Whether you wean once your baby is old enough to eat a significant amount of solid foods or you are weaning to transition your baby to formula, the process can sometimes seem a little daunting. But it needn't be. The key is to understand how milk supply is maintained and then begin to do all the things you would never have considered doing when you were trying to build and maintain your supply.
Ultimately, supply is managed through the process of supply and demand. An empty breast produces milk faster than a full breast. When a breast is full, the protein FIL (feedback inhibitor of lactation) is present in higher concentrations and signals production to slow. As well, as the breast fills, the walls of the aveoli stretch and do not allow prolactin to enter. These two things combine to slow production. It is important to understand when trying to lower supply or wean that your body will usually continue to produce as much milk as is being removed; that is lactation works on the basis of supply and demand. The other factor that comes into play is storage capacity. Some women are “blessed” with a large storage capacity which is great in that they can often pump less often but maintain supply, however, it also often makes it more challenging to reduce their supply and wean.
The strategy I recommend when weaning (or trying to reduce supply) is a two-pronged approach: reducing the length of individual pumping sessions and lengthen the time between pumping sessions. I suggest starting the process by reducing the length of time you are pumping each session. So if for example you are pumping 20 minutes per session, drop that to 18 minutes. You want to take it slowly and only reduce the time by a couple minutes each time you reduce it. Always be aware of any areas in the breasts that may seem hard or sore and work at them with gentle massage and compressions as you pump. You may also want to start using warm compresses prior to pumping to help remove milk and avoid blockages. Go slowly. When you find that you can easily manage with the 18 minutes/session, you can drop another minute or two. This technique alone may or may not be enough to start lowering your supply.
The other part of the strategy then is to lengthen the time between sessions, but I would suggest you not necessarily schedule the time. Rather than going from every 4 hours to every 6, judge the time on how your body is reacting. Push the limit a little and pump only when you are feeling full, but not painfully full. Perhaps at first it might only be a half hour off your current schedule and perhaps it might only be 2 of your pumping sessions that you are able to extend. Again, go slowly. How quickly you can proceed through the weaning process is largely determined by how large your supply is at the time you begin to wean and your storage capacity.
I would start with the first strategy on its own for a while. See how your body responds and then begin the second strategy. As you continue through the process, you will get to the point where you are only pumping 2-3 times a day. At this point, you can really begin stretching out the time between sessions and will eventually drop to twice a day, once a day, and then every 36-48 hours.
Many women ask at this point, “Do I just stop pumping?” Yes and no! You may be able to simply stop and never have to look at your pump again, but many women will find that after two or three days of not pumping they start to feel a little full and perhaps a little bit of discomfort. By all means if this happens, pump. There is no downside to pumping. Just remember that in order to reduce supply, it is important to leave milk in the breasts. So just pump enough to relieve the feeling of fullness, but not to empty. As with any attempts to increase or decrease your supply, keep records of your output so you can see any trends that are happening.
There truly should be no discomfort or pain when weaning. If you are experiencing pain, you may be trying to take it too quickly. If you are someone that is prone to blocked ducts or mastitis, you will need to take it very slowly. You may consider taking lecithin to help prevent blocks from forming. Here’s a link with information on lecithin. Information about other herbs that may help to reduce milk supply can be found here. Other measures that can help when weaning include using ibuprofen or acetaminophen, using cabbage leaves, sage, warm compresses prior to pumping and cold compresses in between sessions.
I think it is also important when weaning to take some time to reflect on the whole experience of pumping. There are often many emotions that come with the process and taking the time to remember the past few months, your reasons for pumping, the joys and the pains,…it is all important in the experience and being able to move forward to the next phase in the relationship with your child.