies over this age need the nutrients, textures, and tastes that solid food can provide. After your baby starts solids, you should continue to give your baby breast milk or an infant formula until he is at least 12 months old to make sure he is getting the proper nutrition.

Baby-led weaning from the breast

Many babies are ready to wean themselves from the breast when they are 9 to 12 months old and have started solid foods. Your baby may start to refuse the breast, show less interest in breastfeeding, or nurse for only a few minutes, then pull away.

Do not mistake the following as signs your baby is ready to wean:

  • Sometimes babies refuse the breast because the taste has changed. This can happen if your body is going through hormonal changes brought on by your period, or from strongly spiced foods you may have eaten.

  • A baby may also refuse the breast if he is feeling unwell, has a cold, or is teething. During these times, you can pump or hand express your milk to keep up your supply until the baby is breastfeeding well again.

  • A noisy or distracting environment may prevent your baby from relaxing or concentrating on feeding.

Weaning from breast to bottle

Once breastfeeding is going well, usually 3 to 4 weeks after your baby’s birth, many mothers want their babies to drink from a bottle occasionally. Women who are going to work outside the home want their babies to become familiar with bottle-feeding so others can feed their babies during the work day.

Some breastfed babies readily accept a bottle, while others are very resistant to new methods of feeding. Many breastfeeding mothers become frustrated and discouraged when their baby refuses to drink from a bottle.

Stay calm when you offer a bottle to your baby. Your baby probably will resist at first by turning away, grimacing or making a face, or pushing the nipple away with her tongue. Try not to force the bottle at any time, and stop your efforts if your baby is becoming unhappy.

Use the following suggestions to encourage your infant to accept a bottle:

  • Plan a time of 10 to 15 uninterrupted minutes for your baby to try the bottle. Choose a time when your baby is alert and slightly hungry. Avoid offering a bottle when your baby is very hungry. An upset, hungry baby will be in no mood to try something new.

  • Offer milk that you have pumped from your breasts earlier in the day. Warm the milk first, taking care not to overheat the milk. Becase the bottle nipple smells and tastes different from your breast nipple, having a familiar fluid to drink may encourage your baby to try the new feeding method.

  • If your baby uses a pacifier, she might prefer a nipple shaped like her pacifier nipple. Stick with one nipple for several days before switching to another. Trying a wide variety of nipples will probably just confuse your baby even more.

  • Offer the bottle slowly and gently, first touching the baby’s lips with the nipple and watching her reaction. Don’t force the nipple past her lips. Instead, let your baby draw the nipple into her mouth at her own pace.

  • Express a little milk from the bottle nipple onto the baby’s lips or tongue. Remove the nipple before your baby protests. Keep a smile on your face and keep talking in a reassuring tone the whole time. Babies notice their mothers’ and caretakers’ facial expressions and take their cues from you.

  • If your baby is not upset or distressed by the bottle, move the nipple a little further into the baby’s mouth and let her explore it with her mouth. Keep smiling and offering encouraging words in a soothing voice. Be careful not to stick the bottle into your baby’s mouth with too much force. This may cause the baby to gag.

Stay positive if your baby gets upset

If your baby starts to get upset, try to calm her down by talking in a reassuring tone. As soon as she starts to settle down, remove the nipple. Avoid letting her get very upset and then taking the nipple away. This will teach her that if she protests enough, you will remove the nipple. It’s better to remove the nipple before she becomes upset or to try to calm her with your voice before you remove the nipple.

Don’t spend more than about 10 minutes trying the bottle. Stop sooner if your baby or you are getting frustrated. It’s better to end the session on a positive note and try again tomorrow.

Weaning from breast or bottle to a cup

Many breastfed babies will never drink from a bottle. Instead, they will move from breastfeeding to drinking from a cup. By 6 months of age or older, you can begin to introduce a cup to your baby. Here are some tips to help you as your baby gets used to drinking from a cup:

  • Give your child breastmilk or formula in the cup. The transition to a cup may be easier if the fluid is something familiar. You may choose to fill the cup with water while your baby is learning to use a cup.

  • Do not offer a breast or a bottle unless your baby appears to need it. If your baby still wants to feed from the breast or bottle, give him small amounts.

Pick a good time for weaning

Try not to wean your baby at a time he needs you most. Change can be upsetting for a child, especially a breastfed child. Do not wean your baby when he is sick, growing a new tooth, or adjusting to you returning to work.

Wean your baby gradually

Make the weaning process gradual so the change is easier for both you and your baby. If you breastfeed your baby, be sure to spend time in close physical contact with your baby.

Eliminate one feeding every week or couple of weeks. Try to pick the feeding that your baby is least interested in. Instead of feeding from the breast or bottle, give your child some breast milk or formula in a cup along with a solid snack.

If you wean too quickly from breastfeeding, your breasts can become swollen with extra milk and feel hard to the touch. You can relieve this discomfort by using a breast pump or your hands to express some milk and relieve the pressure. Applying ice packs to your breasts will help relieve pain.

Key points

  • Weaning is the change a baby makes from one form of feeding to another.
  • Breastfeed for at least 6 months and then slowly introduce solid foods, while continuing breastfeeding for up to 2 years and beyond.

  • Many babies are ready to wean themselves from the breast when they are 9 to 12 months old and have started solid foods.

  • Some breastfed babies readily accept a bottle, while other babies are more resistant. It is important to stay calm and keep positive when weaning your baby from the breast to a bottle.

  • By 6 months of age or older, you can begin to introduce a cup to your baby.

Debbie Stone, RN, IBCLC, RLC

Joyce Touw, BScN, PNC(C), RN, IBCLC, RLC