Mother Knows Best

Only you can decide on the right time to stop breastfeeding. Here are some reasons not to give it up.


There is no 'correct' age to wean your baby. Like diapers and pacifiers, breastfeeding is something that children outgrow at different ages.

If you're breastfeeding, chances are you're enjoying the closeness you share with your baby and the confidence that comes from knowing you're giving him a healthy start in life. As your baby grows, however, you may find yourself being asked, "Don't you think it's time you weaned that child?" // The best time to wean is simply when you and your baby are ready, and only the two of you can decide when that will be. Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of myths that could influence your decision. Below are some of the most common weaning fallacies, along with the real deal.

Myth: He's too old to nurse. Fact: You usually hear this one around a baby's first birthday, but medical experts—the American Academy of Pediatrics included—recommend breastfeeding for at least the first year. And the World Health Organization urges breastfeeding for two years or beyond. There is no "correct" age to wean your baby. Like diapers and pacifiers, breastfeeding is something that children outgrow at different ages.

Myth: He's constantly pulling off my breast to look around, so he's ready to wean. Fact: A child's physical and emotional needs change as he grows, which can lead to a shift in his breastfeeding habits. A baby with the "lookie-loos" isn't necessarily sending a signal that he's no longer interested in nursing; he may simply be at a developmental stage where he needs a quiet, distraction-free place to nurse. Another phase that is mistakenly thought of as a dictate to wean is when solid foods are introduced. The truth is, even if your baby is eating solids, he still needs the vitamins, minerals and trace substances that breast milk provides.

Myth: You must stop nursing when your baby's teeth come in—or suffer the consequences. Fact: Nursing does pose a challenge—sometimes a painful one—when those sharp little teeth come in, but it's a matter of teaching your baby not to bite, not a signal to wean. To communicate the new rule, firmly say, "No biting!" as soon as he starts to bite. Then take him off your breast for several minutes; doing so will help him realize he did something wrong.

Myth: If your baby is vomiting, he needs a rehydrating fluid, not breast milk. Fact: "This is one of the worst myths, because when a baby is sick, breast milk is better tolerated than any other fluid," says Santa Monica, Calif., pediatrician Jay Gordon, M.D., F.A.A.P. "In fact, there is no time when rehydrating fluids are better for your nursing infant than breast milk is." Gordon also notes that the vitamins and antibodies in your milk will help your baby fight his illness.

The concern is if your baby is throwing up so frequently that he becomes dehydrated. To help prevent this, try nursing him for short periods frequently throughout the day (small amounts of liquid are less likely to trigger vomiting than larger amounts). Also keep an eye out for these signs of dehydration: listlessness or lethargy; two or fewer wet diapers in a 24-hour period; dry mouth and eyes; and decreased skin resiliency (if you lightly pinch his skin, it stays pinched). If you suspect your baby may be dehydrated, call your pediatrician.

Myth: If you breastfeed when you're sick, you'll give your baby the germs. Fact: Unless you quarantine yourself from your baby, you're going to share your germs, anyway. But when you breastfeed, you'll also share the antibodies you're making to fight off your illness, which in turn will provide him resistance. There's a comfort factor for you, too—do you really want engorged breasts to compound your misery? Along those same lines, if you get a breast infection, don't stop nursing on that breast. Your baby won't catch the infection, and you'll be helping yourself by clearing your milk ducts. (Do check with your doctor to make sure that any antibiotics you're given are safe for a breastfeeding baby.)

Myth: You must wean if you're taking medication or undergoing surgery. Fact: Most medications are safe during breastfeeding or have safe alternatives, but it's always best to check with your doctor, even when taking over-the-counter medicines, says Siobhan M. Dolan, M.D., assistant medical director for the March of Dimes. And what about the drugs often prescribed for postpartum depression? Paxil is a better choice than other antidepressants when you're nursing, says Amy Spangler, M.N., I.B.C.L.C., a maternal child health consultant and chairwoman of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. However, your doctor will need to decide which medication is right for you. Neither does receiving anesthesia have to mean an end to breastfeeding. "It depends on the particular anesthetic used and whether it is administered as a general or a local," Spangler says. "Some anesthetics are metabolized quickly, so mothers can resume breastfeeding as soon as they are awake. Nevertheless, it's important to let your doctor or anesthesiologist know you are breastfeeding so she can choose the most appropriate anesthetic."

Myth: If your baby is fussy or spits up after breastfeeding, there's something wrong with your milk.

Fact: The problem isn't your milk. Many factors, from an illness or food sensitivity your baby might have to your own overactive letdown, can cause fussiness or vomiting. Often, better lactation management—not weaning—is the solution, Spangler says. For instance, if your baby is fussy and never seems full, try giving him more time on one breast. Spangler recommends nursing on one side until he gives the cue to switch so he'll get the protein- and fat-rich "hind milk," which comes in toward the end of a feeding. On rare occasions, however, your baby may be sensitive to something you ate. If he seems fussy after nursing, consider what you ate a few hours before. If you suspect a certain food, remove it from your diet for several weeks, then reintroduce it to see if it causes a reaction. But above all, new moms should keep their sense of perspective. "Remember that it's normal for babies to be fussy and spit up occasionally after breastfeeding," says Mary Bright, co-founder of Breastfeeding Consultants of Northern Virginia.

Myth: If your baby's growth rate isn't average or better, you should wean. Fact: Ah, the percentile charts. While doctors find them useful tools, it's all too easy to label a baby as not measuring up. Suffice it to say that some babies grow in spurts, others in a smooth, easy curve. Some may reach the top of the charts their first month and stay there indefinitely; others will never reach the 50th percentile. Rather than use the charts as the absolute indicator of your baby's health, take cues from your baby. Is he healthy? Happy? Alert? Does he pee and poop regularly? If so, chances are there's nothing to worry about. If your baby seems fine but your pediatrician is concerned about his growth, ask her specifically what she is worried about and express your desire to continue nursing. If there is a medical problem, work together to resolve it; if the problem seems unfounded or philosophical in nature, get a second opinion.

Myth: Pregnant women should not breastfeed. Fact: Breastfeeding while pregnant will not harm the child growing inside you. In fact, in a La Leche League International study of mothers who became pregnant while still breastfeeding, 31 percent nursed through pregnancy and "tandem-nursed" both children after delivery. The nipple stimulation of breastfeeding can cause uterine contractions, but unless you're having a difficult pregnancy or have a history of miscarriage or premature delivery, you shouldn't need to wean.

Myth: Women who work full time cannot nurse. Fact: According to a 2001 Abbott Laboratories survey, 23 percent of full-time working mothers are still breastfeeding six months postpartum. Some pump their milk throughout the workday for their care providers to feed to their babies the next day; others nurse in the morning and evening and give their babies formula during the day. Granted, continuing to breastfeed after returning to work does take commitment, but most women find the advantages are well worth the effort. "Pumping can be a new mom's best friend, providing milk for her baby even when she's not home," Bright says.