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Don’t Stop Breastfeeding “Cold Turkey” (Do This Instead)

If you’ve decided it’s time to be done breastfeeding your child, you might wonder if it’s okay to stop “cold turkey,” as they say. Put simply, no, it’s best not to stop so abruptly. In this blog post, learn why not and what to do instead.

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I love breastfeeding. I breastfed my daughter until she was 14 months old. She would have gladly kept breastfeeding and I enjoyed it still. But I chose to wean her because I could not get and stay pregnant while breastfeeding. 

I had two miscarriages in those 14 months, which you can read a bit about in my blog post How to Miscarry Naturally (From Someone Who’s Done It Twice).

Part of the reason I say that is to give you an idea of the wide range of reasons women have for weaning their breastfed children. 

Maybe you’re feeling emotionally and physically drained by breastfeeding and don’t want to do it anymore. Maybe your child seems less enthusiastic about breastfeeding than they used to. Maybe you have a medical reason for stopping.

Or maybe you just feel like it’s time.

Whatever the reason, I want to help you navigate the process of weaning as smoothly as possible. I know it can be a tricky time.

Don’t Stop Cold Turkey

I don’t know why we use the phrase “cold turkey” (I looked it up once but I don’t remember) but we do. And a lot of women wonder if it’s okay to stop breastfeeding cold turkey—abruptly and completely, with no phasing out.

And the answer is, yes…you can…BUT it’s not ideal. 

Supply and Demand

The thing about breastfeeding is that it works on the principle of supply and demand. The more your baby sucks and drinks, the more milk your body will produce. And, conversely, the less your baby breastfeeds, the less milk your body will produce.

The problem with choosing to stop breastfeeding “cold turkey” is that your body can’t adjust to that sudden disappearance of demand immediately. It takes a while for your milk production to slow and stop.

That’s why it’s best to stop breastfeeding over time—an idea inherent in the word “wean.”

What Happens If You Do Stop Breastfeeding Abruptly

If you do choose to stop breastfeeding immediately, without any extended time for weaning, your body and your baby will likely have some difficulties.

First, your breasts will likely become engorged. They will be over-full, which can be uncomfortable. But beyond discomfort, that engorgement can also lead to mastitis—an infection of your breast tissue—which is painful, causes flu-like symptoms, and sometimes requires antibiotics to heal.

Second, your baby (especially if he or she is quite young) will likely struggle with the sudden change. You may notice an increase in fussiness and tantrums or increased night wakings. They will likely miss the closeness with you that breastfeeding allowed for.

Your baby may also be more prone to sickness, since they will no longer be receiving breast milk, which provides a powerful boost to their immune system.

What to Do Instead

Before we get into what to do instead of choosing to stop breastfeeding cold turkey, I want to say one more thing: please do NOT let someone else pressure you into stopping if you and your baby are not ready.

If you and your baby are still enjoying it, keep breastfeeding! It is good for both of you, physically and emotionally.

That said, and in a similar vein, if you are feeling emotionally drained, don’t immediately assume it’s because of breastfeeding.

Emotions are tricky things. Chances are, if you resolve the real root of your emotional exhaustion, whether it be strain in your marriage, financial worries, or chronic depression or anxiety, you may find that breastfeeding is something you enjoy and want to continue doing.

With all that said, let’s dive into how to stop breastfeeding without stopping cold turkey.

How Old is Your Child?

First, it’s important to take into consideration how old your child is. The main threshold I’m concerned about here is 6 months. If your baby is under 6 months old and you are done breastfeeding for whatever reason, I recommend you switch to a high-quality formula. 

Babies’ digestive systems aren’t ready for solid foods until about 6 months old. Rather than giving them hard-to-digest foods, opt for a good formula, at least until your baby has hit the 6-month mark.

If your child is older than 6 months, you can give formula, solid foods, or both in place of breast milk.

Don’t Offer, Don’t Refuse

This clever phrase was helpful to me as I was weaning my daughter. When I made the choice to start weaning, my daughter was breastfeeding 2-3 times a day: morning, night, and sometimes around lunch time. 

The mid-day feeding was easy to drop because usually if I didn’t offer, my daughter didn’t notice or didn’t mind. She was happy to eat whatever my husband and I were having for lunch. 

This can be a simple first step on your weaning journey. If your child doesn’t say or indicate that they want to breastfeed, don’t.

Drop One Feeding at a Time

As you begin the process of ending breastfeeding, try to drop or switch out only one feeding at a time. If you decrease the number of feedings too quickly, your breasts are more likely to get engorged and your baby is likely to be fussier.

Stop the Least Favorite Feeding First

Chances are, your child has certain times they like breastfeeding more than other times. For my daughter, the feeding before bed was definitely the favorite.

She took the longest during that feeding. And by the time bedtime rolled around, she was often indicating she wanted to be breastfed. (She was fussy, wanting only me, or trying to lift up my shirt.)

It was obvious to me that the mid-day feeding was the least important to her, especially because we didn’t do it every day. So that’s the one we dropped first. We made sure to give her plenty of solid food for lunch and she did great.

Wait 3 Days to Drop Another Feeding

One of the keys to weaning comfortably is to wait a few days—or even a week—between reducing the number of feedings. For example, if you cut out a mid-day feeding on Monday, wait till at least Thursday to drop the morning feeding. 

I wasn’t in a rush to stop breastfeeding for any reason, so I waited a week or more in between each decrease.

Because of these waiting periods (and likely because I’d been breastfeeding for more than a year), my body had no trouble adjusting. I leaked a bit and my breasts were quite full after the first day of skipping the morning feeding. But after that my breasts had no problems at all. 

Recruit Help if Transitioning to a Bottle

If you are switching from breastfeeding to a bottle of formula, it may be helpful to have your husband or partner take care of the feedings sometimes or all of the time for a bit. If your baby knows your breast is right there, he or she is likely not going to be very happy about taking a bottle.

Don’t Sit in Your Nursing Chair

If you have a special nursing corner and, especially, a specific chair you always breastfed in, don’t sit there anymore after you’ve finished weaning. Babies, like adults, are capable of powerful mental associations—like a certain chair and Mom breastfeeding them.

At least for a while, you’ll probably want to avoid that chair entirely.

Provide Distractions

If you used to breastfeed at a certain time of day but that feeding isn’t needed anymore (because solid food keeps kids full for longer), try to provide a distraction. Read a book (not in the nursing chair!), have a conversation, play with toys, go outside, etc. 

Some kids won’t need a distraction, but some will.

Don’t Wean During Big Developmental Times

Finally, don’t try to stop breastfeeding when your child is experiencing a big developmental change. If he or she is learning to crawl or walk, is teething, or is starting at day care (etc.), the loss of breastfeeding is likely to be much harder. 

If you can, time weaning so that you will be done before your child begins to learn to walk (or get teeth, etc.).

If You Need to Stop Immediately…

In some cases—because of a medical procedure or medication, usually—women may need to stop breastfeeding abruptly. If that is the case for you (and you’ve gotten a second professional opinion!), you will be alright.

If your breasts get hot and uncomfortable, you can use ice packs (or a bag of frozen peas) to ease the discomfort. You can also hand-express a small amount of milk to ease the tightness. Just be sure not to express too much or your breasts will take longer to adjust!

If you start to notice lumps or red streaks on your breasts or start to experience flu-like symptoms, you may want to see a doctor or take other measures to prevent or treat mastitis.

TIP: Some women say that pineapple juice is the key to avoiding mastitis. I drank it as I began breastfeeding my daughter postpartum and never had engorgement problems. I had it ready while weaning but didn’t end up needing it. So if you prefer natural remedies, buy some pineapple juice! (Just don’t get the pasteurized kind.) Or just blend up a fresh pineapple at home.

Will My Child Be Upset?

Some kids will be ready to stop breastfeeding. Some will struggle with it.

It is likely that your child will be a little fussier while weaning. They may be extra attached to you for a bit. That’s okay!

Remember that this is a big change for them—they’ve never NOT been breastfed by you!

Depending on your child’s age, there are things you can do to make it a little easier. For a young baby, follow the tips above and make sure to give them extra love and plenty of mommy-and-me time.

For an older child, you could promise to get them a weaning present when weaning is finished. Or you can let them pick the day when you will be done breastfeeding.

What If It Makes Me Sad?

It is totally normal to feel sad or emotional about ending breastfeeding. Breastfeeding helps your body produce oxytocin and that promotes happiness and bonding—and you’re giving that up. (Of course, you can still bond with your child and be happy without breastfeeding.)

Breastfeeding has likely also been a big part of your life for the last several months, maybe even years. And change can be hard!

It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s sad to be done breastfeeding. But it is for some of us. And that’s okay. You can be sad and still feel it’s right to be done breastfeeding. You’re not alone in feeling that way. 

Talk to your husband or other family members or friends about how you’re feeling. If you want more support, you can reach out to a La Leche League leader, a lactation consultant, or a professional counselor. 

To Sum Up

To end as we began, breastfeeding is a beautiful thing. It can be a great experience for both mom and baby, for as long as both want to continue.

When you are ready to be done breastfeeding, it’s best not to stop “cold turkey.” Doing so can cause engorgement and mastitis in your breasts and can be hard on your child, emotionally and physically.

Instead of stopping abruptly, drop one feeding at a time, waiting a few days in between each, and follow the other tips above.

If you need physical or emotional support, don’t hesitate to reach out for help—whether that be professional support or a friend who’s weaned a child before. 

Most of all, make the choice to stop breastfeeding because it’s right for you and your baby, not because you feel pressured to. You know what’s best for you and your child. Trust that.

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE:

Breastfeeding vs. Formula: 25 Benefits of Breastfeeding

10 Tips for Successful Breastfeeding

20 Breastfeeding Hacks That Will Make Your Life Easier

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