Weaning and working: how do I wind down breastfeeding?

I am wondering when and how I should start to wean my five-month-old son. I have been breastfeeding him from birth and this has all gone well but I am due to go back to work part-time in three months and need to get him ready for this. I’m not sure whether to stop breastfeeding altogether or to try some sort of combination when I go back to work. My friends think I am mad to consider breastfeeding when working.

I am also wondering when I should start him on solids and whether this will help with the weaning process. I have heard of baby-centred weaning and wonder whether this is the best way, or are there other ways?

The duration of breastfeeding is a personal decision for each mother depending on her own needs, the needs of their baby, and their circumstances. From the baby’s perspective, if breastfeeding is going well, then the longer it continues the better.

Many international expert bodies such as the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then throughout the first year as solids are introduced. In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, many mothers continue to breastfeed beyond the first year and wait until a toddler is ready to wean on their own terms.

For working mothers, it can be a great challenge to continue to breastfeed with the prospect of going back to work though many achieve this by expressing their breastmilk and/or giving their baby a combination of formula and breastmilk. This, of course, requires great planning though it is possible with a supportive partner and friends, as well as some flexibility on the part of an employer.

The important thing to remember is that the decision about how and when to stop breastfeeding is yours. You have given your son a great start by exclusively breastfeeding him for five months and now is the time to take stock and see how best to proceed. Though lots of people around you will have strong feelings about what is best, it is a personal decision that only you can make. Take some time to review your options and your work schedule and how you might be able to manage things in a way you feel most comfortable.

Gradual weaning generally works best
When you do decide to wean your son, a gradual, phased approach tends to work best. For example, you might start to shorten feeds, introduce a bottle of formula or purees during the day, and then increase these gradually as both you and your baby adapt. If your son depends on breastfeeding for comfort, then slowly introduce other strategies to comfort him such as singing, rocking or cuddling him in a favourite position.

The weaning process is a good time to include the baby’s father in the feeding: perhaps he can take over one or two of the feeds with a bottle of expressed or formula milk. This can be a great way for his father to bond and become more closely involved with your baby, as well as a way for you to gain some independence and freedom. However you start, the first thing to do is to make a goal for yourself: where do you need to be by the time you start work? Then, working backwards to now, make a list of the gradual steps you need to do to get there.

Introducing solids
Babies can start eating soft solids from about four months and it is recommended that they start solids from about six months, so that they can access a wider range of nutrients that are not supplied in breastmilk or formula milk. There are many different ways to approach this transition to solids and, once again, a gradual, phased approach generally works best.

Traditionally, parents have started by introducing pureed and soft foods to babies via a spoon but in recent times there has been a growing interest in baby-led methods which avoid using a spoon and encourage the child to explore solid foods at their own pace.

Baby-led weaning
Essentially baby-led weaning (BLW) is about offering your baby a selection of nutritious foods at mealtimes and allowing him to explore, taste and chew the foods he likes.

It is important to choose foods that are age appropriate and easy for him to manipulate, such as small cooked broccoli spears or carrot sticks. Baby-led weaning works particularly well at family meals, when everyone is eating (and baby simply joins in) and particularly when there are older siblings who act as role models that baby can copy. Over time the baby eats a wider range of foods and his dependence on breastmilk and formula can be reduced.

Advantages and disadvantages of baby-led weaning
Proponents of baby-led weaning are passionate about its benefits. Because the baby is in charge, he is more likely to try a wider range of foods and to experiment with a range of tastes and textures and thus develop better eating habits over time. The social benefits of joining in on the family meal are also important.

Baby-led weaning can take a bit more preparation, and make mealtimes a little longer, more messy and possibly more wasteful, especially if most of the food ends up on the floor. Also with BLW some parents find it hard to judge just how much food the baby has eaten; it is easy to see when you use a spoon and a bowl.

However, BLW does provide you with a great child-centred method of encouraging feeding that helps children take responsibility, at an early stage, for what they are eating.

There is more information about BLW by one of the early developers of the approach on rapleyweaning.com.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.