After you've determined it is time to begin the weaning process, how long should it take to finish weaning and how many steps or stages are involved?
There are two important factors in the pacing of the weaning process. The first is the mother's health. A mother's body has to be told slowly enough that milk no longer needs to be made. Otherwise she is at an increased risk of engorgement, mastitis, and other unpleasant side-effects. If immediate weaning is required for some reason, a prescription for medicine which will dry up her milk supply may be needed. In the normal case of a mother weaning an infant or toddler at the end of a nursing relationship, waiting between 3 days to a week to drop another feeding is sufficient. A week is generally recommended for the mother's health, but some women find they can easily drop feedings faster.
The other factor is the infant's comfort. Usually in weaning there are 3 big changes going on.
- The change from mostly nursing to not nursing at all.
- The change from breast milk to cow's milk or formula
- The change, for an infant between 12 and 18 months, from a bottle to a cup of some sort.
It is wise to approach one change at a time. For example if you are weaning a 1 year old who already drinks breast milk or formula from a bottle and switching that child to cow's milk, try mixing cow's milk with breast milk or formula in a bottle and slowly increasing the amount of cow's milk over time. Once your child is comfortable with cow's milk in a bottle then begin to drop feedings, replacing them with cow's milk in a bottle instead. Once you have dropped several or all feedings you can switch to cow's milk in a cup at meal time. Switching from a bottle to a sippy cup is it's own concern. If you are switching an infant from nursing to bottles of breast milk or formula then hopefully you introduced the bottle at the appropriate age, which is 3 weeks old before bottle refusal sets in, and kept up at least 1-2 bottles weekly. If you did not then you will need to work on finding a bottle your infant will accept before weaning nursing sessions.
Many mothers find that their children who enjoy nursing do best with a greater-than-one-week-between-dropping-feedings spacing. For example I know of many women who found 2 weeks at each number of feedings was best. Others even spaced it out to a month.
If you are looking to do child-led weaning then you can practice don't offer, don't refuse. In this weaning practice you never offer your child a nursing session. However when your child asks you either nurse right away or, if the time is not right for nursing, nurse as soon as possible after your child asks. This form of weaning can take a significant amount of time but may be right for a mother who is not set on weaning immediately.