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Gentle Ways to Wean a Breastfeeding Baby

Weaning a breastfeeding baby can be one of the most emotional trials a new mother faces. Some babies may wean naturally on their own terms, while others may protest at first, making for a difficult transition. Whether you've been breastfeeding for six months, one year or into your child's toddlerhood, you want the weaning process to be as gentle and as natural as possible.

Let it Happen Naturally

Ultimately, weaning is an individual choice; each mother must decide what's best for her and her child, says Leigh Anne O'Connor, a certified lactation consultant in New York City. The gentlest way to wean is to allow your baby to decide when it will happen. O'Connor states that babies typically do not wean naturally before the age of 2 years – and that the average age of natural weaning is actually 4 years of age.

"This does not mean that I think every mom should nurse into toddlerhood. I can assure you that you cannot make a toddler nurse who does not want to. Each breastfeeding relationship is unique as is every individual," she explains. Allowing a baby to wean naturally can help to boost a baby's immune system as well as alleviate concerns about stopping too soon, she says. "When a baby weans naturally, there typically isn't anything to be concerned about because it happens very gradually over a long period of time," she adds.

RELATED: To Wean or Not to Wean?

Mother-Led Weaning

If you decide to wean before your baby's first birthday, first make sure that your baby can tolerate formula. Then, go slowly, says O'Connor. "Begin the process by spreading out nursing sessions and offering healthy foods if the baby is over six months," she recommends.

Since babies find intimacy and comfort from nursing sessions, ending the time at the breast can be quite distressing for them. As such, O'Connor recommends that extra attention be given to babies as they wean. "Mothers will want to offer lots of cuddles, as breastfeeding meets many needs at once," she says. Babies typically find the most comfort in the first and last nursing sessions of the day, so start the weaning process by dropping the least favorite sessions first, leaving the bedtime feeding the last to be dismissed.

Patience is Key

If you're considering weaning, be sure the timing is optimal. Avoid weaning when your baby isn't feeling well or if your family is undergoing a stressful transition such as a move or change in childcare, the Mayo Clinic advises. You also may want to consider delaying weaning if you're not feeling well.

Keep in mind that weaning can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, so don't rush the process. If your baby has never used a bottle before, choose one with a slow-flow nipple that mimics the flow he's used to during breastfeeding, and don't try to introduce a bottle for the first time when your baby is extremely hungry. Your baby's nutrition is the first priority, so if he refuses the bottle or cup at first, don't force it. Instead, try again at a later time.

RELATED: 8 Reasons I'm Not Weaning My 14-Month-Old Anytime Soon

Potential Complications

Mothers who try to wean too quickly or too soon can experience engorgement, which can lead to clogged ducts or mastitis, a painful inflammation of the breasts. Even after you wean, you'll continue to produce milk for several weeks, so watch for signs of redness or redness or tenderness.

You can continue to express a small amount of milk to alleviate the fullness, notes the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. After a few days, your body will learn to produce less milk. If you begin to feel feverish or generally ill, contact your doctor.

In addition, hormone changes can cause you to have mood swings and feel depressed, even if you and your baby are both ready for weaning. If you feel sad when you stop nursing, increasing the amount of physical contact you share with your little one can help.

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