How to Know When You Are Truly Ready to Stop Breastfeeding?

How to Know When You Are Truly Ready to Stop Breastfeeding?

Many moms have a love-hate relationship with breastfeeding. There’s nothing quite like nourishing your child from your own body, and it marks a finite period in a woman’s life as a mother. It is also a test of endurance.

Many breastfeeding moms (this includes both nursing and pumping mamas) have experienced a lot of ups and downs throughout their breastfeeding journeys. Many have probably considered stopping at least once or twice.

Before becoming a mom myself, I had no idea how involved breastfeeding was. While I have somehow made it 14 months nursing my second child, I have been hemming and hawing about the right time to stop breastfeeding her for quite some time now. 

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and then continued breastfeeding along with solids until age 2, or beyond.

Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its policy in 2022 to mimic this recommendation. Prior to this update, the AAP recommended breastfeeding up to 1 year (or beyond). Seattle’s Child explains that this change was made to reflect the scientific evidence that supports the long-term health benefits for both moms and their breastfed children. 

While breastfeeding for 2 years is the general recommendation, it does not always fall in line with many mothers’ realities.

My current reality is that I have 2 children, have no parenting village outside of my partner, and I’m beyond exhausted. Nursing has become just one more responsibility to juggle. Subtracting it from the daily (and nightly) equation would simply make life easier.  

Still, though, I find part of myself struggling to let go of my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter.

I know that once I stop breastfeeding, my breast milk supply will tank and I will not be able to simply pick up where I left off if I change my mind. So before I wean my daughter, I want to know that I am truly ready to stop breastfeeding.

Exactly how is a mama to know when she is ready to wean? 

How to Decide When You Are Ready to Stop Breastfeeding 

Making the decision to wean is a personal choice and requires several thoughtful steps. These steps are summarized below and later expanded upon.

1. Subtract Breastfeeding Guilt and Weaning Guilt From the Equation

First and foremost, moms must separate breastfeeding guilt and weaning guilt from other factors influencing their decision to wean or not wean.

There can be a lot of emotions and guilt that get mixed up in our desire to stop breastfeeding, so recognizing and accepting that we may truly be ready is a first step. 

2. Write Down the Pros and Cons of Weaning

A second step involves writing down the pros and cons of continued or extended breastfeeding. Writing down the specifics of a problem makes it feel less elusive and brings some clarity. 

3. Connect with Your Mom Intuition

Once a mother has reflected on all the pros and cons of weaning, it is time to listen to her intuition and decide what is best for her and her baby. 

4. Make a Weaning Plan

If she decides that stopping breastfeeding is the best choice, it is time to make a weaning plan. You can decide what kind of weaning process is right for you. 

5. Commemorate Your Breastfeeding Journey

Additionally, if she would like to find ways to commemorate her breastfeeding journey, there are great ways to do that. Breastmilk jewelry, photographs, or recording memories are some examples. 

Signs You May Be Ready to Stop Breastfeeding

  • Breastfeeding feels inconvenient more often than not
  • You often feel excited about the prospect of no longer breastfeeding
  • Breastfeeding feels like a mental, emotional, and physical burden
  • You’re chronically struggling with sleep deprivation, mom overstimulation, and/or mom burnout
  • You daydream about a new routine that does not involve breastfeeding
  • You start to feel curious about what it will be like to feel physically autonomous when no longer breastfeeding
  • You’re ready to ditch those breastfeeding bras and tops
  • You’re tired of dealing with breastfeeding issues like milk blebs, nipple pain, or a recurring blocked duct

Breastfeeding Guilt and Weaning Guilt

One factor that moms need to address and try to separate from their decision to stop or continue breastfeeding is what is known as breastfeeding guilt. It is a type of guilt that lots of mothers feel from the day their babies arrive in the world.

They are told by labor and delivery nurses, lactation consultants, and trusted organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics that breast is best. End of story.

Moms often continue to feel that guilt and pressure even after that initial onslaught of breastfeeding cheerleaders following delivery. There is a constant fear around making enough milk and pediatricians and/or follow-up lactation nurses are ruthless about recording how much milk moms are producing.

While this is important to make sure infants are getting enough milk, it can feel invasive and pushy in my experience.  

So moms hear a lot of advice, both solicited and unsolicited, to breastfeed for as long as possible. What they do not hear a lot of though, is advice about how to stop breastfeeding and continue to meet their baby’s nutritional needs.

Sometimes a mom needs to find an alternative way to nourish her baby. This can be due to all sorts of reasons such as mental health, low milk supply, work life, or medical reasons. A mother should not feel guilty about not being able to or not wanting to breastfeed in these situations.

So we have to figure out what is breastfeeding guilt and what is our genuine desire to continue or not continue to breastfeed.

Some mothers may also feel like they are depriving their child of love if they voluntarily or involuntarily stop breastfeeding.

Of course this is not true. Mothers love their children regardless of whether they are breastfeeding or not. Additionally, infant formula milk can provide babies with appropriate nourishment just as breastmilk does. And for toddlers, they can receive nutrition through whole cow’s milk or a non-dairy milk alternative.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Extended Breastfeeding

Like most predicaments, there are pros and cons to continued or extended breastfeeding. Those pros and cons can look different from mama to mama and their breastfed babies. 

Below I share some examples of the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding from my own experience.

Pros of Extended Breastfeeding 

  • Continuing to build the strong bond between mother and child through breastfeeding
  • Having regular quiet time and down time while nursing
  • Getting those feel-good hormones like oxytocin that are triggered by breastfeeding
  • Positive feelings about providing nourishment
  • Providing comfort
  • Reduced risk of diabetes type 2, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and hypertension for mom (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Cons of Extended Breastfeeding

  • An additional responsibility when busy and sleep-deprived
  • Negative impact on mental health due to the added responsibility and effort required to continue breastfeeding  
  • Certain medications are off-limits while breastfeeding
  • Challenges juggling schedules and demands from older children while breastfeeding
  • Struggling with painful breastfeeding issues such as recurrent milk blebs, milk blisters, and clogged milk ducts

Using a Mother’s Intuition to Know When Her Breastfeeding Journey Is Over

After writing down and reflecting on all of the pros and cons of continued breastfeeding, it’s time to sit quietly and listen to that inner voice. It may take a day or two, or even a few weeks to emerge, but at some point, a mother will know when the best time is to wean her child from breastfeeding.

She will come to peace with all of the ups and downs she has had with breastfeeding and feel ready to step into the next phase of motherhood, or stretch out the current phase to have a little extra time. 

Practical Ways to Prepare for Weaning from Breastfeeding

Create a weaning schedule: Deciding how to wean is a personal decision. Some moms may want to wean through a gradual process so that their bodies naturally start to make less milk. Others may wish to go the cold turkey route and endure some of the discomfort that comes from engorgement and sore breasts.

It also may be the case that your child starts self-weaning. In this case of natural weaning, they have decided for you which can sometimes be a surprise for moms!

My daughter’s pediatrician recommended weaning gradually and to complete the process of weaning within 6 weeks. He recommended dropping a day feed first, and then night feeds last. It can be hard to drop that feed after a night waking, so doing it last may make things easier.

This gradual weaning allows for your milk production to adjust, so it may be less physically uncomfortable. 

Have a plan in place for a breastmilk alternative: It’s a good idea for parents to know what kind of formula or milk they plan to give their children once they stop breastfeeding. This is a great conversation to have with a child’s pediatrician.

Having a plan can help ease some of the anxieties around weaning. 

Ways to Commemorate Your Breastfeeding Journey

Even when a mom is desperate to move on from breastfeeding, there may still be feelings of sadness and loss. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings and find a way to honor them. 

Breastmilk jewelry: Making breastmilk jewelry is one way for a mother to memorialize her breastfeeding journey. Taking the time to go through the process of drying and preserving her breastmilk and turning it into a keepsake can feel like a special way to say goodbye to this unique time.

I am currently in the process of making some breastmilk jewelry and it feels like a big step in being able to let go of breastfeeding. I am also planning to give my daughter a piece of breastmilk jewelry when she’s older, if she wants it. I love the idea that she will always have a part of me to look at or hold onto for comfort. 

Breastfeeding photograph: You can hire a professional photographer to capture your breastfeeding relationship with your child, or simply snap your own photos. 

Write a letter to your child about what it has been like to breastfeed them: It’s so easy to forget the precious moments we have with our children. Taking 5 minutes to record a few memories can mean a lot years down the road.

Record what it was like to hold your child while feeding them. What did the weight of their little bodies feel like in your arms?

Did they like holding your hand while nursing or playing with a piece of your hair for comfort? Did they smile or squeal in excitement when you offered them a bottle or to nurse? Did they like falling asleep on you while nursing?

What were some of the challenges you overcame to be able to breastfeed for however long or short of time that you did? What will you miss about breastfeeding?

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