If you’re looking to establish breastfeeding, keep breastfeeding going after a setback or continue breastfeeding past a certain age, there’s so much support to be found online. Which is, of course, how it should be – breastfeeding is an amazing thing and the abundance of support online goes a little way to make up for the lack of it IRL.
But… what happens when you’re ready to stop breastfeeding? When our babies are born, from the very first second we’re encouraged to breastfeed. The NHS recommends breastfeeding until at least six months, while WHO advocate for breastfeeding until 2 years ‘and beyond’. We are pushed (but not necessarily supported) towards breastfeeding at every turn, but all breastfeeding journeys come to an end at some point – whether that’s through self-weaning (some children become disinterested in feeding as they get older, and all children eventually lose their ability to latch) or through choice. And if you choose to stop breastfeeding for yourself, it can be a tough situation to navigate.
I started thinking about the length of my breastfeeding journey when Hazel was around 10 months old. At this point, she had fallen into a nice routine – I’d feed her first thing in the morning, around 11am, around 3pm and at bedtime. But I found the 11am feed meant she wasn’t interested in lunch, so I decided to cut it out. And that started our process of gradually reducing breastfeeding until, after 13 months, I stopped completely.
For me it was quite an easy decision to make – despite my initial struggles, I’ve had a happy, positive and mostly straightforward breastfeeding experience. What’s more, Hazel has never been a ‘milk monster’ – she never really cluster fed, she didn’t feed to sleep and she rarely fed for comfort. When I realised breastfeeding was hindering her enjoyment of food, I made the decision for both of us – it was time to move on.
And it may sound selfish, but a big driver of that decision was my need for freedom. I wanted to leave the house before 7pm in the evening. I wanted Rob to take the night feeds for a while. I wanted to have a whole day away, by myself. I wanted to drink more than two glasses of wine. These sound like small, insignificant things but after months and months of dedicating yourself to another person who relies on you for every conceivable aspect of life, they add up. I’m not ashamed to say it – I wanted an out, if only for a small part of each day.
After cutting out the mid-morning feed at 10 months, I let Hazel lead the way for a while. Her interest in food picked right up, and soon I found she wanted an afternoon snack rather than milk at 3pm. So for a couple of months, I just fed her in the morning and at bedtime, and if she woke in the night. Then she started nursery and all hell broke loose with illness, no sleep and food refusal, so breastfeeding was back, big time. But that was ok – I wasn’t in a rush and if she needed it, that was cool with me.
At 13 months things settled down again and we were back in our two-feeds-a-day routine. I had a spa weekend looming – my first night away from Hazel, ever – and so decided to try introducing cow’s milk at bedtime. Rob gave Hazel her first bottle of cow’s milk (warmed gently for a few minutes on the hob because we were being very Precious First Baby about it) and she downed it in a few minutes then went straight to sleep. Result!
After a few days of bedtime bottles and no complaints, I decided to see how Hazel felt about skipping the morning feed. Looking back, it’s weird that the morning feed was the last to go as it was always the most stressful – especially on nursery days, we were constantly rushing to get out of the house, and as lovely as those 20 min milky snuggles were… they just didn’t quite fit. The slow-moving newborn days were most certainly over! I started by giving Hazel a cup of water when she woke up, then she’d have milky porridge for breakfast. For the first few days I offered her a breastfeed after breakfast just in case she wanted it, but she absolutely was not bothered and mostly refused. So that was it – after 13 months exclusive breastfeeding, we were done.
Hazel at 14.5 months
For us, the transition has been seamless, completely painless and absolutely transformational. I’m in no way trying to dissuade anyone from breastfeeding for as long as they feel comfortable doing – I support mothers in making choices that suit them, whether that’s stopping at 6 days, 6 weeks, 6 months or 6 years. Or more. Or less. And I want to recognise the pain of having that choice taken away, whether that’s because you are unable to breastfeed due to a physical problem or a lack of support, or because you feel pressured to stop breastfeeding before you are ready due to the (incorrect and totally baseless) opinions of friends/family/society. But for me, stopping at 13 months was absolutely right.
I think it’s important to recognise that many mothers simply want to stop. It’s vital that we talk about this – to normalise it and to make it ok. It’s ok to want a bit of your ‘old’ life back. It’s ok to want to lessen your responsibility, just a tiny bit. It’s ok to want to get blind drunk and dance on a table without worrying about inadvertently giving your baby their first taste of tequila. It. Is. Ok.
Breastfeeding was without a doubt one of the hardest, strangest, most emotionally draining experiences of my life. It is also one of my greatest achievements. I have absolutely no regrets about our journey – I am so proud that we made it to 13 months, but I’m also bloody delighted it’s over. I do miss it, sometimes – when we’re cuddling, or on the rare occasions Hazel wakes at 3am. But I know stopping was right for the three of us, Rob included. And that’s all that matters.
If you’re thinking of stopping breastfeeding, here are a few quick tips to help the process go smoothly. Please note, these tips are based on my own experiences with Hazel, who was 10 months when I started reducing feeds and 13 months when I stopped. For younger babies I would always, always recommend speaking to a health visitor, midwife or breastfeeding counsellor for proper advice on this.
– If possible, reduce your feeds slowly over time. Stopping cold turkey can lead to blocked ducts, engorgement and mastitis, none of which are any fun. Cut out one feed at a time over a few weeks to gradually reduce your supply.
– Let your child take the lead with some gentle guidance. Work out which feeds they need (i.e. a morning feed because they’re hungry, feeding during illness) and which feeds they want (i.e. a pre-nap feed for comfort), and try to offer an alternative to their ‘want’ feeds instead, like a cup of water, a snack or distraction with a toy.
– Think about a breastmilk replacement, either to give as a drink or to use in food. Remember that for babies under 12 months, cow’s milk can be used in cooking but not as a drink.
– If you’re feeling uncomfortable when cutting down feeds but before your supply regulates, try hand expressing for some relief. Pumping can take the edge off too, but remember that regular pumping will increase your supply again.
– Invite your partner to take over more feeds. This was one of the greatest parts of stopping for me – Rob does almost all our bedtimes now, giving Hazel her milk and reading her a story. We’ve made this our new routine and it’s really helped, both in giving me some space and in creating an amazing bond between dad and daughter.
– If you have a bottle refuser, try milk in a sippy cup, a 360 or a doidy. We used a MAM bottle with a wide teat for a while but NHS advice is to ditch bottles after 12 months (tough to follow, I know!), so we’ve just introduced bedtime milk in a doidy, which is going down well.
– Don’t feel guilty. Celebrate your journey, whether it was long, short or somewhere in between. Look back with pride. Buy yourself some breastmilk jewellery if you’re into that kinda thing (I am!). Focus on the future and all that is to come. You have done and are doing a great job, mama.