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 allow the little nursling time to adjust to the change. This article discusses how to stop producing breast milk and stop breastfeeding.
Stopping breastfeeding gradually
Breast milk 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. Conversely, as soon as a breast is full it sends a message to the “milk making factory” to slow milk production and make less milk. Using this principle of not completely emptying the breasts, breast milk production can gradually be reduced. However, it is important to note that leaving breasts overly full or engorged at any time can increase the risk of mastitis—painful inflammation of the breast. Always expressing just enough milk to stay comfortable (express to comfort) will avoid mastitis and will not sabotage the end goal of stopping milk production.
Ideas to naturally down regulate milk production include:
- Substitute one breastfeed for the new food every few days. Lactation consultant and author Nancy Mohrbacher suggests allowing at least three days between dropping one breastfeed and then dropping another1
- Gradually lengthen the time between breastfeeds or pumping sessions
- Breastfeed or pump for a shorter time interval at each session.
Slowly does it
By trying one or more of the ideas in the previous section, milk production will be slowly reduced. As a general guide, weaning gradually from exclusive breastfeeding may take two to three weeks to achieve (Mohrbacher, 2020. p 171). The benefits of stopping breastfeeding in a gradual way include:
- Allows time for the breasts to naturally adjust to reduced milk production preventing painful engorgement or mastitis.
- Allows time to check that a baby is coping well with the change and that stopping breastfeeding is not going too quickly for them emotionally.
- If there were any problems with baby’s new milk or if a mother changes her mind about stopping breastfeeding she can continue with partial breastfeeding or return to exclusive breastfeeding by making more milk again.
A younger baby
If a baby is less than about twelve months old they will still be having plenty of milk in their diet. When stopping breastfeeding at this time, parents will need to gradually transition their baby to infant formula (or donor milk) as the corresponding amount of breast milk is reduced in their diet. It is useful to be aware of any signs that a baby could be intolerant to any ingredients in infant formula during the change over. Milk Allergy in Babies discusses signs of food intolerance and allergies. The later formula is introduced, the greater protection a baby will have against infections and childhood illness.2
Weaning an older baby or toddler
Once a baby is past the small baby stage it may be more difficult to simply substitute feeds with something other than a breast because breastfeeding is much more than just a feeding method. Babies and toddlers associate breastfeeding with emotional security, falling asleep, love and safety as well as food. Consequently, they may resist attempts to stop breastfeeding as they value it so highly. Plenty of focused love, attention and distraction can help substitute for the breast during weaning. Some babies may refuse to take a bottle and for ideas to help with this see When Baby Won’t Take a Bottle.
Resources with ideas to encourage breastfeeding to come to an end gently include:
- Weaning: What Does it Mean? Ask Dr Sears, 2016
- Weaning Toddlers from the Australian Breastfeeding Association, 2012.
- The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding has age specific ideas to help you wean in a chapter called Everybody weans.
If weaning from the breast is moving too quickly for them, your little one may feel rejected or confused and become quite clingy, or they may start to wake more at night. It is not recommended to separate baby from mother (e.g. by a holiday apart) to end breastfeeding as this can be doubly traumatic for a baby and they may be even more determined to breastfeed when they are reunited again. If a baby doesn’t seem to be handling the change very well, it may be helpful to aim for a partial weaning at first such as cutting down day time feeds but continue breastfeeding at night (or the reverse!). Stepping down breastfeeding over a longer period won’t interfere with your eventual goal to stop nursing completely.
Not sure whether to stop breastfeeding?
All babies eventually stop breastfeeding. If you’re not completely decided whether the time is right for you and your baby, toddler or pre-schooler to stop breastfeeding completely, see How Long Should I Breastfeed?
Stopping breastfeeding quickly
Express to comfort
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 the physical act of breastfeeding abruptly, some of the milk in your breasts will usually still have to be removed at intervals to prevent blocked ducts or mastitis. As above, it’s a good idea to hand express or pump just enough milk to keep the breasts feeling comfortable. Some mothers find fresh, raw, chilled cabbage leaves or a cold compress around the breasts in between expressing sessions can be soothing. Within a few days a mother will usually find that she can go longer periods between expressing to comfort, e.g. instead of every three or four hours it will become every four or five, then six or seven and so on. Within a week or ten days expressing may only be needed two or three times in 24 hours and by the end of two weeks, there may be no need to pump again.
For more information about stopping your milk supply after loss see Lactation After Stillbirth and Infant Loss.
Watch out for blocked ducts or mastitis
If you are stopping breastfeeding abruptly be aware that an overfull (engorged), unrelieved breast could develop blocked milk ducts or mastitis. For more information on these challenges see Engorged Breasts, Blocked Milk Duct and Mastitis Symptoms and Treatment. It is important to pay attention to any painful, lumpy or red areas and take quick action to drain a painful breast as the risk of an abscess when stopping breastfeeding quickly is very high. Always express to comfort if either breast becomes uncomfortably engorged with milk. This won’t affect your end goal of stopping breastfeeding. Another strategy sometimes suggested if there is already engorgement or a blocked duct when weaning, is to remove all the milk from both breasts as fully as possible just once to relieve the pressure.3
Don’t bind the breasts
You may have come across advice to stop feeding suddenly without expressing to comfort and to bind the breasts with tight cloths or wear a tight bra. The rationale given is that each time you feed or express, more milk will be made to prolong the process of stopping milk production. 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 could also lead to depression and grief (the body feels a sense of loss). Wearing a supportive bra can help comfort levels when the breasts are full (Australian Breastfeeding Association. 2020) but binding the breasts is an old fashioned way of drying up milk and has fallen out of favour.4
Drugs to dry up breast milk?
Years ago it was common place to use drugs to dry up breast milk for mothers who didn’t want to breastfeed. Certain drugs interfere with prolactin secretion (one of the hormones needed for breastfeeding). However this type of drug tends to also have some undesirable side effects namely gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and neurological side effects. There is no evidence that using drugs to dry up breast milk is any more effective than methods that don’t involve drugs.567
Non-pharmacological methods used to suppress lactation are as effective as pharmacological ones.
Two drugs commonly associated with drying up milk are bromocriptine and cabergoline.
Bromocriptine (trade names Bromolactin, Kripton and Parlodel), is no longer approved as a lactation suppressant in many countries due to several maternal deaths, seizures and strokes89. Other side effects for the mother include nausea, feeling dizzy, headache and hypotension.10
Cabergoline (trade name Dostinex), is very long-acting (half life 63-69 hours). The side effects can include nausea, headache, palpitations and dizziness11 but it is considered safer than bromocriptine12. Due to the long half-life, it is more difficult to return to breastfeeding after taking it, however in some cases mothers can recover their milk supply with frequent pumping (Hale, 2017). Caution is recommended around feeding milk to infants following maternal exposure to cabergoline as drug transfer into milk is not known (Hale, 2017). A review of the effectiveness and safety of cabergoline concluded it is generally safe for suppressing lactation although consideration of risk and vigilance is still needed. The review found that for women with an established milk supply, cabergoline took an average of 3.29 days to stop lactation.13
By suppressing the release of prolactin both drugs may cause severe depression and a grief reaction.
Other medications that have been 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?) and decongestant medication eg Sudafed (pseudoephedrine).14 Taking any kind of medication to dry up a milk supply should always be discussed with your health professional first.
Herbs to dry up breast milk
There is not a lot of information about the safety of using herbs to dry up breast milk. Sage, peppermint and parsley are thought to help reduce milk supply15. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding explains:
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.
One study by Shrivastav et al found that applying jasmine flowers to the breasts had a similar effect on lowering prolactin levels and reducing milk supply as the drug bromocriptine without the dangerous side effects16 However as there wasn’t a control group in this study the effect may have been the same with or without the use of jasmine flowers.17 A more recent study confirmed that nasal drops made from an extract of jasmine flowers contain a prolactin-lowering substance that needs further investigation.18
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. Many medications are compatible with breastfeeding see Medications and Breastfeeding.
Can I breastfeed and bottle feed?
Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing, some mothers decide to try partial weaning where they cut down on some breastfeeds but continue with others rather than wean completely. 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 nap time or 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.