Hannah Whittaker, 37, had always known she wanted to breastfeed. But when her eldest daughter was born and placed in a special care baby unit (SCBU), their breastfeeding journey got off to a rocky start.
“She was born at 41 weeks but got a little stuck in the birth canal and we needed urgent medical attention,” Whittaker, who is a paediatric and pregnancy dietitian, recalls.
“She was born, put on my chest and I held her. She turned blue within seconds and became lifeless.” After some fraught minutes watching staff trying to revive her tiny baby, the infant finally let out a cry and was taken to SCBU.
While her daughter was recovering in special care, she was fed a mixture of breast milk that Whittaker had expressed, as well as formula milk to top up.
When they finally left hospital, Whittaker – then 25 – began exclusively breastfeeding, which she continued for four weeks before stopping because of a variety of feeding issues that had left her exhausted.
“My daughter was so unsettled, her poos were awful, I felt she didn’t latch properly and I didn’t know what to do,” says Whittaker, who is based just outside of Liverpool.
“I decided to start to introduce formula again. I had the support of my mum but I didn’t find any professional support. I felt the answer was: if you’re struggling, switch to formula.”
The experience left her feeling defeated, guilty and like she was not doing the best for her baby, she says.
Despite weaning off breast milk slowly, she was in a lot of discomfort as her breasts were engorged. “The pain was awful and I leaked constantly,” she recalls.
Nobody ever really talks about how to stop breastfeeding. While you have some level of support when you begin in terms of latching and positioning (although this isn’t always a given), when it comes to weaning off breast milk, women are often left to figure it out by themselves.
More often than not they’ll ask family members, friends or Google how to go about it. “I basically googled a bit, wore a tight bra and figured it out by myself,” says Whittaker.
When she stopped breastfeeding, she found it impacted her more than her babies – particularly from an emotional perspective. “I felt I had lost the bond a little and wish I could have continued for longer,” she says.
The vast majority (81%) of women who give birth in the UK initiate breastfeeding but only 34% are breastfeeding at six months. This declines to 0.5% at 12 months.
Most parents see a health visitor once or twice after their baby’s birth. They’ll discuss things like safe sleeping, vaccines and feeding. Women are also invited for a physical examination with a GP at around 6-8 weeks postpartum. But for the most part, you’re on your own.
While feeding challenges can be a key reason for women stopping breastfeeding, as months go by, some women may actively choose to call time on it so they can go back to work or have more freedom. These can be hugely important for mental health at a time when a new parent’s identity has shifted massively and their life revolves around a little one.
Mum-of-two Victoria Kerslake, 35, started weaning with her first child because she was heading back to work. She’d breastfed her son until he was 12 months old, then weaned down to one feed a day until he was 18 months old, before stopping fully.
“I was a high school teacher doing supply work and so that work cannot be done at all if you’re breastfeeding as the school day isn’t conducive to pumping,” she says.
Kerslake – now a hypnobirthing teacher based in Norwich – is currently breastfeeding her nine-month-old daughter and is in the process of weaning her off breast milk too, ahead of her going to childcare when she turns one.
When she began weaning her son, she says there wasn’t really much support available to her. “Most of my information came from my mum and Instagram,” she says. At one point she also sought advice from the National Breastfeeding Helpline.
She weaned her son, now two-and-a-half, off breast milk very slowly, cutting down each feed by a few minutes for a few days, then another few minutes for another few days until it was just a quick two-minute feed.
She then cut that feed completely and went on to reduce the next feed and so on, taking one feed at a time.
The NHS recommends dropping feeds slowly – one at a time. If babies are younger than one then they’ll need to have formula from a bottle or cup to replace the dropped feed, but if they’re over one they won’t need a replacement feed.
Completely stopping breastfeeding can take anything from a few weeks to several months.
“Most of my information came from my mum and Instagram.”
“It took me quite a long time, I think about three months from memory,” Kerslake says. But she didn’t experience any issues, such as mastitis (a painful condition that can arise from blocked milk ducts or milk build-up), as a result.
Going ‘cold turkey’ – where women stop feeding immediately or very quickly – can result in the breasts becoming engorged, which can be extremely painful and can ultimately lead to infection. As a result, experts agree that slow and steady is best.
“I wanted to wean slowly but also make sure there was enough gap between him ending and the new baby starting that he wouldn’t remember it and feel pushed out or replaced,” Kerslake says.
“It also feels a lot less socially acceptable to feed an over-one so I was a bit self-conscious,” she says. “And I didn’t have any friends or peers still feeding by that point.”
While it’s often the parent who decides to call time on breastfeeding, sometimes the opposite is true.
Rosie Beech, 30, from Windsor, breastfed her baby Jack after he was born by emergency C-section. While it was initially hard to establish, they eventually got into a groove and didn’t look back.
“We successfully breastfed night and day, with pumping and breast milk given in a bottle, for 10 months,” says the social media manager and blogger.
“Then, suddenly and before I was ready, Jack started refusing me at night. He’d wake up looking for me, for comfort, and I’d offer him the boob. But he started pushing me away,” she says.
Jack started doing the same during the day too. “One day he was a boob monster and within only a few days in the autumn, he decided that he didn’t want it anymore,” says Beech.
The new mum wasn’t ready for this change which felt so sudden and out of her control. “I was bereft,” she says. “I was gutted that our journey came to an abrupt end and he was all of a sudden so independent.”
She had planned to breastfeed until Jack turned one, so he could then transition onto cow’s milk. Instead, she ended up expressing milk and giving it to him in a bottle. When her milk supply began to drop, she topped up with formula.
Like many other women, she didn’t have much knowledge of the end process. “I didn’t know much about stopping breastfeeding and certainly none about how it could end so abruptly,” she reflects.
“One day he was a boob monster and within only a few days in the autumn, he decided that he didn’t want it anymore.”
Discussing how her body reacted to her son’s sudden change in preference, she says: “My body was in shock. I’ve always experienced leaking and had to pump throughout the night and in the day.”
She ended up purchasing a breast pump that she could put in her bra to help her get some sleep. “My supply dropped after a few weeks and then I gently, slowly but surely weaned the number of daily and nightly pumps down until I was getting about an ounce per pump,” she says.
Her son, who has just turned one, has now started sleeping through the night since weaning off breast milk – a positive result for Beech.
“When I’ve shared this story with other mums – new and old – I’ve been told that this is strange and unique,” she reflects. “Usually, breastfed babies want to stay attached to their mum and the boob for as long as possible.”
But despite the strange circumstances she found herself in, she’s taken her cues from her son and recognises that he’s now “absolutely thriving”.
It just goes to show that when it comes to breastfeeding, every experience truly is different.
If you’re coming to the end of your breastfeeding journey and wondering how on earth to even go about it, there’s some helpful advice for how to get started on the NHS Choices, NCT and La Leche League websites.
If you’re struggling, you can also contact the National Breastfeeding Helpline, which offers independent, evidence-based breastfeeding support, or contact the infant feeding team at the hospital where you had antenatal appointments/gave birth who can offer guidance on how is best to stop.