Dr. Greene's Answer
To wean means to gradually accustom someone to a change. Usually weaning is the process of gradually letting go of something we were dependent on. While there are certain abrupt changes in childhood (most notably the suddenness of being born), all of childhood is a process of weaning.
The keys to successful weaning are substituting something wonderful for what the child is giving up, and giving the child time to adjust.
Weaning a baby from the breast to the bottle can be a big transition for both Mom and baby. The process is easiest if a bottle is introduced long before the breast begins to be taken away. I urge families I work with to begin occasional bottle-feeding once breastfeeding has become easy and natural, usually by 2 or 3 weeks. As a father, I found those opportunities to feed my children precious indeed. My children loved them too. In addition, if the feedings are strategically timed they can give the mother some much-needed rest.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk throughout the first year, if possible. Nursing will stop, though, whenever mother or baby decides it is time. If mother is the one to decide, the best way to stop is one feeding at a time, substituting it with a more mature kind of loving interaction – cuddling, or singing, or reading. It may help to have someone else do some of the feeding. Usually midday nursing is the best to stop first, because bedtime and early morning habits take the longest to change. Continue dropping another feeding every few days, until you are nursing as much as you want. All of the feedings at the breast can be dropped over about 2 weeks.
Weaning from a nipple (bottle or breast) to a cup is a similar process but usually takes much longer because more learning is involved. Introducing a cup long before you want to take the nipple away helps tremendously. The ideal time for this is when your baby has learned to sit independently and to eat some finger foods such as teething biscuits or zwieback toast. You may also notice her wrapping her fingers around the spoon when you feed her. She is eager to use her hands.
What a perfect time to give her little hands something to hold! A trainer cup with two handles is ideal. You might want one with a snap-on lid and a spout to minimize the mess as your baby experiments with the cup – after all, the cup makes a great throwing toy. Alternatively, you might want a special cup engraved with your baby’s name to remember that first sip forever – be prepared to celebrate the mess with pictures!
At mealtime, put some water in the cup and show your baby how to maneuver it to her mouth. A midday meal is again usually best. The cup will be little more than a toy for several weeks, but eventually most kids will drink down the water you put in. When they do this, it’s time to put something else in the cup or to begin giving it at other meals. It often takes about 6 months before all drinking is done with a cup – and the bedtime feeding is usually the last to switch. A good goal is that when whole milk is introduced at one year, it is in a cup not a bottle.
It’s wonderful for babies to have security objects, but if a bottle becomes the security object, it can make weaning tough. Avoid this by not letting babies carry a bottle around with them. Only use them at mealtimes when they are sitting down or being held. If they are thirsty at other times, hand them a cup.
What I’ve described is an ideal situation. I expect I’ll answer other questions about how to get an older child who is quite attached to the bottle to accept a change.
Life is a process of weaning; all of life is change. With any weaning, the secret is to find what is special about whatever we are changing to. Enjoy those momentous days when drinking from a cup is a brand new adventure!