weaning baby off breast milk

Weaning Your Baby and Stopping Breastfeeding

June 23, 2020
8 min read

When the time comes to transition your baby from breastfeeding or bottle feeding to solid foods, you’ll probably have many questions about how to wean your baby.

You might also be wondering precisely what weaning involves, and when and how to start introducing solid foods, stop breastfeeding or phase out formula. Read on for the answers to all these questions and more.

What's in this article:

What Is Weaning? When to Start Weaning Signs Your Baby Is Ready for Weaning How to Wean Your Baby Baby-Led Weaning or Spoon Feeding? What Are the Best Baby Weaning Foods? When to Stop Breastfeeding How to Stop Breastfeeding Taking Care of Yourself When Stopping Breastfeeding The Bottom Line

What Is Weaning?

When talking about babies, the definition of ‘weaning’ – also known as complementary feeding – is giving solid foods alongside breast milk or formula.

The end of this process is when you’ll eventually stop breastfeeding or bottle feeding as your child completes the transition to solid food, although precisely when you give up breastfeeding altogether is a matter of personal choice.

Weaning is usually a gradual process, and not something that happens from one day to the next. In the early stages, the aim is to get your baby used to the idea of eating for him or herself.

Your little one needs time and practice to get the hang of all the skills involved in eating, such as chewing and moving food around inside his or her mouth.

While all this is going on – during the early stages of weaning at least – your baby will still be getting most of his or her energy and nutrients from breast milk or formula.

When to Start Weaning

You might be wondering when’s a good time to start weaning. Precisely when you decide to begin this exciting new phase in your baby’s development may differ, but experts agree that it’s best to wait until your little one is around 6 months old before you start introducing solid foods.

Here’s why experts recommend waiting this long:

  • Protection from illness. Giving your baby only breast milk for the first six months helps protect against illness and infections.
  • Nutrition. Breast milk or formula contains all the nutrients your baby needs (although extra vitamin D is sometimes needed) until around six months. After that, most babies start needing more nutrition than they can get from breast milk or formula alone.
  • Chewing skills. Your baby may have more of the motor skills needed to chew and move food around inside the mouth.
  • Hand-eye coordination. Your child may also be better at picking things up and putting them into his or her mouth, so the ability to eat finger foods could be – literally – within reach after around 6 months old. This could be especially important if you want to try baby-led weaning.

If your baby was born prematurely, consult with your health visitor or doctor about the best time to start introducing solid foods.

Signs Your Baby Is Ready for Weaning

You may be wondering how you’ll be able to tell when your baby is ready to start weaning. Well, there are three important signs to look out for:

  • Your little one can sit up unsupported, holding his or her head steady
  • Your baby has the eye-hand coordination needed to look at a piece of food, pick it up and bring it up to his or her mouth
  • He or she swallows food instead of spitting or pushing it out with the tongue.

Some things babies normally do are often mistaken for signs of readiness. Keep in mind that chewing on a fist, periods of cluster feeding (wanting extra feeds of breast milk or formula) or waking up more often at night are not necessarily signs that your little one is ready to start trying solid food.

How to Wean Your Baby

If your baby shows the signs of readiness to start weaning, choose a time of day when your baby isn’t too tired, and make sure you’re not in a rush yourself either. Set aside plenty of time so your child can go at his or her own pace without being rushed.

A good time for those early tasting sessions could be before a regular breast or bottle feed. Once that little tummy’s full of breast milk or formula, your baby might not be interested in trying solid food.

On the other hand, don’t wait for your little to get too hungry either, or those tasty morsels of mushed-up fruit or veg just won’t be able to compete with the prospect of an instant hunger-quenching feed of breast milk or formula.

To avoid the risk of choking, it’s important that you never leave your baby alone with food or allow him or her to eat unsupervised. Plus, ensure the bits of food are not a small size that could get caught in the throat or windpipe if swallowed whole, like whole grapes for example.

Here are some more specific weaning tips for each stage of the process:

The First Taste of Solids – From Around 6 Months Old

  • At this stage your baby won’t need three meals a day. In fact, that much food wouldn’t fit inside your little one’s tiny stomach yet anyway!
  • Early on, it’s best to just start by offering food in small amounts – a few small pieces or teaspoons of a single pureed or soft-cooked fruit or vegetable at a time.
  • Vary the foods you offer. Keep adding things your baby has already refused to the menu too. At this stage of weaning it might take up to 10 tries before your little one accepts a new food, taste or texture.
  • From 6 months old, you can offer your baby sips of water with meals. An open cup or free-flow cup (without an anti-spill valve) is best. This helps your child learn to sip properly and it’s also better for his or her teeth.
  • Keep on breastfeeding or bottle feeding your little one. At this stage, your baby will still be getting most of the nutrition he or she needs from breast milk or formula.

Building an Appetite – 7 to 9 Months Old

  • Your baby will gradually eat more and more, and you might be giving solids two, and eventually three times a day. As the amount of solid food increases, your child may want less breast milk or formula at each feed.
  • Breastfeeding babies take as much milk as they need to supplement the solids at this stage, so just keep breastfeeding on demand.
  • Babies who get their nourishment from formula may need around 600 millilitres of infant formula a day in this stage of weaning, but this is just a rule of thumb: Pay attention to your little one’s feeding cues – such as sucking on a fist or finger or searching for the bottle teat with his or her mouth – to determine whether he or she is still hungry.

Three Meals a Day – 10-12 Months Old

  • By his or her first birthday, your baby will probably be tucking into three meals a day alongside roughly the same number of breast or bottle feeds.
  • Consider timing these meals to coincide with breakfast, lunch and tea (or whatever you call the early evening meal in your household), so you can eat together as a family. Besides making weaning into a fun (if messy) bonding experience, this can help lay the foundations for good eating habits down the track.
  • It’s great if your little one is learning to drink water from an open or free-flow cup, but breast milk or formula is still the best choice for your baby’s main drink until he or she is around 1 year old.
  • By now a formula-fed baby may be down to around 400 millilitres of formula a day. Breastfed babies adjust their intake depending on how much they need on top of solid foods.
  • Experts recommend giving your baby a vitamin D supplement if he or she is drinking less than 500 millilitres of formula a day, or if you’re still breastfeeding your little one.

Your Little (Picky) Gourmet – 1 Year and Beyond

  • Now your child could be eating lots of different foods at those three daily mealtimes, and maybe having a couple of healthy snacks between meals as well.
  • If you’re still breastfeeding, your baby will take as much as he or she needs at each feed. After 12 months your little one no longer needs infant formula on top of solid foods.
  • At 12 months old your baby may also be ready to try cow’s milk. Milk is a great source of calcium and other vitamins; but introduce it gradually at first. Don’t give low fat dairy products at this age, as children under 2 years old need the extra energy contained in whole milk.
  • You may notice your baby getting better at picking up food and putting it in his or her mouth, and all that practice with a cup could now be paying off too.
  • Keep in mind that babies and toddlers learn these skills at different speeds, and some are fussier eaters than others, so don’t worry if your child’s transition to solid food isn’t as effortless as you might have expected. Just be patient and he or she will get there in the end!

Baby-Led Weaning or Spoon Feeding?

There are two main methods for introducing solid foods. One is referred to as baby-led weaning, when you just give your baby finger foods – like pieces of boiled or steamed vegetables or soft fruit – and let your little one feed him or herself.

Spoon feeding, as the name suggests, is when you spoon mashed or pureed food into your baby’s mouth.

You might choose one or another of these methods, or a combination of the two. Neither way is right or wrong, so go with whatever feels right for you and your child.

What Are the Best Baby Weaning Foods?

Your little one’s first weaning foods could be single fruits or vegetables, either mashed up or cooked/steamed in pieces until they are soft (and cooled back down again).

Great first weaning foods could include:

  • Sweet potato
  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Potato
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Carrot

It’s usually OK to give your baby foods that contain allergens (such as peanuts, eggs, fish and glutenous products like bread) after 6 months of age, but always give only one of these foods at a time, and in a very small amount at first. That way, you’ll be able to spot any allergic reaction early.

You can use cow’s milk in cooking (or mixed in with food) from about six months, but don’t give it to your baby as a standalone drink until he or she is at least 1 year old.

As your baby starts to get more nutrition from solid food, it’s important to make sure your little one is getting a balanced diet. As a general rule, try and include plenty of all these different types of food in his or her diet:

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Starchy foods like potatoes, rice and pasta
  • Sources of protein, like beans, fish, eggs and meat
  • Pasteurised full-fat dairy products like unflavoured yoghurt and reduced-salt cheese.

Shop-bought baby foods can be convenient, especially when you’re travelling with your baby, but nothing beats home cooking! Learn more about how to make and store your own baby food.

When to Stop Breastfeeding

There’s no hard or fast rule on when you should stop breastfeeding. It’s a personal choice.

If you breastfeed, experts advise giving your baby nothing but breast milk for the first six months, and ideally continuing to breastfeed throughout the weaning process – as you gradually introduce solid foods into your little one’s diet – as well.

If you do need to stop earlier than this for any reason, you’ll still need to supplement your baby’s diet with infant formula instead until around the age of 12 months.

Exactly when you stop breastfeeding is up to you. Some mums phase out breastfeeding altogether soon after their baby is getting almost all his or her nutrition from solid foods, but others prefer to continue for longer. This is fine too, even well into the second year or after.

Beyond nourishment, there are many other benefits of breastfeeding. For example, your child may find those feeds comforting, especially at night or when he or she is ill or feeling upset.

Your decision on when to stop breastfeeding may sometimes be led by factors that make breastfeeding less convenient or possibly uncomfortable – for example, returning to work or if you’re experiencing breast pain or sore nipples.

Keep in mind that even if you need or prefer to stop breastfeeding, you might still like to consider giving your baby expressed breast milk until your little one is fully weaned onto solid foods.

If you’d rather continue breastfeeding but find it uncomfortable, there might be another solution: Sore nipples are often caused by your baby not latching properly onto your breast, and changing your breastfeeding position or technique could help solve the problem.

Your health visitor or a lactation consultant can advise you on this and other aspects of breastfeeding, such as how to boost your milk supply.

It may be easier said than done; but try not to compare your particular circumstances to any other mother’s or be influenced by pressure to stop breastfeeding at a certain time. Instead, think about what feels right for you and your little one. Always feel free to ask your health visitor for personalised advice.

How to Stop Breastfeeding

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ technique for stopping breastfeeding. Left to his or her own devices, your little one may just lose interest in breast milk as solid food gradually becomes the main source of nutrition for your child.

If you choose a more controlled approach, it’s still best to phase out breastfeeding gradually rather than just stopping ‘overnight’. The benefits of this are twofold:

  • Physical. Your breasts need time to adjust to the change in demand for milk, so stopping suddenly could lead to engorgement (when your breasts are overfull), which may cause an uncomfortable tightening or even mastitis (a painful inflammation of the breast).
  • Emotional. Your baby (and you) may find those close, intimate feeding sessions comforting. Easing out of them gently can give you both time to get used to the change.

A good approach to gradually stopping breastfeeding is to start by leaving out one of your usual regular feeds. Once your little one (and you) have settled into this daily routine, you can start getting ready to discontinue another feed.

You might choose to give up night feeds last, as they can be a great way of comforting your little one during the night.

Taking Care of Yourself When Stopping Breastfeeding

Even if you phase out breastfeeding quite slowly, your breasts may still become a little overfull sometimes. To ease any discomfort and help prevent mastitis it can help to express a small quantity of milk for the first few days after reducing the number of feeds, to release any painful tension.

You may also experience mixed emotions, including sadness and anxiety. You might also miss some of the quiet time together and bonding that breastfeeding afforded. Give yourself time to adjust and take into account that this can be a very emotionally trying time.

Setting aside quality one-on-one time with your child for activities that aren’t centred on nursing might be one way of helping to establish a new type of closeness.

If you are having difficulties with either the physical or emotional aspects of weaning and/or stopping breastfeeding, turn to your health visitor for support.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q : How do I start weaning?
  • Q : What foods should I start weaning with?
  • Q : When can you start weaning your baby off formula?
  • Q : Is it OK to wean a baby at 4 months?

The Bottom Line

Introducing solid foods is a gradual process that can take plenty of patience and, if you’re breastfeeding, stopping when the time comes can also be an adjustment that takes a bit of getting used to for both you and your baby.

Try to keep in mind that weaning is an exciting time of exploration for your little one that can bring so many magical moments as your child discovers and delights in new flavours and textures. Bon appétit!

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below.
The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

See all sources

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