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According to statistical information from the CDC, within the United States, 74.2% of infants were breastfed, 43.1% were still breastfeeding at 6 months of age, with 21.4% still breastfeeding at 1 year of age.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC), strongly encourages breastfeeding because of the many healthful benefits imparted to infants, women and children. 

There comes a time when the decision must be made as to whether or not to continue breastfeeding.  For some mothers, a child will wean on their own naturally, but there are many children who refuse to give up breastfeeding.  

The bond between a mother and child during breastfeeding is very strong.  For children who breastfeed there is an emotional attachment derived from being close to the mother, giving up this attachment can lead a young child to feel vulnerable, promoting feelings of rejection and anxiety.

This is why it is important to choose the right time to discontinue breastfeeding, before it becomes more difficult than it needs to be.

General Recommendations about Breastfeeding Duration

The World Health Organization recommends a woman breastfeed an infant for at least the first 24-months of life.  However, in a survey conducted by the Mayo Clinic, a large number of mothers who introduced early solid food feedings can account for the decrease in length of time spent breastfeeding.

Most children give up breastfeeding on their own naturally by 2-3 years of age. If a child is still nursing beyond that time, it is no longer for the sustenance purposes breastfeeding provided earlier in life.  A situation like this can more difficult  for  mother and child to make the transition into weaning the child from breastfeeding.

According to American Academy of Pediatrics there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the 3rd year or later.

Why Would a Mother Choose to Discontinue Breastfeed?

There are many important aspects that need to be considered, when the decision is made to discontinue breastfeeding.  Some of the aspects are the overall health and immunity of the child, how the milk supply will be managed and the impact the decision will have on a child, all are key issues that will need to be addressed if a woman is to be successful at weaning a child.

Along with making the decision to breastfeed, the choice to discontinue is a personal matter, only a mother can decide when it is the best time to wean her child.  Some of the reasons a woman would choose to discontinue breastfeeding might include:

  • Child is displaying a lack of interest in breastfeeding. (child becomes easily distracted, will not sit still for long periods of time, would rather be active than breastfeed, are all signs of a child being ready to wean.)
  • A heightened interest in solid food could indicate a child is ready to wean. 
  • The child is not satiated with with breastfeeding and requires more solid foods.
  • Going back to work. ( a mother could express breast milk and offer it to the child in a cup or bottle)
  • Mother desires to resume a regular diet. (a breastfeeding mother has to be wary of certain foods in the diet that could cause gastrointestinal upset and possible allergies in an infant)
  • Illness that could be transmitted from mother to child via breastfeeding. (newly contracted disease such as HIV or hepatitis, which can be transmitted through breast milk to an infant)
  • Problems encountered with breastfeeding (mastitis, chronic breast infections, inverted nipples, etc.)
  • Pregnancy or birth of another child. 
  • Postpartum depression (certain antidepressant medications can be dangerous if ingested by an infant through breast milk.

Some mothers have mixed emotions when it comes time to approach the subject of weaning a child from breastfeeding.  On one hand, discontinuing breastfeeding allows more freedom and flexibility, on the other hand, breastfeeding creates a strong bond between a mother and her child, one that for some women is difficult to give up.

How to Successfully Discontinue Breastfeeding

The best approach to discontinuing breastfeeding is to allow both mother and child to adjust physically and emotionally to the transition.  Weaning a child should be done as a gradual process and never done in an abrupt manner. 

One recommended approach to discontinue breastfeeding is to remove one of the feeding session over a period of weeks, until the child is receiving all the feedings from a bottle or cup.  Just because breastfeeding has been discontinued does not mean a mother cannot express the breast milk and offer it to the child in a bottle or cup.  The gradual approach will help many mothers avoid the painful engorgement that could occur is breastfeeding is quickly discontinued.

Another approach recommended is to allow the child to make the transition from breast to cup on their own.  Once a child is consuming three solid meals per day and getting snacks in between meals, a child will oftentimes breastfeed less or give it up entirely. 

To make the transition period easier on a mother and child, experts recommend the following advice:

  • Engage the child in a distracting activity or go for an outing during times that would normally be spent breastfeeding.
  • Do not sit in the spot where breastfeeding normally took place, and avoid wearing nursing garments.
  • Do not attempt to wean a child during an adjustment period, such as a new day care provider, or during times of  stress or change.  A child will be more resistant to giving up the comfort experienced during breastfeeding.
  • If the child is younger than 1 year of age, try to gradually introduce a bottle or cup at times that breastfeeding would typically take place.  For an older child, offering a healthy snack and a cup might make the transition easier.
  • Make changes to the daily routine, this will allow a mother to focus on other activities besides the breastfeeding regimen. 
  • Enlist the help of a partner, spouse or friend to provide a daily distraction and take the focus off of breastfeeding.
  • If the child adopts a habit such as thumb sucking or becomes attached to a blanket or stuffed animal, do not discourage the behavior, the child may be attempting to emotionally adjust to the change of weaning.

Many top experts recommend feeding a child breast milk to for as long as possible, doing so only if the  mother and child are comfortable.   As a child begins to transition from breastfeeding, it is important to remember to exercise patience, compassion and love.  Weaning is a natural part of the breastfeeding experience and with the recommended considerations in mind, it can be a positive experience for both mother and child.