When the time feels right for you to cut down or stop breastfeeding your toddler, these top tips will help guide you through a smooth transition.
1. Right timing
The most important thing is to do what feels right for you and your toddler (NHS, 2017a). If you aren’t sure whether the time is right or it’s what you want, talking to a breastfeeding counsellor can help. Whenever you choose to stop breastfeeding, support is available – see our contacts page for more details.
If you’d like to cut down or stop breastfeeding, it’s good to plan this for when your family is not expecting any major changes. When there’s nothing like a house move or starting preschool ahead of you.
If you start the transition and it doesn’t go smoothly, you could take a break and try again later. You might do this if your toddler is ill and they really need the comfort of breastfeeding.
2. Natural term weaning
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years old and beyond (WHO, 2013). Some mums are happy to be led by their child and continue to breastfeed until their little one chooses to stop. This is sometimes called natural term weaning.
If you take this approach, you can probably expect a toddler to cut down feeds gradually over months, or longer, until eventually they stop completely. Again, do what feels right for you and your child.
3. Gradual transition
As stopping breastfeeding can sometimes be an emotional time for you and your toddler, it can help to cut down breastfeeds gradually over time. This will also help your body adjust and prevent your breasts from becoming too full. If your breasts are too full, it could lead to mastitis – a painful and potentially serious infection in the breast (NHS, 2017c).
You could start by replacing a specific breastfeed of the day with a suitable alternative milk. This must be formula milk if your child is under one year old but it can be cow’s milk or similar if they are older than one (NHS, 2017a; La Leche League GB, 2017). Over time, you can gradually cut out more breastfeeds one by one.
4. Offer alternatives
If your child is over one year old, the chances are they’re keen to try alternative milks out of a cup, like cow’s milk. Drinking from a cup is better for children who are older than one year as it prevents comfort sucking on a bottle, which can lead to tooth decay (NHS, 2017b).
You can also try introducing them to other milks like soya milk, almond milk or oat milk, to see whether they have a preference. Do note that children under five should not drink rice drinks (NHS, 2017b).
Toddlers often enjoy a cup of milk and a snack as an alternative to a breastfeed. It’s important to offer an alternative milk rather than simply replace a breastfeed with a snack. This will help prevent dehydration and aid digestion.
5. Change your routine
When you are reducing breastfeeds, it can help to introduce a new routine so the old routine doesn’t remind them of breastfeeding (ABM, 2018). For example, if your little one likes to lie in bed for a morning breastfeed, you could try getting up swiftly and having breakfast together instead.
At night if you would like to cut out a bedtime feed, you could encourage your partner to put your toddler to bed. You may find your toddler easily accepts a different bedtime routine. They might like a warm cup of suitable milk and a bedtime story instead, before brushing their teeth and saying goodnight.
6. Distraction and postponement
You might be surprised at how easy it is to distract toddlers (ABM, 2018). You could use distraction on your toddler to postpone a breastfeed when you’re out, for example. Often they will accept a change like this quite easily, especially if you’re consistent – perhaps by saying ‘when we get home’ or ‘at bedtime’.
You may be able to distract your toddler with an offer of an exciting activity like a trip to the park instead of a breastfeed.
7. ‘Don’t offer, don’t refuse’
This method can help cut down breastfeeding gently and lead to your child stopping breastfeeding gradually over time (ABM, 2018). All you need to do is no longer actively offer breastfeeds. Don’t refuse it if your toddler asks for a breastfeed but, at the same time, simply stop offering them breastfeeds like you might have previously.
As your toddler gets older, more energetic and involved in activities, you might notice they naturally stop asking as often. This method can lead to you gently and gradually stopping breastfeeding.
8. Explain the changes
Some parents find it helpful to explain the transition from being a baby to being a toddler to their child. Some use storybooks to help explain. Others like to chat or sing to their little one about the changes.
Stopping breastfeeding is part of the process of growing up for your little one and there are plenty of books available on the subject for toddlers. If, for example, your toddler still breastfeeds frequently at night and you would like to cut these feeds out, you could read them a storybook on this. Some children will be fine with this transition and accept it as part of growing up.
9. Comfort and cuddles
As well as fulfilling nutritional needs, breastfeeding is one way of offering your toddler emotional support and comfort (La Leche League GB, 2016; NHS, 2017a). If you’re gradually cutting down breastfeeding or stopping breastfeeding, it might help to give your little one extra cuddles and comfort. They will appreciate it if you can spend some extra time playing together, chatting to them or sitting reading with them.
10. Agree a timeframe
If you want to stop breastfeeding your older toddler or pre-school child completely, they may agree to stop after a specific date – like their next birthday. This will depend on your child having a concept of future time. You might need to reinforce by reminding your little one about the stop date as the occasion gets nearer.
This page was last reviewed in October 2017
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You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
NHS Choices breastfeeding information.
Visit our breastfeeding support page.
ABM. (2018) Questions mums ask about stopping breastfeeding. Available from: https://abm.me.uk/breastfeeding-information/questions-mums-ask-about-stopping-breastfeeding/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
La Leche League GB. (2016) Thinking of weaning. Available from: https://www.laleche.org.uk/thinking-of-weaning/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
La Leche League GB. (2017) When breastfeeding ends suddenly. Available from: https://www.laleche.org.uk/breastfeeding-ends-suddenly/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
NHS Choices. (2017a) Breastfeeding older children. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/stopping-breastfeeding/#breastfeeding-older-children [Accessed 1st October 2017].
NHS Choices. (2017b) Drinks and cups for babies and toddlers. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/drinks-and-cups-children/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
NHS Choices. (2017c) How to stop breastfeeding. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/stopping-breastfeeding/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
WHO. (2013) Global strategy for infant and young child feeding. Available from: http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/infantfeeding/9241562218/en/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].
WHO. (2013a) Short-term effects of breastfeeding. Available from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/95585/9789241506120_eng.pdf?sequence=1 [Accessed 1st October 2017].
WHO. (2013c) Beyond survival: integrated delivery care practices for long-term maternal and infant nutrition, health and development. Available from: http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/infantfeeding/BeyondSurvival_2nd_edition_en.pdf?ua=1 [Accessed 1st October 2017].
Ystrom E (2012) Breastfeeding cessation and symptoms of anxiety and depression: a longitudinal cohort study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 12:36. doi:10.1186/1471-2393-12-36. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22621668 [Accessed 1st October 2017].