Babies are born to breastfeed and breastmilk is their basic and primary food in their first two years of life. Therefore, it is not normal or would not be appropriate for a baby to wean on its own before reaching its first birthday.
We are not talking about a conscious decision of weaning made by the mother, but rather a rejection of the breast by the baby. We cannot repeat enough, that breastfeeding is a matter of two, mother and child. If the baby rejects the breast and the mother wants to stop breastfeeding, this would be an ideal timing to do so. But taking into account that the baby is still an infant, milk will still be its main food and in the absence of breast milk, formula milk is the most suitable alternative.
If the baby rejects the breast, but the mother is not yet ready or doesn’t want to stop breastfeeding, these are the main causes of early weaning and how to deal with them:
- Not enough information about the evolution of breastfeeding: sometimes it is wrongly believed that as the baby grows, the number of times a mother feeds, should decrease, and it is “recommended” to space feeds out more or even suggest restricting them to 4 or 5 feeds throughout the day, which implies stopping night feeds altogether. We now know thru research that these types of outdated recommendations are a mistake, since babies continue to need frequent feedings throughout the first and second year, without trying to impose a routine of 5 daily meals of a typical adult. A mother who follows these old suggestions can provoke, sometimes unintentionally, an early weaning. Your milk production decreases if you limit yourself to give your baby fewer feeds or when stopping to feed at night. So the baby refuses the breast, because it doesn’t find enough milk anymore.
- Stopping to feed at night: When your babies feeds at night, it doesn’t do so to tease you, or to not let you sleep intentionally. Of course it is not easy to juggle breastfeeding at night and the demands of returning to paid work, but babies need these night feeds to maintain a good quantity of milk supply. Those night feeds are a bit like ordering food for the next day: if they feed at night, a good milk production for the next day is assured.
- Introducing solid foods too early: when a baby starts with solid foods, some suggest to “give them breast milk for dessert”. The food offered to the baby complement the milk, but they do not substitute, or even less so eliminate the need for milk. Sometimes certain “suggested” amounts of food intake are simply too much food, and so it is possible that the baby has been forced to eat too much solids and will no longer have room for milk when the breast is offered.
On the other hand, there are also situations in which babies can stop breastfeeding unexpectedly and can cause unwanted early weaning:
- The baby is ill: maybe a runny nose, cold sores in the mouth, constipation or earache, your baby can reject the breast if the motion of feeding or the milk itself, in case of cold sores, causes them pain.
- Angry: yes, babies do get angry. Especially older ones and when, for example, their mother goes to work and “leaves” them (they feel that way), they get angry and show it to their mothers when they return home. They refuse to feed and depending on the level of anger, this can take longer or shorter to settle.
- A scare: it is also common for a baby to get a scare whilst breastfeeding, either because he/she has bitten the mother and is frightened by her sudden scream or because something has happened at home while feeding, like a sudden noise… therefore it can be a few days or weeks of the baby not wanting to take the breast anymore, since they associate this fright with the action of breastfeeding.
How to get back to breastfeeding again
Often, we will not be able to know what has actually happened, but we do know that early weaning is not the biologically norm and if you want to continue breastfeeding, there are some tricks you can use to try to get a second chance.
Co-sleeping: sleeping with your baby nearby encourages her to breastfeed. If the baby is angry or in pain, it will be easier to breastfeed when it is half asleep than when it is awake.
Laugh: getting the baby to laugh out loud makes them go into an “automatic mode” and many times after a session of intense laughter they get back to breastfeeding again.
Going to a breastfeeding support group: The principle here is “I want what I see”. Watching other babies feed can encourage yours to find its way back to your breast.
A soaking bath (the least ecological option): fill the bathtub, put on relaxing music, dim the light and relax. Being calm, relaxed and close together can help to get the baby breastfeeding again.
What NOT to do
On the other hand, there are things you should definitely not do, if you try to achieve to breastfeed again, since they can be counterproductive and even make the baby’s rejection worse:
Do not try to force the baby to feed: Often, simply by trying to bring the baby closer to the breast or bringing her into breastfeeding position can cause her to react badly and get even more angry.
Refusing them food: if the baby is older or already eating solids, stopping to offer food or refusing to give them food will definitely not work to get them back to the breast.
Insisting and constantly over-offering the breast may also increase her rejection, it is better to be subtle and try to “seduce” the baby, than to be too pushy.
It is important to note that, as we said at the beginning, milk should be the main food for a baby during her first year of life. Therefore, if the baby doesn’t breastfeed for days, it is best to offer her expressed breast milk or, failing that, formula milk.