How to wean your baby off formula (onto breastmilk)

Let’s talk about mixed feeding. One of the things that annoys me about conventional breastfeeding literature is that it can come across as pretty all or nothing: either you nurse and express breastmilk until kingdom come or you resort to formula. It is often portrayed that only one bottle of formula is enough to wreck your breastfeeding relationship for ever. What a way to put pressure on mothers, no?

Especially because I think mixed feeding could be an awesome solution for mothers who are struggling with breastfeeding for some reason or other. Not because “every drop counts” but because there is so much more to breastfeeding than just milk and the way I see it mixed feeding can allow mums to relax about nutrition (my baby is fed, hurray!) and enjoy the other benefits of the boob (comfort, bonding and yes, optimal nutrition for the baby). Is it perfect? Of course not. But it sure beats a depressed mother who wishes she could nurse her baby but feels that “once formula, always formula”.

(Speaking of which, one of these days we need to speak about pure comfort feeding, i.e. nursing with no milk supply. Who knew this was a thing?! Mothers nursing adopted daughters. Grandmothers nursing grandchildren.)

Back to mixed feeding. I fed my son formula for about a month, starting around two weeks after he was born. Except for the first 48 hours I also gave him breastmilk (straight from the boob and expressed) and eventually weaned him off formula. He is now over a year old and still nursing strong. I never thought I would give formula to my baby and was woefully unprepared – I had no idea how to mix formula, nor how to wean baby boy off it. To make matters worse, information on the topic was hard to come by, mainly because most texts assumed that the reason for giving formula was a low milk supply (not true in my case).

This is what worked for us:

Keep detailed records: I used an app to make a note of every feed. For formula this included the amount, for breastmilk the time at the breast.

Pump as much as you can bear: I hated pumping, or should I say expressing, since every pump I tried made me bleed. I expressed milk as often as possible but decided not to stress too much about it.

Give formula on schedule, breastmilk on demand: Baby boy was given formula at most every 3 hours, less if he didn’t ask for it. We prepared the amount suggested on the tin for his age. At all other times he was either given expressed breastmilk or the boob. For me this kept the amount of unbearably painful breastfeeding sessions to an acceptable level.

Gradually reduce formula: The standard instruction is to reduce formula by 30 ml every couple of days. Since I knew we had no problems with supply and baby boy was nursing well when on the boob, I attempted to reduce the formula by 30 ml every day. I did this mainly by spacing the formula feedings as far apart as possible.

Two steps forward, one step back: There were setbacks. When it seemed like we could throw away the box of formula, one of my nipples would start bleeding again and up went the formula count. This was disheartening but thanks to my app (see above) I could see that we were gradually making progress.

Keep your goal in sight: I was absolutely 100% certain that I wanted to brave the hell and high waters to get my baby off formula. I knew it was possible since my baby was gaining and milk was flowing – the only impediment was the pain and I just couldn’t accept that my breasts weren’t made for nursing. Your goal might be different: my mother breastfed me for 6 months with a bottle of formula every night. There are many ways to feed and bond with a baby. Just make sure you know what you want and stick to your guns.

Do I make this sound easy peasy? Trust me, it wasn’t. One bizarre Sunday afternoon we rushed back from a restaurant lunch with a hungry baby. Side by side on the sofa my husband was feeding our last few millilitres of breastmilk to baby boy while I desperately expressed some more because I didn’t want to increase the amount of formula for that day. Not what I had envisioned doing 4 weeks postpartum…

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I’d love to hear your stories! Any advice about mixed feeding or weaning babies off formula? Please share in the comments!

More of the same: Why I gave my baby formulaThere is no such thing as failure to breastfeed

This time last year: Surviving breastfeeding hell

13 Comments

  1. Wow. I’ve done a LOT of reading about breastfeeding and I can’t believe so many so-called professionals still push formula from day one. On the other hand I also think the nipple confusion thing is overstated (just another way to make new mums anxious!) Also, would love to hear your supplementation story one day… (perhaps not in the comments 😉

  2. moderatemum

    I was told to supplement with formula from day one because my son was jaundiced and to continue after he was better to encourage weight gain. He didn’t actually start to gain weight until I dropped the supplementation (but that’s another story!) The silver lining was that had I not been told to by professionals I never would have introduced a bottle/formula for fear of nipple confusion etc. As a result we had quite a lot of flexibility and I could go out for lunch or catch up on sleep with my partner giving him a feed every now and then. #fromtheheart

  3. If it worked for you I don’t see a problem. It’s actually quite nice to hear you can muddle through and still succeed (since I was a weee bit obsessive with the tracking app!)

  4. I think it would have been better to have had your advice and done it a bit more systematically. We sort of just tapered off. It was a bit painful at times, but my supply was fine and the baby didn’t ever stop wanting to breastfeed. So we were probably lucky that it worked out as well as it did.

  5. That’s a lovely story, thanks so much for sharing. It’s great to know that you can use formula AND do extended breastfeeding. Did you have any supply issues when reducing formula? Would love to know how you did it…

  6. This is such a great post. There are lots of different ways to feed. I was exclusively breastfeeding my first when I saw our paediatrician for our six week checkup and he suggested mixed feeding might be a good option. So we used some formula in the evenings, I pumped, and fed at the breast. We ended up stopping the formula too and he’s just weaned off the breast at 2.5. The formula didn’t end our breastfeeding journey. You’re so right that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You have made some really great suggestions. #fromtheheart

  7. Yes! I want that on a T-shirt. People make it sound like parenting is all or nothing which is so far from the truth.

  8. Thanks to pumping, I can now empathize very well with dairy cows.

    Such sane advice! Transitions for anything in life take time, have setbacks, and are ultimately possible if handled with patience and realistic expectations. This is true for babies and adults. If people can recover from crack addictions, I’m pretty sure a baby can go from formula back to the breast. #fromtheheart

  9. I didn’t actually express exclusively – I’m lucky enough to work from homex

  10. Yes! Of course there are good reasons for breastfeeding exclusively from the start, but not if it is discouraging women from breastfeeding at all!

  11. I’m impressed you managed to pump exclusively from 9 weeks onward! And I haven’t yet met a mum who enjoys pumping…

  12. I have been lucky enough to have been able to exclusively breastfeed both of mine, although this time round it hasn’t been as easy as I was back at work 9 weeks after having Little B. I hate pumping too! #fromtheheart

  13. I combine-fed on my 1st because I was nervous and I was surprised how many friends said to me that they would have given breast feeding a go if they knew it was an option to give a bottle also. The bf rates in Ireland are shockingly low so maybe this approach could convince more to try it…. it takes the pressure off the mother as the sole feeder. I did bf exclusively on my next 2 but only because I had gained confidence. #fromtheheart

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