how to wean off pumping

5 Steps: How to Wean Off Pumping (and Avoid Mastitis)

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Deciding to wean off pumping can be an emotional and challenging process, as it marks the end of a significant period in your breastfeeding journey. There’s plenty of advice about how to pump, which pump to use (yep there is a perfect one for you!), tips and tricks for increasing milk production – the list goes on! But how do you stop? And stop safely without developing mastitis?

Here is what I did when I stopped pumping milk for my boy (and what I recommend to my ladies as a breastfeeding counselor):

  1. Gradually reduced my pumping sessions over a few weeks dropping one pumping session every few days.
  2. Increased the time between pumping sessions.
  3. Shortened the pumping duration per session (eg 20 minutes down to 15 minutes and so on).
  4. Adjusted my diet and hydration levels – carefully!
  5. Applied cold compresses and gentle massage when engorged (no mastitis here thank you!)

We will talk about these steps in more detail later on but this is the general gist.

Weaning off pumping should be tailored to your individual situation, taking into account factors like your baby’s age, your physical comfort, and your emotional well-being.

Infographic showing the 5 steps for how to wean off pumping

How to wean off pumping step by step … safely

Let’s talk about this gradual pump-weaning strategy in a little more detail.

Step 1: Gradually reduce the number of pump sessions

Ok sounds simple in theory right? If you are keeping a tight schedule of your pump sessions already then spotting the sessions to drop is simple – slightly trickier if you just pump as-and-when. My tip is to keep a diary for a week or so. Nothing drastic, just note down the time the pump session starts and ends and how much you pumped. This should give you a good idea of your routine and how you can reduce it.

Do I have to follow a schedule?

No of course not! You can do whatever feels right for you. But if you want a general idea of what a weaning-off-pumping schedule looks like, then take a look at this example:

1-38 AM, 12 PM, 4 PM, 8 PMContinue your regular pumping sessions
4-68 AM, 1 PM, 7 PMDrop the 4 PM session by moving the 12 PM and 8 PM sessions slightly.
7-98 AM, 2 PM, 8 PMGradually shift the 1 PM session to 2 PM, lengthening the time between sessions.
10-129 AM, 3 PM, 9 PMMove all sessions one hour later to slowly decrease the number of daily sessions.
13-1510 AM, 5 PMDrop the 9 PM session by shifting the 9 AM session to 10 AM and the 3 PM session to 5 PM.
16-1811 AM, 6 PMContinue to shift the sessions later.
19-2112 PM, 7 PMKeep shifting the sessions until you reach a comfortable time.
22+2 PMDrop the 7 PM session, leaving just one session at 2 PM. Gradually decrease the pumping duration at this session until no more milk is produced.
An example pumping weaning schedule for a mother who is exclusively pumping for her 6-month-old as he/she adds solids to the diet and does not replace pumping with direct breastfeeding.

Please note that this is just an example and your specific situation might need adjustments.

Sounds easy right?! By following a gradual approach like this, your body will have time to adjust to decrease milk supply, eventually leading to a complete cessation of lactation.

Step 2: Increase the time between your pumping sessions

This will happen naturally as you start dropping your pumps – keep a note in your diary of when you pump and how much just to keep track of things.

Step 3: Shorten pumping sessions

But don’t you need to fully empty your breast each session to avoid the dreaded engorgement? Well, not exactly – if a bit of milk is still left in your breast it will be reabsorbed into your breast tissue. It’s suddenly missing sessions altogether that causes problems.

Which pumping sessions to drop

I, along with most lactation experts, usually recommend dropping the middle-of-the-day/early afternoon pumping session first, since these tend to be less productive in terms of milk output. If you are pumping at work, you might want to maintain your work pumping sessions for now and consider dropping a session at home where it might be more comfortable and convenient.

Be patient with yourself during this transition period and remember this is a gradual process as your body adjusts. You may need to experiment with different strategies depending on how much milk you’re making, such as dropping an evening pumping session or combining feeding with two pumping sessions together.

Step 4: Make dietary adjustments

Stop sipping on special teas and munching on lactation cookies! All those months of trying to increase or maintain your milk supply weren’t for nothing, but you need to cut back on all those techniques and supplements now. We need to gradually bring your lactation powerhouse down.

If you have been drinking extra fluids (which many women do when pumping or breastfeeding) then now is the time to go back to your standard 2 liters a day. Of course, you need to stay adequately hydrated so take into account your lifestyle too. Some foods and herbs are believed to help reduce milk supply, such as sage, peppermint, and cabbage leaves.

Step 5: Prepare for clogged ducts and mastitis

dealing with engorgement when weaning off pumping. a woman massaging her breast to relieve clogged ducts

It’s a common myth that if you have been exclusively pumping for many months you will inevitably develop clogged ducts when weaning but this isn’t necessarily true if you plan properly.

Here are my top tips if you struggle with engorgement or clogged ducts:

  • Before pumping apply a warm compress to your breasts to encourage milk flow and prevent clogged ducts.
  • Add a short pumping session to relieve pressure and then continue with the reduction process. A Hakka pump is perfect for this – I think they are perfect for ‘taking the edge off’ engorgement without the faff of an electric pump setup.
  • Wear a supportive bra that doesn’t constrict your breasts, as tight clothing can increase the risk of clogged ducts and mastitis.
  • If you notice a clogged duct, halt your reduction of pumping sessions until it is cleared. You can also try massaging the area gently, moving in the direction of the nipple to help release the blockage.
  • Use ice packs/cold packs or chilled cabbage leaves to help soothe engorged breasts. Make sure not to apply them for more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid numbness or frostbite.

Signs of mastitis (an inflammation of the breast tissue that usually results from clogged ducts):

  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • A red swollen area on the breast

Any of these signs = call your doctor straight away

Troubleshooting when weaning off the pump

a woman pumping breast milk from both breasts

Did I mention that stopping pumping can be difficult?! Well, don’t worry – I’ve got you! Let’s go through some challenges and questions you may have in this transition period.

Gradual approach vs. cold turkey – what do the experts recommend?

When weaning from pumping your breast milk, there are generally two main approaches: the gradual approach and cold turkey.

  • The gradual approach involves slowly reducing your pumping sessions to decrease milk production. Your body needs time to adjust to the decreased demand for milk. This method is often recommended by a board certified lactation consultant as it helps minimize discomfort and the risk of complications such as engorgement and infection.
  • The cold turkey approach means stopping pumping altogether without any transition. While this method may seem more convenient, it can lead to an increased risk of pain, swelling, and infection due to the sudden change in milk production.

As you can see, however tempting suddenly going cold turkey may be, the gradual approach is generally considered a safer and more comfortable way to wean off pumping.

So how long should all this take?

Sorry to do this but this is one of those ‘it depends’ moments! If you are weaning off the pump because you want to exclusively breastfeed then of course this will not take as long – you just breastfeed instead of pump. But for moms who want to stop lactating altogether the gradual weaning process can vary significantly for each mom depending on a few factors:

  • Current pumping frequency: The more often you currently pump, the longer it may take to wean off pumping completely.
  • Milk supply: If you have an oversupply of milk, it might take longer for your body to adjust to the decreased demand for milk.
  • Baby’s age: If your baby is younger, the weaning process may take longer, as your body is more responsive to the demand for milk production.
  • Sensitivity to hormonal changes: Some women are more sensitive to the hormonal changes associated with weaning, which can affect the duration of the process.
  • Stress levels: High-stress levels can impact milk production and make the weaning process more challenging.
  • Reason for weaning: If you are weaning due to a medical issue or a need to take medication, the process may need to be completed more quickly, under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
  • Individual physiology: Every woman’s body responds differently to the weaning process, and some may take longer than others to adjust.
  • Consistency in reducing pumping sessions: Maintaining a consistent approach to reducing pumping sessions can help the body adapt more efficiently.

Mixed feelings about the end of your pumping journey

a woman with a wearable breast pump feeling happy

With all those hormones still coursing around your body, it’s totally natural to feel a mixture of emotions when you start weaning. This is a transition period for both you and your baby as you start gradually decreasing your pumping sessions and your milk supply.

While you may feel a sense of loss or sadness as you approach your last pumping session, try to focus on the positive aspects of this change, such as the freedom from the breast pump (and constant washing of pump parts!) and the opportunity to introduce complementary foods to your baby. If you find yourself struggling emotionally, seek support from loved ones or a lactation consultant.

Breast changes

Apart from engorgement and clogged ducts (which not all women experience by the way!), you may notice that your breasts feel more sensitive and start to reduce in size. This is normal, as are the occasional leaks here and there (keep a stash of breast pads handy just in case).

Should I see a healthcare professional when I start to wean from pumping?

a woman double pumping breast milk. learning how to wean off pumping

It’s your decision of course. I didn’t and I was fine, but many of my clients find the reassurance and guidance I offer during the transition very supportive.

Lactation consultants and breastfeeding counselors specialize in supporting breastfeeding mothers with personalized guidance on weaning off pumping. They can answer your questions plus provide you with specific techniques and strategies tailored to your needs, ensuring a seamless transition.

The golden rule is to always see your doctor if you feel unwell (both physically and mentally) as they can offer help through medications or counseling. These are tricky waters so don’t hesitate to get in touch with them, especially if you experience mastitis symptoms.

Remember, it’s best to listen to your body and adjust the process based on how you feel throughout the journey.

Enjoy the weaning process

Making the decision to stop pumping your breast milk is one that all pumping moms have to make at some point. It marks the end of one chapter, and the beginning of the next.

It’s all about taking it slow and being patient with yourself. Gradually decrease your nursing sessions, listen to your body, and don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance. Don’t be discouraged if you experience a few bumps like uncomfortable fullness, it’s completely normal. Eventually, you’ll find you’ve successfully weaned off pumping and navigated this significant milestone smoothly.

Final thoughts

The author Katie McCann with her baby post surgery for laryngomalacia

My second baby had to have throat surgery at 11 weeks old due to laryngomalacia and was then fed through a nasogastric tube. I decided to pump breast milk for him at this time so when he had fully recovered I needed to reintroduce direct breastfeeding – re-teaching latch and going back to feeding on demand was quite challenging! I had built up quite a store of milk in this time which was safely kept in the freezer!

I was advised to wean to solids quite early (4 1/2 months) by the ENT pediatric specialist so I then had to further reduce sessions to accommodate this (I kept up the breastfeeds too and mixed my stored pumped milk with his purees). This illustrates how different every mother’s experience is – no two babies are the same and no two feeding experiences are the same.

My top tip? Take each day as it comes and try to go with the flow a bit – trying to control everything with only lead to burnout!

Weaning off the pump FAQ’s

Babies should ideally be around the first six months old when you consider stopping pumping, as this is when complementary foods are introduced.

When you stop pumping breast milk, your body gradually reduces milk production, which might lead to discomfort or blocked ducts for some women.

Most women find that going without expressing milk for a few days to a week can lead to less milk production, eventually drying up.

Yes, you can go 8 hours without pumping at night, especially if your baby starts sleeping through the night, but it requires patience to avoid discomfort.

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