Information for the military mother on how to wean, whether it is abrupt, gradual, partial or temporary.
Weaning is the transition from exclusive breastfeeding to receiving food from another source completely. There is no magic age at which weaning must occur. However, the AAP and World Health Organization does recommend that all babies be exclusively breastfed for at least six months, and then supplemented with solid foods in addition to breastfeeding until at least the baby’s first birthday, and thereafter for as long as both mother and baby desire. Weaning can be a very abrupt process that happens at an early age or a long, gradual process. As a mother in the military you may have to wean abruptly if called up for an unexpected deployment, or you may be able to wean when your baby is ready. There are many valid reasons for weaning, and depending on the age of your baby, there are various methods of weaning that you can employ.
The following guidelines will explain the different types of weaning and how to do so properly to cause the least amount of pain (emotionally and physically). You can always contact your local La Leche League Leader or IBCLC for more information on weaning. Please consult with your healthcare provider if you encounter any health problems related to weaning.
Abrupt weaning may be unavoidable in the case of an emergency deployment or call-up. Abrupt weaning is the least desired, and most difficult, form of weaning for both you and your baby. Physical discomfort and potential health problems can arise when weaning is done too quickly, including engorgement and mastitis. The abrupt withdrawal of the hormones associated with breastfeeding can also lead to feelings of sadness and depression. If this weaning will be followed by your immediate departure, be sure that other family members and caregivers give your baby plenty of physical affection and attention to offer reassurance and to compensate for the emotional distress he may be feeling.
- Weaning within one week requires dropping two breastfeeding sessions a day.
- Replace the breastfeeding sessions with pumping sessions, but only pump to comfort.
- Gradually increase the amount of time between pumping sessions.
- Do not completely drain your breasts.
- Be prepared to hand express or take a small battery or hand-pump along with you and pump as above.
- Wear a firm bra, such as a sports bra for support, and use nursing pads to absorb any leaking.
- Use ice packs to provide relief from any swelling.
- Cabbage leaves in your bra can help with engorgement as well.
- Take a pain reliever as needed to relieve breast discomfort.
- Peppermint (Altoids) as well as Sudafed have been shown to help some mothers dry up quickly.
Gradual (Baby or Mother-Led)
Gradual weaning is the best way to wean your baby and can be done at any age. Weaning gradually is a much slower process, one that can take weeks to months, even years to complete, depending on what type of weaning you prefer. There are two types of gradual weaning: baby-led and mother-led.
With baby-led weaning, you follow your baby’s developmental needs and readiness signs for the next stage in the process, and your baby may continue to nurse well into his second or even third year of life (visit this website for a great handout on the advantages of Breastfeeding Past Infancy). In baby-led weaning, your baby will drop a nursing here and there over time, with his favorite nursing session the last to go. This method of weaning is certainly do-able, even for a military mother. In fact, once you get over the hard part of pumping in the early months, and your baby is older and really only nursing in the mornings, evenings, and weekends, you can continue to breastfeed until you are both ready to wean. With baby-led weaning, breastfeeding your baby moves from being a method of feeding to a method of providing comfort and security, and allows for a wonderful closeness and bond to develop that really makes the daily separation so much easier to deal with for both you and your baby.
Mother-led weaning is done to suit your desires, needs, or plans. There are many reasons why you might choose to initiate weaning, such as an upcoming deployment, a predetermined goal (six, nine or 12 months) or health issues. This style of weaning can take anywhere from weeks to months and is best for mothers who have a set goal or have a date in mind for weaning and plenty of time to plan for it. Begin by dropping the least favorite nursing session and substituting it with a bottle of expressed breastmilk, formula, or solids, depending on the age of your baby. After a few weeks, you can drop another nursing session, and continue in this fashion until your baby is receiving all his nutrition by another source. You can also take advantage of your baby’s natural distractible stage near the nine-month age to not offer the breast and substitute solids and a sippy cup instead. There are many gentle, yet effective ways to wean if that is what you decide to do.
Either form of gradual weaning allows your milk supply to decrease slowly, without causing fullness, discomfort, and possible mastitis. However, you may need to pump, depending on how fast your gradual weaning proceeds, just to remain comfortable. If your baby is older than seven or eight months, he can be weaned to a cup. And over one year of age, you can wean him to cow’s milk. Babies under a year old should be given formula or you can use expressed breastmilk if you have a large stockpile. Gradual weaning allows your baby to adjust to the change over time. Some babies take better to weaning than others, with some adjusting easily, while others are very reluctant to stop breastfeeding. Be flexible in your weaning schedule and enlist the help of other caregivers if at all possible.
Partial weaning is an alternative to total weaning. This is an option if you wish to continue breastfeeding when you are at home, but cannot pump while at work. Depending on the age of your baby, you may need to replace the pumped breastmilk with formula or solids during the workday. Breastfeed as often as possible when you are home to maintain a milk supply, especially at night. A nice benefit to partial weaning is that you can always go back to breastfeeding or pumping more frequently if your work situation changes. Partial weaning, like gradual weaning, can go on for months or until you and your baby are ready to move to the next stage. Many working mothers continue to nurse their babies well into their second year or beyond by nursing only in the morning and evenings.
Temporary weaning is an option if you will be away for a short amount of time, such as a training exercise or deployment of only one to four weeks, and plan to resume breastfeeding upon your return. With temporary weaning you will not be breastfeeding or pumping while you are gone, and your baby will not be receiving your expressed milk. Follow the rules for abrupt weaning before you leave. Your milk supply will decrease, but depending upon the length of your absence, you may find that frequent, unrestricted breastfeeding will bring back a full or partial supply. You might consider herbal preparations or prescription medications to boost their supply. See the Supply Issues page or your HCP or IBCLC for more information.
Keep in mind that after about a month, without any stimulation via pumping or breastfeeding, your breast tissue will begin to return to its pre-pregnant state, and the weaning may be permanent. If you have a frozen stockpile of expressed milk, your baby can be fed that while you are gone, and even for awhile after your return, while you boost your supply back up. Not all babies will go back to the breast after a temporary weaning, especially if they are older. Be prepared for this possible outcome. See an IBCLC or La Leche League Leader for help if your baby is reluctant to go back to breastfeeding upon your return.