Have you decided to switch your baby to formula but find your breasts are still engorged? Or maybe your nursing baby has weaned and you need your milk to dry up.
We’ve been there; we know the pain of engorgement and the struggle of trying to dry up breast milk. And we’ve learned what to do to ease the weaning process and dry up your breast milk supply.
In this article, we’ll share advice from our medical team and what we’ve learned from trial and error with our own children. We’ll explain what helps dry up breast milk and what can make the process worse. This should help make the process easier and save you from unnecessary pain.
Avoid Weaning Your Baby Cold Turkey
If you’re ready to stop breastfeeding, the idea of saying goodbye to it all at once and never looking back might seem enticing. However, if you have the option of doing a slow and steady wean, we encourage you to go that route — for your sake and your baby’s.
Although stopping breastfeeding suddenly can feel like the best option for you and your child, it can also come with serious complications.
Breast milk is made on a “supply and demand” basis. The more you nurse, the more milk your body produces (1). If you stop nursing abruptly, your body doesn’t immediately know to stop producing breast milk at the same rate it has been making it.
This can lead to painful breast engorgement and, in severe cases, mastitis (breast infection).
By weaning over a few weeks, your body will naturally begin to understand that the need for breast milk is less, and it will produce less milk as a result.
These are some steps you can take to wean your little one off the breast gradually:
- Replace Breastfeeding Sessions: Gradually replace one daily breastfeeding at a time with solids or liquids, such as baby food or iron-fortified formula.
- Go Slow and Steady: Once you’ve replaced one breastfeeding session with a meal, wait for three to five days before swapping out another one for baby food.
- Cuddle for Comfort: Spending close time with your little one will assure them your love and affection are constant, even through this change. This may also help prevent post-weaning depression for you.
How To Dry Up Breast Milk
Is your milk not drying up as fast as you’d like, even though your baby is nursing less frequently? Or maybe you’re in a situation like I was, where I had to wean suddenly for medical reasons, and my body was not getting the message.
Thankfully, there are a few things that you can try to help your milk dry up faster:
1. Sage Tea
Sage helps dry up breast milk because it contains a natural form of estrogen (2). If you already have dried sage in your pantry, you can use it by simply steeping a teaspoon of the herb in a cup of hot water for about 15 minutes.
Drink one glass of sage tea every 6 hours for best results. This tea can be very bitter, so add a little honey, sugar, or your sweetener of choice to make it more palatable.
2. Birth Control
If you’ve been taking birth control pills while breastfeeding, chances are your doctor has made sure to put you on a progestin-only version.
This is because estrogen-based birth control options have been linked to low milk supply in nursing moms (3). If your milk isn’t drying up as quickly as you’d like it to, it might be a good idea to switch to an estrogen-based contraceptive to help move the process along.
Because hormonal birth control has side effects of its own, this should be used as a last resort.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
When you have a cold, decongestants work by opening up passageways and drying up the mucus (4). They are normally not recommended for use while breastfeeding because they can also tend to dry up other bodily fluids, including breast milk.
This is often a last-resort method for frustrated mamas. If you want a boost to help dry up your milk faster, a decongestant such as pseudoephedrine might help.
What To Avoid When Drying Up Your Breast Milk
As we’ve learned the hard way, there are several things you should avoid when your baby is weaning. These are the worst things you can do when you’re trying to dry up your breast milk quickly.
1. Tight Bras And Binding
If you’ve told anyone that you are trying to wean off breastfeeding, they might suggest you bind your breasts as a way to suppress your milk supply. This advice is not based on any medical recommendation and is typically a bad idea.
Binding your breasts can cause engorgement to get worse and increase your risk of getting mastitis (5).
As you decrease your nursing sessions, it’s normal for your body to need time to adjust to the change. This might result in your breasts feeling full and engorged between nursing sessions, at least until your body gets the memo to slow down milk production.
It might be tempting to pump between nursing sessions to ease the pressure, but try to avoid it as best you can. Pumping will have the same effect as nursing on your body — sending that pesky “demand” signal — making the process of decreasing your milk supply take longer.
3. Massaging Your Breasts
When your back hurts, you massage it, and you might be tempted to do the same for your breasts when they’re full during weaning. But did you know even touching your breasts when they’re full can signal your body to let down the milk, just as if you were nursing?
The more stimulation your breasts receive, the more milk your body will think it needs to produce. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to happen. It’s best to keep all hands off of your breasts (including when you’re intimate with your partner) while you try to decrease your supply.
Not to worry — there are other ways to find relief!
Reducing Breast Pain While Weaning
The difficulties of weaning may only seem more frustrating with the pain and discomfort engorgement can cause. During this period of change, you’ll need to take care of yourself to ensure the transition is as gentle as possible for you and your baby.
If you’re experiencing breast pain during the weaning period, here are some ways to reduce and manage it:
1. Hot Showers
If your breasts are swollen and engorged, a hot shower might help provide some relief.
Some say to avoid hot showers because the warm water can cause milk to leak out of your breasts. However, if you keep your shower short, this will not cause your body to produce more milk.
2. Cabbage Leaves
I thought my grandmother was crazy when she told me I could relieve some of the discomfort of engorgement with cabbage leaves. Let me tell you — by day four of zero nursing, I was willing to try anything — even if it left me smelling like my aunt’s house on New Year’s Day.
Surprisingly, my grandmother was right. By placing refrigerated cabbage leaves inside your bra, you can ease engorgement pain.
These are some steps to remember if you’re trying this method:
- Wash: Separate and wash the leaves of a green cabbage, thoroughly drying them afterward.
- Refrigerate: Store your freshly washed leaves in the fridge until ready for use.
- Crush: Before placing the leaves inside your bra, crush the veins of the cabbage with a rolling pin or carefully cut them open with a knife. Insert leaves into your bra with the cabbage veins against your skin.
- Repeat: Leave on for 20-30 minutes, repeating with fresh leaves up to four times in a 24-hour period, until engorgement is reduced.
3. Pain Medications
Over-the-counter pain medications won’t make engorgement completely disappear, but they can help reduce the swelling and pain.
Both acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be purchased in your local pharmacy and are safe to use whether you’re slowly weaning off breastfeeding or quitting altogether.
Ibuprofen is the active ingredient in Advil and Motrin and is typically favored for its anti-inflammatory properties.
4. Cold Packs
Cold packs work similarly to cabbage leaves, helping to reduce the pain and swelling engorgement can cause. Whether you choose crushed ice, bags of frozen peas, or ice packs, they can bring comfort faster than pain-relieving medications and can be used side-by-side with them for longer-lasting relief.
Unlike cabbage leaves, there’s no chance these will help dry up your milk faster, but they can provide comfort while your body does the work naturally.
When the Breast Isn’t Best…
It doesn’t matter when or why you decide to stop breastfeeding your baby. Whether it’s for medical reasons, going back to work, or feeling it’s time to stop, it’s a very personal decision only you can make.
There are ways to reduce the emotional and physical discomfort weaning and drying your breast milk can bring.
Speak to other moms, spend time cuddling and engaging your child in other activities, and stock your fridge with cabbage — you can continue to nurture your changing relationship while staying comfortable.