Weaning is the process of switching your baby from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding, or from a breast or bottle to a cup or solid foods. Weaning usually works best when it is done gradually over several weeks, months, or even longer.
There is no right or wrong time to wean. It depends on how ready you and your baby are to start.
Experts recommend feeding your baby only breast milk for about 6 months. They also support breastfeeding for 2 years or longer.footnote 1 But your baby benefits from any amount of time that you breastfeed. Try to breastfeed for as long as it works for you and your baby.
Starting around 6 months of age, your baby needs solid foods along with breast milk or formula. Some babies may be ready for solid foods at 4 or 5 months. Ask your doctor when you can start feeding your baby solid foods. And if a family member has food allergies, ask whether and how to start foods that might cause allergies. Most allergic reactions in children are caused by eggs, milk, wheat, soy, and peanuts.
Weaning From Breastfeeding
There are two ways to wean. Gradual weaning happens over time. It lets your baby have more control over when to stop breastfeeding. Abrupt weaning happens all at once. Which style you use will depend on your preferences, why you plan to wean, and how often your baby breastfeeds.
One way to let a baby control weaning is through the "don't offer, don't refuse" method. This means that you never offer to breastfeed your child. But you don't refuse when your child asks or shows a desire to breastfeed.
This can be a slow process. But when you're committed to weaning and provide encouragement, your baby can wean successfully and happily.
These tips may help you gradually wean your baby:
- Make your breasts less available for nursing.
Stop wearing nursing clothing such as nursing bras and tops with nursing slits. Wear more layers of clothing, or wear clothing that is less easily adapted to nursing. The baby may demand to nurse less often because of the lack of easy access. This technique is usually combined with other techniques.
- Shorten each breastfeeding session before stopping it completely.
A baby may just need a minute or two at the breast, more for comfort than for food. When the baby has had a minute or two, urge the child to stop and interest them in something else.
- Postpone breastfeeding sessions.
Tell your baby that you'll nurse later, such as after you finish preparing dinner. This will space out sessions until you can eventually postpone a whole nursing session until the next one. It may also allow your baby to become distracted before the breastfeeding ever begins.
- Substitute food, drinks, or comfort for breastfeeding.
If your child still uses breastfeeding as a primary way of satisfying hunger or thirst, be ready with other foods and drinks before your child asks to breastfeed. (Milk or water is better than juice because of the high sugar content of juice.) If your baby isn't hungry or thirsty, encourage the use of a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal, blanket, or doll. Offer it often. Also substitute close cuddling without breastfeeding. A child may fear that weaning means losing that comforting sense of being held.
- Distract your baby.
Make life so interesting and busy that your baby forgets to ask to breastfeed. Read a book to your baby while holding them on your lap (which provides close contact). Or suggest a walk, a ride on a tricycle, or a trip to a playground or sandbox. Distractions can be time-consuming, but they work well.
You may prefer to abruptly wean your baby from the breast. This approach may be best suited for a baby who nurses fewer than 3 times a day.
When weaning abruptly, choose a time when you don't expect other major changes in your or your baby's life and when you have extra time to spend with your child.
The following tips may help.
- Say "no," and offer distractions.
Try reading a book while holding your baby on your lap. This provides the close contact your child wants. Or suggest a walk, a ride on a tricycle, or a trip to a playground or sandbox.
- Make your breasts less available for nursing.
Stop wearing nursing clothing such as nursing bras and tops with nursing slits. Wear more layers of clothing, or wear clothing that is less easily adapted to nursing.
- Let someone else take care of your baby for a few days.
Your child should stay with a trusted caregiver, such as a spouse, grandparent, or other family member. Since you aren't available for breastfeeding, your child will adjust to the other caregivers. Over time, your child will come to accept that breastfeeding isn't needed. If you are gone for less than a week, your child may ask to breastfeed again when you return. But your child is likely to accept a refusal without too much complaining.
Getting past barriers
There may be times when you want to stop breastfeeding, but your baby shows signs of wanting to continue. If possible, keep breastfeeding a while longer. If you can't, then try these tips:
- Offer breast milk pumped from your breast, formula, or cow's milk (if your baby is more than 12 months old) in a cup or bottle. Do this before you breastfeed or between breastfeedings. Slowly increase the amount in the cup or bottle. If possible, have someone else feed your baby with a bottle or cup.
- If your baby spits out the bottle nipple when first starting to bottle-feed, keep trying. Experiment with different nipple types. It often takes time for a breastfed baby to get used to an artificial nipple. Or it may be time to use a cup.
- If your weaned baby wants to nurse again, try giving your baby extra hugs and attention instead of going back to the old way of feeding.
Weaning From Bottle-Feeding
Here are some tips for weaning your baby from the bottle:
- Don't allow the baby to carry the bottle around.
This can help prevent injuries if your baby falls. It also can help keep the bottle from being a comfort item for your baby.
- Help transfer the baby's attachment from the bottle to another comfort object.
When your baby asks for the bottle outside of meal or snack time, encourage the use of a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal, blanket, or doll. For example, tie an empty bottle securely around the neck of a favorite stuffed animal or other comfort object, then remove the bottle after your baby thinks of the new object as the source of comfort (after a few days or weeks). Make sure the bottle is tied securely and that the string has no slack or loose ends that could become wrapped around your baby's neck and cause choking.
- Make changes in the baby's routine, especially the rituals that are connected to bottle-feeding.
For example, after a fall, comfort your baby with hugs and attention rather than the bottle.
- Keep the baby busy with new activities.
This can be in the home or in a museum, at a zoo, or at a playground.
- Make a cup part of weaning.
Make using a cup part of your baby's solid-meal routine. Then, over time, stop their bottle-feedings.
- Take the bottle away, and make it an event.
Make a big announcement that "today is the day you'll eat like a big kid." Celebrate by having your baby throw out the old nipples and bottles and by taking them to the store to pick out a personal cup. The bottle may be a comfort object, so replace it with hugs and attention or another comfort object, such as a stuffed animal.
- Be ready for feeding time.
When feeding time approaches, offer your baby a snack. If this is filling, it may take the child's mind off the feeding.
Getting past barriers
Some babies grow attached to the bottle and do not want to give it up. Here are some common behaviors and suggestions on how to deal with them.
- Your baby always wants to have a bottle in his or her mouth.
Do not let your baby crawl, walk around, or go to bed with a bottle. This will make him or her more prone to dental cavities (caries). Also, a baby with a bottle or other object in his or her mouth is at risk for face and mouth injuries if he or she were to fall. Offer a stuffed toy or blanket for comfort instead of a bottle.
- Your baby does not want to give up the bedtime bottle.
Bottle-feeding at bedtime can often be part of your baby's regular routine. This feeding is usually the hardest to give up. Cuddle your baby often, and gradually replace the bedtime bottle ritual with a new one. For example, 1 to 2 hours before bedtime give your baby something to eat or drink. (Don't give your baby cow's milk until he or she is at least 1 year old.) Then at bedtime, brush your baby's teeth, give him or her a bath, or read a storybook instead of offering a bottle.
- Your 18-month-old still drinks from a bottle.
Start using a cup to feed your child if you have not already. Dilute the liquid in the bottle to make it less tasty.
- Your weaned baby wants to bottle-feed again.
Try giving your baby extra hugs and attention instead of going back to the old way of feeding.
Cup-feeding is a way to provide breast milk or formula to a baby who is unwilling or unable to breastfeed or drink from a bottle. If you do breastfeed, you can also use cup-feeding instead of bottle-feeding if your baby needs supplementation for a few days.
Many babies with special needs can easily learn how to cup-feed. This feeding technique can promote the physical bond between the parent and baby when breastfeeding or bottle-feeding isn't possible.
How to cup-feed
To cup-feed your baby, you want your baby to slurp or sip the milk. Do not pour the milk into his or her mouth. To do this:
- Fill a medicine cup to about 1 fl oz (30 mL) with breast milk or formula.
- Support your baby in an upright position.
- Wrap or swaddle your baby to keep his or her hands from getting in the way and spilling the cup. When you swaddle your baby, keep the blanket loose around the hips and legs. If the legs are wrapped tightly or straight, hip problems may develop.
- Make sure your baby is alert.
- Stimulate your baby's rooting reflex (as you would when you breastfeed).
Tap the baby's lower lip with the cup. This signals that it's time to eat.
- Rest the brim of the cup lightly on your baby's lower lip, with the brim placed on the outer corners of the upper lip.
The tongue should be able to move freely to the cup's lower edge.
- Tip the cup so the milk comes to the edge of your baby's lower lip.
Leave the cup in this position, even as your baby takes breaks.
- Make sure your baby swallows after slurping or sipping the milk.
- Stop for occasional burping.
The feeding should last no more than about 30 minutes. Follow your baby's cues about when to stop.
Your baby may be ready to eat solid foods when your baby:
- Is about 6 months old.
- Starts to get curious about foods. Your baby may reach for what you're eating and drinking.
- Can sit alone or with support.
- Has good head and neck control.
- Is able to hold small objects, such as toys or food.
- Can move food to the back of their mouth to swallow.
Foods to avoid
When you start to feed solid foods to your baby, there are some things you want to avoid. Some foods aren't safe or healthy for babies.
Here's a list of foods to avoid for your baby:
- Foods that may cause your baby to choke. These include hot dogs, whole or chopped nuts and seeds, chunks of nut butter, popcorn, raw carrots and apples, and uncut grapes, berries, and cherry tomatoes.
- Honey. Babies shouldn't have honey at all until they're 12 months old.
- Unpasteurized or raw dairy products.
- Fish that's high in mercury. You'll want to avoid serving king mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, orange roughy, tilefish, and bigeye tuna.
- Foods and drinks with added sugars. Some examples include cookies, flavored yogurt, and juice.
- Foods and drinks that have a lot of salt. These include canned soups, processed meats, and frozen meals.
When to start
Breast milk or formula is the only food that babies need for the first 6 months of life. At about 6 months, you can slowly start to introduce solid foods along with breast milk or formula. But each baby is different. Ask your doctor when you can start feeding your baby solid foods.
When To Call
Talk to your child's doctor about weaning if:
- Your baby refuses all solid food and is older than 6 to 8 months of age.
- Your baby has changed from sleeping through the night to waking up during the night hungry.
- Your baby develops dental cavities.
- Your baby seems overweight for your baby's age, size, or birth weight.
- Your toddler (1 to 2 years old) focuses on breast- or bottle-feeding and does not play with other children.
- Your toddler never wants to be away from you.
- Your baby is older than 18 months of age and is still drinking from a bottle.
- You are emotionally ready to wean your baby.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine