When to stop breastfeeding is an emotive issue for many women, not least because we commonly feel pressure from one direction or another to either go on longer than we want or to stop before we're ready. But despite what friends, family and unasked members of the public might think, there's no right or wrong time to stop breastfeeding: medical necessities aside, the timing is entirely up to you and your baby.
What's usually recommended?
Most doctors recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies up until the age of six months, and breastfeeding alongside solids until at least the end of the first year. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding babies up to the age of two years as a minimum. These recommendations are based on the very real benefits of breastmilk for your baby's physical and emotional health. You may have read about a recent study that suggested babies could begin weaning earlier than six months, if they seem ready.
If you follow this clinically recommended path - with the introduction of solids from around six months - the number of breastfeeds usually drops as solids increase. For some babies it will be only a matter of weeks before they are taking three solid meals a day and only 2-3 milk feeds. Other babies may take longer and some will show such a lack of interest in solids that milk will continue to account for most of their diet for some time. More weaning advice and ways to tell if your baby is ready are available in our dedicated feeding section.
Don't give in to pressure - either way
When it comes to stopping breastfeeding, try to put the voices of everyone apart from your doctor out of your head and make your decision based on what you, and your baby, want.
If you've decided that you're going to stop breastfeeding early (before six months) because you have problems with feeding, you don't enjoy it or it doesn't fit with your work plans, then don't let anyone else make you feel guilty: It won't be much benefit to your baby if breastfeeding is making his mum miserable. Keep in mind that any amount of breastmilk you've given your baby is better than none at all, and it's the early days which are the most important.
The same applies for continuing to feed alongside solids. Bizarrely, the same people who pushed breastfeeding for the early months may be shaking their heads if you decide to breastfeed much beyond the introduction of solids. Other women in your family may express disapproval if you breastfeed longer than they did, and many people (without the experience) find the idea of breastfeeding a toddler uncomfortable. But if you are getting on well with breastfeeding, your baby is still enjoying it and you see no real reason to stop, then don't let anyone else's disapproval put you off. There is nothing 'unnatural' about breastfeeding your toddler. When you yourself feel that your baby is too old for breastfeeding then you are ready to think about stopping - your baby may have other ideas though!
What if my partner wants me to stop?
Lack of spousal support is a very common reason for giving up breastfeeding. It may be that your partner doesn't understand the benefits of breastfeeding for your baby, he may feel jealous of the intimacy between you and the baby, or breastfeeding may be affecting your sex life adversely by dampening your sex drive or putting your breasts temporarily out-of-bounds. If your partner doesn't like you breastfeeding then it's important that you talk to him about his reasons, what the health benefits are for your baby and to try to come to some sort of agreement or compromise.
Continuing breastfeeding in public
Not all mums are comfortable with breastfeeding in public, and as your baby gets bigger you may find you become less comfortable, particularly if you sense a growing disapproval. Although there's absolutely nothing wrong in publicly breastfeeding an older baby, if you are uncomfortable then it's usually no problem to give your baby breastfeeds at home first thing in the morning and last thing before bed: If you want to feed your baby more often during the day then you can express milk and give it to her in a bottle when out and about.
What if my baby bites?
Some women are put off by the thought of breastfeeding a baby with teeth, and particularly worry that their baby may bite. First teeth usually arrive around five or six months, although they may appear earlier or much later, and may cause a nursing mother no discomfort whatsoever. A baby with teeth won't necessarily bite, though some will be keen to try their new teeth out on whatever's around. If your baby does bite then try not to make a big fuss about it. One way of dealing with it is to break your baby's suction from the breast and say 'no', firmly but not harshly before starting the feed again. If your baby bites repeatedly you may need to end a feed or two after a bite before he gets the idea that biting is not on.
What if I fall pregnant again?
Another pregnancy is a common reason for women to stop breastfeeding, but this isn't usually a must. While some doctors recommend stopping breastfeeding when pregnant because of the dual strain providing nutrition for both baby and fetus puts on the mother, for most women this will only be an issue if you feel particularly tired and run-down. In some cases doctors will strongly advise against continuing breastfeeding, for example, if you have a history of miscarriage. You can find out more about breastfeeding while pregnant here.
Will extended breastfeeding spoil my baby?
No, extended breastfeeding won't spoil your baby or do him any other harm. It may be the case that a baby who has breastfed for longer needs a little more time and encouragement to make the transition off the breast, but as your baby gets older he also understands more and you can explain your decision to an older toddler. If you've made and voiced a decision then try not to give in to tears and temper, as this will only make things harder in the long run. You can make the transition easier on your baby by slowly extending the time between breastfeeds and cutting them out one at a time, rather than stopping abruptly.
Take it slowly when you do stop
Whenever you decide to stop, it's a good idea to make the change slowly, and particularly if you've been breastfeeding full-time. If you cut off breastfeeding too quickly you'll probably end up with sore and engorged breasts and risk a case of mastitis. Of course, taking it slowly will also make it easier for your baby. Try replacing one breastfeed at a time, offering formula milk if your baby is under twelve months. If your baby is over a year old then you can offer full-fat cow's milk, rather than formula milk.
Read more on weaning