This is a series on how to master pumping breast milk. You can read the other articles of the series here:
- How To Master Pumping Breast Milk: A Midwife and Mama Of 4 Guide – Part 1
- How To Master Pumping Breast Milk: All On Breast Pumping Schedules – Part 2
- How To Master Pumping Breast Milk: Breastmilk Storage Guidelines – Part 4
- How To Master Pumping Breast Milk: Cleaning Your Breast Pump Guidelines – Part 5
A breastfeeding mother’s body tries to keep the ideal amount of milk ready for your baby. Your breast milk production relies entirely on supply and demand.
When you’re draining your breasts frequently and thoroughly each time you pump, your body thinks mother nature is telling you that your baby needs more milk.
When there is milk remaining in the breast, or your body goes longer in between pumping sessions, your body will notice and begin to decrease the amount of breast milk it makes.
As your breast milk volume decreases, this process is called weaning. Physiologically, around six months of age, babies decrease the amount of milk they drink as parents introduce solids.
By one, children choose to eat a variety of food and can often drink from a cup. They gradually leave breastfeeding behind.
For weaning, the more gradual the process, the more positively your body responds.
For me, I chose the path of least resistance. I always preferred to naturally and gradually wean.
By cutting back on giving breastmilk as my baby relied more on food and other liquids, he eventually depended on other sources to fill up his tummy.
What Do the Experts Say?
Women cut down on breast pumping for many reasons, but you are the most crucial factor in your decision to wean. It’s normal to feel conflicted about weaning.
Moms know what is best for themselves and their family– and if weaning is it, don’t let the experts dissuade you.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of baby’s life and to continue breastfeeding with the introduction of solids from six months until one year, or as long as is mutually desirable.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) recommend breast milk until two years old or beyond.
The WHO states that breastfeeding should take place as long as it’s mutually beneficial to both mom and baby.
This article will discuss your options on how to cut back on pumping and how to wean completely from the pump.
When Should You Wean?
You may choose to start the weaning process yourself for personal reasons. Being a mom is tough!
Resist the desire to compare your situation to other mothers or your baby to other families. Make the choice based on what is best for your family.
Maybe you think it’s time to drop pumps because you have an adequate supply and you’re returning to work.
Maybe you are naturally weaning because your baby has started solids. Or perhaps it’s been four months without sleeping longer than four hours, and you think it’s high time to sleep through the night.
Many moms collect enough milk to last them through their baby’s first birthday. Some moms decide to stop at other milestones.
Whenever you choose to wean from the breast pump, make sure to do it gradually. Suddenly stopping can cause engorgement, pain, and even mastitis!
When Should I Delay Weaning?
If you are weaning for medical or mental health reasons, skip this section entirely. Your health is the most important issue- baby needs a healthy mommy more than breast milk.
Baby is Sick: If your baby is sick, and you don’t have freezer milk, see if you can hold off until they’re feeling better. The transition of suddenly switching to formula is more difficult with a sick babe. Breastmilk will provide your baby with antibodies to make them healthy.
Baby is Stressed: If your family has changed caregivers or experienced another major change, consider waiting a few weeks to minimize the strain for your baby. Your baby may have a greater response to stressors while weaning from breast milk.
Baby is Allergic: If your baby is at risk for wheezing or eczema, consider delaying weaning until six months (or at least until your milk stash will make it to six months). Exclusively receiving breast milk may minimize the complications associated with these issues.
If you must wean rapidly, you are at an increased risk of clogged ducts and mastitis.
- For those who quit cold turkey, keep your breasts cold! Apply ice packs or chilled cabbage leaves to your breasts every few hours.
- Wear a supportive and fitted bra during this time.
- Drink sage tea.
- Consider taking hormonal contraception like “the pill” or a decongestant like pseudoephedrine to decrease your supply.
Cutting Down Your Pumping Routine
Once you add solids to your baby’s daily routine, you may be able to drop another pump.
As you decrease to four pumps, three pumps, or two pumps per day- you have a lot more flexibility to do it around the schedule that best suits you.
I had to pump at least four times a day until my babe was about a year old. I cut back to three pumps per day until I was closer to weaning.
Two pumps per day are the least I could do, or I would crash to zero ounces a day.
So it’s time to break up with the breast pump?
You have some options:
- Drop a pump every three days. Drop one of your pumps every three days. See how you feel. If you aren’t quite ready to let the full session go, pump just a few minutes (to comfort) until you are down to two pumps a day.
- Keep the number of pumps the same but shorten the time. Slowly reduce the volume of your remaining pumps. If you were pumping five times daily and getting 5 ounces (150 ml) per pump, stop at 4 ounces (120 ml). After three days, drop it by one ounce to 3 ounces (90 ml). Repeat until you are pumping one ounce (30 ml) per feed and drop down to two pumps per day about twelve hours apart.
- Increase the Time Between Sessions: Space out more time between sessions. Follow your body’s cues. If you can add an hour or two to your usual time without becoming engorged, fantastic! If you can only make it 30 minutes later than usual without extreme discomfort, that’s okay too.
Once you’re at this point, continue with two pumps a day for at least a week. Identify which session you will hold onto when you go to one pump her day.
Keep the session you are holding the typical length of time (or volume) while cutting the amount of time on the second pump.
Listen to your body. You do not want to get clogged ducts or mastitis because you waited too many hours. Again, once you get down to two pumps follow the next steps.
Once You’re Down to Two Pumps Per Day
Once you’re ready to wean, try pumping one time a day. Losing this session may happen more quickly than the other pumps.
The once per day pump is more for comfort because it does not seem to stimulate your breasts enough to get an abundant milk supply.
When the point comes where you feel that you can go without pumping, try it and see how your breasts feel.
If you feel uncomfortable, you may continue dropping time off until you can go without emptying your breasts.
And if you feel comfortable, congratulations – you are now breast pump free!
What to Watch
During this process, if your breasts feel full, hard, warm, or uncomfortable– use your hands to express a little bit until you feel relief, or pump long enough to feel more comfortable.
If your breasts are full of milk, you are at risk for pain and infection.
Clogged milk ducts are a hard lump or warm area in your breast. It may look swollen or enlarged.
Make sure to resolve this clog before continuing along the weaning process.
- Continue pumping on that side to clear the duct until your breast is empty– ignore how long your session should be or how much you should get for weaning purposes.
- Put warm compresses on the area, take a hot shower, or massage it while you pump.
- Once the pain, swelling, and warmth have disappeared, you can consider it resolved, and you can go back to your weaning schedule.
If the pain, swelling, and warmth do not improve, you notice nipple discharge, or you experience chills and flu-like symptoms, you may have mastitis.
This bacterial infection can become quite dangerous. If breast massage while pumping, increasing your pumping schedule, and heat do not improve the symptoms, seek a healthcare provider immediately for antibiotics.
Keep in mind during the weaning process that any breast stimulation (breast pump, little baby nuzzles, or warm shower water) will tell your breasts to make more milk.
Even after weaning, you can squeeze a few drops out for several months. Do not be alarmed if you leak a little bit after stimulation.
However, if this becomes a problem or lasts more than a year, you can always seek reassurance with your women’s health provider.
What Should I Know About Weaning?
The Magic of a 1-Year-Old: If you wean a baby before one year of age, use frozen breast milk or iron-fortified formula until the first birthday. Do not give cow’s milk before she is one!
Length of time: Depending on how quickly you move through the steps, weaning can take anywhere from days to months. Take your time and slowly taper off, if you can. The slower you go, the more gently you and your baby will respond to it.
Weaning is a challenging time when you may face conflicting emotions and experience physical discomfort. It’s essential to follow this guide to avoid an uncomfortable weaning process.
We wish you peace at the end of your breastfeeding journey as you hang up your flanges and defrost your final milk bag.