A closer look at what happens to your body when you stop breastfeeding

Happy mother with babyBreastfeeding is rich in benefits for both you and your baby. You already know that.

Increased immune functioning, higher IQ in late childhood and possibly a lowered risk of adulthood obesity are some of the benefits for your baby, while lowered stress and anxiety, faster weight loss postpartum and increased bonding are some of the many benefits you gain as a nursing mother.

But what happens when you stop?

Whether your baby self-weans (just stops nursing), or your work schedule makes weaning necessary or you decide it’s simply the right time to stop, weaning your baby can have a dramatic effect on your body and your mental health. With so much focus on the benefits of breastfeeding, the side-effects of weaning are often overlooked. This can be devastating for a mom.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Hormonal Changes

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that hormones can have a significant impact on your mood. Most women experience some sort of mood change during their menstrual cycle after all, reporting mood swings, anxiety, sadness and, in some cases, even depression.

Oxytocin
One of the most significant hormones involved in breastfeeding is oxytocin. This hormone is released in your body as the milk is “let down” or released as you feed your baby. Originally labelled as the “love hormone,” it lowers stress, anxiety and increases bonding between you and your baby. Pretty amazing, don’t you think?

During weaning, the oxytocin levels in your body drop significantly and so, your body can experience a type of “withdrawal.” This change in your body can lead to an increase in anxiety, stress and in severe cases, feelings of detachment or distance between you and your baby. This can happen even when you willingly wean your baby.

The severity of these side effects usually depends on how quickly you wean your baby and how often you were breastfeeding your baby before you wean.

Prolactin and Estrogen
Prolactin (think pro lactation) helps to initiate and maintain breastmilk production, and so, when a successful breastfeeding relationship is established this hormone level is raised in your body. Higher levels of prolactin are also responsible for suppressed levels of estrogen which often (but not always) suppresses ovulation in your body. Many people view this as the body’s natural way of preventing pregnancy while your body nourishes your growing baby. The human body is amazing.

During weaning, therefore, things start swinging the other way; prolactin levels drop and estrogen levels rise. If your period hadn’t returned yet, this is when that would happen too. Makes perfect sense, right? Yes. The only problem is, these swinging hormones can have a serious impact on your mood and mental health and even lead to depression — especially in women that are particularly sensitive to hormone changes in their bodies.

What you can do

While these hormone changes are unavoidable, there are some practical measures you can put in place to “soften the blow” and cope with these difficult aspects of weaning.

  • If it is possible, wean your baby as slowly as you can.
    This will allow your body and your brain to deal with the changes slowly and steadily. Gradual weaning will also make the transition more gentle for your baby and, overall, a whole lot less traumatic for you both (not to mention helping you avoid painful engorgement).
  • Cuddle and hold your baby often.
    This will stimulate the production of oxytocin in your body and will also help you to feel more connected (emotionally and physically) to your baby through this journey.
  • Reduce stress.
    It isn’t a good idea to wean your baby under stressful situations, avoid this if you can. Find ways to cope with stress and anxiety if you find yourself experiencing this during weaning. Exercise (proven to provide relief from depression) can be great — and help prevent weight gain. Calming strategies such as deep breathing and stretching can be beneficial. It is also a good idea to invest in supplements that support your nervous system such as a vitamin B complex.
  • Don’t trust your negative feelings.
    What’s important to remember is that this is a physiological response and is in no way an indication of who you are as a mother. In the same way that PMS can make you feel like your world is falling apart only to discover that you’re actually ok a few days later; hormonal effects during weaning can play similar “tricks” on you.
  • Be patient.
    In time, your body will settle back into its pre-pregnant state. Depending on how long you breastfed for, it might even be two or more years since you had a normal period! After two or three cycles you will be a lot closer to feeling more like “your old self.” Hang in there.

2. Emotional Changes

Another way that weaning can affect your mental health is by the changes you go through emotionally.

Some moms report feeling a sense of loss, almost as if their babies don’t need them anymore — especially in cases when the baby self-weans (rejects the breast). The realization that your baby is growing and won’t always be your baby can also be very emotional for a mother.

While there are these negative feelings around weaning, there are also some positives.
Some moms report feeling a renewed sense of freedom, being able to take a break away from the baby without experiencing engorgement and having to rush home to feed or to the bathroom at work to express milk. It opens up the opportunity for others to help with feeds and may even mean that mom can get a little extra sleep at night if dad handles a night-feed.

What you can do

If you find yourself feeling particularly emotional and maybe even depressed about weaning:

  • Talk about it!
    Sharing your struggles and worries with your partner, a close friend or a family member will help you balance your perspective on your weaning experience. I distinctly remember the night my husband expressed how grateful he was that he could finally help with a night-feed and give me the gift of unbroken sleep. This shifted my focus and helped me to see the good stuff too.
  • Embrace a new season.
    As difficult as it is to go through the emotional turmoil surrounding weaning, take advantage of this new sense of freedom. Go to dinner and a movie. Buy yourself some non-breastfeeding clothes (and bras!). Have a glass of wine. Embrace the good stuff, it’s there if you look for it.
  • Get help.
    If you find yourself feeling sad and low long after weaning, you might be depressed and need help. Talk to a doctor or healthcare professional you trust, you owe it to you and your baby to feel okay.

3. Physical Changes

You’ve recently had a baby, the chances are you’re probably not feeling like a beauty queen but there are distinct physical changes that happen after weaning that might take you be surprise — and get you down!

  • Weight gain.
    This can be particularly discouraging for moms who have just weaned their babies but the chances are you will gain some weight. On average, breastfeeding your baby burns up to 700 calories a day. By weaning your baby you will no longer be burning this energy and instead it will be stored in your body. Voila! Extra pounds.

    Did you know that severely overweight people are 55% more likely to experience depression? This is most likely due to obesity causing a lowered self-esteem (a known trigger of depression).

  • Breast changes.
    Initially, when you wean, your breasts will be engorged and will be quite full in shape but as prolactin levels drop and your milk supply decreases (it can take up to 2 months or more to dry up completely) your breasts may appear flat and sagging.

    In time, as your hormones regulate, they should fill out a little but they may never quite get back to what they once were. Breasts are such a strong symbol of femininity and sexiness and this change alone can be enough to discourage even the most optimistic of women.

What you can do

  • Exercise.
    One of the best ways to take care of your body and prevent excessive weight gain, is — you guessed it — exercise. Start gently and increase your levels of fitness gradually. Just knowing that you’re doing something about your weight gain can boost your morale and help you feel positive. Grab a friend (or your stroller!) and go for a walk.
  • Eat healthily.
    After months of an increased appetite due to breastfeeding, it can be challenging cutting back on calories and watching what you eat. But do it. Fruit, veg, unprocessed food and as much healthy stuff as you can find will go a long way to maintaining a healthy weight, self-image and, of course, your emotional health.
  • Avoid the mirror, naked!
    Don’t do it. Don’t stand in front of the mirror naked so you can examine all your flaws (and saggy boobs). Give your body — and your breasts — time.

Now that you understand the various side effects of weaning on your body, take the necessary steps to care for yourself, physically and mentally. You’ve given your baby a great start by breastfeeding, well done! Celebrate that as you move on to a new season.