As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), I work with a lot of mothers for whom pumping is a major part of their breastfeeding experience. While most are incredibly thankful for the ability to pump, almost all are ready to celebrate when they realize that it is time to wean off the pump. But, how do you make that happen? Especially if your baby is still breastfeeding and you’d like to continue with that part of the relationship? Can you wean off the pump but not from your baby? The answer is a clear and resounding YES!
YOU…on YOUR timeline
Often, mothers will ask me WHEN they should consider weaning off of the pump. Honestly, there is no “right” time other than the time that is right for each particular mother and baby. Many women, who are encouraged by the American Academy of Pediatric guidelines, have a goal of pumping for one year. But, I’ve had lots of moms who pumped much longer than that and even more who pumped for a shorter period of time. Factors such as how supportive the work environment is, how much milk “stash” a family has, and how the addition of complementary foods to a little one’s diet impacts nutrition all come into play. But, there is no “magic” time and a family can decide together what works for them.
Please understand this: Breastfeeding and pumping can be entirely independent of each other. The decision to wean from the pump doesn’t have to also be the decision to wean from the breast. Our bodies are wildly adaptive and because breastfeeding is very much a “supply and demand” system, mothers and babies can find routines for feeding that work well, even if it is only in the evenings and on weekends (or whatever works based on work schedules!)
Supply and Demand
Here’s one of the foundations of the mechanics of breastfeeding: Breasts make milk when breasts are emptied of milk. And, the opposite is also true: Breasts don’t make milk when breasts are not emptied of milk. There are highly technical explanations involving hormones and proteins and the wonderful dance that a body does to perform this awesome task but it comes down to this “supply and demand” truth. Not only does a breast that is emptied make more milk but an empty breast produces milk faster than a full breast. How much is made is very dependent on how much is removed. So, how can we use this to our advantage? Let’s work smarter and not harder:
1. Extend Time Between Pumping Sessions
Every single mother I have spoken to about how she weaned off of the pump comfortably has used this method. Take what you will from that statement but I do think that it points to the fact that, as we get to know our bodies, our “gut” tells us what will work. If we remove milk less often from our bodies, our bodies will slowly start to decrease the amount of milk being produced. For example, if you are used to pumping 3 times during a work day (10am, 1pm, and 4pm), let’s try starting to shift the sessions so that there is a longer interval between them. Obviously, the goal is to extend them and shift them and make it so that we are finally able to drop a session. But this takes time! We can expect that it will take a few weeks (and often longer) to wean from several pumping sessions.
2. Decrease Time Per Pumping Session
Another method is to decrease the amount of time we are spending per pumping session. This way, we are leaving a bit of milk behind, signaling to the body “Hey, you’ve made more than we need. You can dial it back a bit.” If you normally pump for 12 minutes, maybe you could try pumping for 10 and watch how your body responds. Again, the same goal applies as when we increase time between sessions: Communicate to your body that less milk is required.
PAY ATTENTION to Your Body
It is critically important during the whole process that moms are paying close attention to their bodies. Are any areas of the breast tender? Hard? Do you find that you are feeling particularly full and uncomfortable? Does the time of day matter? You are the best expert of your body and this process is NOT going to be scheduled and structured. Listen. Respond. Don’t rush yourself. Take time to allow your body the space to respond in its own time.
Dialing Back Your Supply Without Killing Your Breastfeeding Relationship
The most critical piece of the process is how a mother and baby are continuing to connect as pumping time is decreased. Many mothers continue to put baby to their breast, even as they are dialing their milk supply back when they are separated. Most find that as routines and schedules change, so does they way their bodies respond to their little ones and breastfeeding continues even while milk isn’t being removed during working hours. Mothers and babies are so incredibly adaptable and it is exciting to watch families navigate a new chapter in their breastfeeding relationship.