For many mothers and babies across the world, breastfeeding is gradually replaced by other drinks and solid food over a period of years— rather than months—in a process of natural weaning. However, sometimes a mother will want or need to stop breastfeeding sooner rather than later. Stopping breastfeeding is best done gradually over a period of several weeks if possible to prevent painful mastitis and to give your little nursling time to adjust.
How to stop breastfeeding
Breastmilk is made ‘on demand’. As long as milk is taken from the breasts (by your baby or a pump) more milk will be made in the breast to replace it. But as soon as a breast is full it sends a message to the ‘milk making factory’ to slow production. Using this principle of not properly emptying the breast, mothers can gradually reduce their milk production. Therefore to naturally down regulate your milk you can:
- Gradually lengthen the time between feeds or pumping sessions
- Drop a breastfeed every few days
- Breastfeed or pump for a shorter time
However, it is important to note that leaving your breasts overly full or engorged during this process puts you at risk of mastitis. Always go slowly and express just enough milk to keep you feeling comfortable.
Slowly does it
Stopping breastfeeding slowly over several weeks allows your breasts time to naturally adjust. By breastfeeding or pumping a little less often or for slightly shorter times than usual, this down regulation process will happen smoothly. Going slowly not only prevents painful engorgement or mastitis it also gives you a chance to check that your baby is coping well with the change. If there were any problems with baby’s new milk or if you change your mind, you could continue with partial breastfeeding or return to exclusive breastfeeding by making more milk again.
A younger baby
If your baby is less than about twelve months old and still having plenty of milk in their diet, you may need to gradually transition your baby to formula as the corresponding amount of breast milk is reduced in their diet. Watch your baby carefully for any signs that he is intolerant to formula as you change over. Milk Allergy in Babies discusses signs of food intolerance and allergies. The later formula is introduced, the greater protection your baby will have against infections and childhood illness, and the less likelihood of developing allergies and intolerances.
Weaning an older baby or toddler
If your baby is older it may be more difficult to simply substitute feeds with ‘something else’ other than a breast. They may resist attempts to wean, refuse to take a bottle and need gentle encouragement and plenty of focused love and attention during the process. Your little one may feel rejected and confused and become quite clingy if weaning is moving too quickly for them. The Dr Sears article below has a summary of ideas to help you encourage breastfeeding to come to an end and so does the article Weaning Toddlers from the Australian Breastfeeding Association. For more detail and age specific ideas to help you wean there is a whole chapter called “Everybody weans” in the The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.
The key to healthy weaning is doing it gradually. Remember, you are helping your child into a new stage of development, not forcing him into it. This is not the time for you and your husband to go on a week-long vacation to the Bahamas. Weaning by desertion is traumatic and may backfire.
Check out How Long Should I Breastfeed? for more books and further reading on weaning an older baby or child.
I want to stop breastfeeding quickly
If you don’t have time for the gradual approach, the process can move a little more quickly but still can’t be done over night. Even if you stop breastfeeding abruptly, the milk in your breasts will still have to be removed to make you comfortable and prevent mastitis. Whenever your breasts start to feel uncomfortably full, express just enough milk to make them comfortable again. Fresh, raw, cabbage leaves around the breasts in between expressing sessions can help too. Within a few days you will usually find that you can go longer periods between expressing to comfort, e.g. instead of every three hours it will become every four, then five or six. Within a week or ten days you may only need to express two or three times in 24 hours and by the end of two weeks you may not need to express again.
For information about stopping your milk supply after loss see Lactation After Stillbirth and Infant Loss.
Blocked ducts or mastitis
If you are stopping breastfeeding quickly be aware that an overfull breast can develop blocked milk ducts or mastitis if not treated quickly. For more information on how to deal with engorgement or mastitis see Engorged Breasts and Mastitis Symptoms and Treatment. It is important to pay attention to any painful, lumpy or red areas and take quick action to drain the breast as the risk of an abscess when stopping breastfeeding quickly is very high. Always express to comfort if either breast becomes engorged with milk. Taking a step backwards from weaning for a day or two won’t affect your end goal of stopping breastfeeding.
Don’t bind the breasts
You may have come across advice to ‘bind’ the breasts with tight cloths or wear a tight bra, and stop feeding cold turkey without expressing to comfort. The rationale given is that each time you feed or express, more milk will be made to prolong the process. However by following this advice the breasts can become overfull, and then engorged. By ignoring engorgement the mother may get painful mastitis or ‘milk fever’ which could in turn lead to an abscess. The sudden drop in prolactin levels caused by stopping breastfeeding or pumping is also thought to lead to depression and grief (the body feels a sense of loss). This is an old fashioned way of drying up milk and is not recommended.
Drugs to dry up breastmilk?
Years ago it was common place to use drugs to dry up breastmilk for mothers who didn’t want to breastfeed. Certain drugs interfere with prolactin secretion (one of the hormones needed for breastfeeding). This type of drug can have some undesirable side effects namely gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and neurological side effects. One of them; bromocriptine fell out of favour as a lactation suppressant due to several maternal deaths, seizures and strokes, however some countries still prescribe it. Another drug cabergoline is very long-acting meaning you can’t easily ‘change your mind’ and go back to breastfeeding after taking it. The side effects include nausea, vomiting, headache and dizziness. By suppressing the release of prolactin both drugs may cause severe depression and a grief reaction.
Bromocriptine inhibits prolactin secretion, and can be effective if given early in lactation, while prolactin levels are high. However, it may be less effective after some weeks when prolactin levels are low. It has been withdrawn from use for this indication in several countries because of the risk of myocardial infarction, hypertension, seizures and strokes. Other side effects reported include nausea, dizziness, hypotension, and severe headache.
Cabergoline is similar to bromocriptine, and also inhibits prolactin secretion. It is longer acting. It may have some of the same minor side effects including headache, dizziness, hypotension, and nose bleeds, but is considered safer.
Other medications that have found to have a connection with reduced milk supply for some mothers include
- Hormonal methods of birth control (see Can You Get Pregnant While Breastfeeding?)
- Decongestant medication eg Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) 1
Herbs to dry up breastmilk
There is not a lot of information about the safety of using herbs to dry up breastmilk. Sage, peppermint and parsley are thought to reduce supply 2.
To speed the process of milk reduction, some mothers have found it helpful to use sage (think sage tea), parsley (think tabouli), or peppermint oil (as in many breath mints). One or two doses of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine (ask the pharmacist for brands) may also help things along. Caution: a supply drop from pseudoephedrine may be permanent, so be very sure of your need to wean before trying it.
Apparently wearing a garland of jasmine flowers on the breast has a similar effect on lowering prolactin levels and reducing milk supply as the drug bromocriptine without the dangerous side effects. (Shrivastav et al, 1988). Worth knowing if you have jasmine flowering in your garden!
If you are feeling pressure to stop breastfeeding by well meaning family or because of feeding problems you can’t solve or medications you have to take, there may be other solutions available. If you don’t really want to stop, or aren’t sure, have a look at our discussion page on feeling pressured to stop breastfeeding.
Can I breastfeed and bottle feed?
Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Every little bit of breastmilk you can give your baby has benefits. If you want to cut down on breastfeeding rather than wean completely, your baby will continue to get some of these benefits. You may find that once you have cut back on breastfeeding a little you are happy to carry on with your favourite feed e.g. at bedtime, until your baby is older and less reliant on the comfort of breastfeeding.
Children gradually replace breastfeeding with other food and drink in a process of natural weaning that allows a mother’s milk supply to slowly reduce until one day they stop breastfeeding. If a mother needs to hasten the process, reducing the number of feeds gradually over a period of several weeks, and expressing to comfort as needed, will prevent engorgement or mastitis and give her baby time to adjust.