What To Expect When Weaning Your Child From Breastfeeding

The hormone shifts aren't over yet. The end of your breastfeeding journey may bring you one last round of symptoms and emotions.
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Molly Mendoza for Huffpost

Unlike the beginning of breastfeeding, weaning your child — or ceasing to breastfeed — is often a slower, less-dramatic process. Perhaps you gradually drop one daily feed per week, holding on to the bedtime and morning feedings just a bit longer. You might not even realize it when your child nurses for the last time.

But sometimes there’s a compelling reason, such as medical treatment or your work schedule, to wean more quickly.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams weaned her daughter Alexis Olympia after eight months in order to get her body back into prime condition for competition. Yet even the non-athletic among us can relate to the pull between career and parenting obligations.

Calling breastfeeding a “magical superpower,” Williams told Time in 2018 that she was initially resistant to her coach’s suggestion that she stop nursing.

“He doesn’t understand that connection, that the best time of the day for me was when I tried to feed her,” said Williams, who eventually decided it was the right time to wean.

“I looked at Olympia, and I was like, ‘Listen, Mommy needs to get her body back, so Mommy’s going to stop now.’ We had a really good conversation. We talked it out.”

Wherever your own weaning process falls on the scale of gradual to abrupt, here are a few things to keep in mind as you go.

Weaning causes hormonal shifts in your body.

“A parent’s body goes through big changes as the process of human milk feeding is established and hormones such as prolactin and oxytocin levels rise, making milk production possible and affecting mood and connection. It makes sense, then, that weaning can bring about big hormonal shifts, too, depending on how it is carried out,” Winema Wilson Lanoue, an author and nursing educator, told HuffPost.

When you’re nursing, “estrogen and progesterone are suppressed,” Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a psychologist and lactation consultant, told HuffPost. “As you start the weaning, they go back up,” Kendall-Tackett continued, explaining that this shift is what often causes menstruation to begin again — although some people experience the return of their periods while they are still nursing.

Oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the “love hormone” for the warm, fuzzy feeling that it can bring, is also what causes your uterus to contract in labor and accompanies milk ejection every time you nurse.

The absence of “that nice little calm burst of oxytocin” as you breastfeed throughout the day “could make you feel bad,” Kendall-Tackett said, though there has been little research into the effects of weaning on a nursing parent’s mental health.

“Inflammation is the physiology that underlies depression, and oxytocin suppresses that,” Kendall-Tackett added, drawing a possible connection between the two.

“A common time for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders to present or flare is around the time of weaning, especially if the weaning is less gradual,” Dr. Ann Kellams, president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, told HuffPost.

Sudden weaning can also lead to physical issues: clogged milk ducts and even mastitis, an infection of the breast that requires medical treatment.

“We would recommend maybe spacing out the feedings gradually, or dropping one feeding over several days in order to give the body time to adjust and to avoid engorgement and discomfort,” said Kellams.

If you need to wean abruptly, you may want to speak with a lactation consultant about ways to manage these risks.

Other parts of your body are also affected by weaning. “Menstrual cycles can return or, if they have already returned, change quite a bit, and some parents may find that their hair, skin, mammary tissue and/or libido may be affected, as well,” said Wilson Lanoue.

She noted that, in her experience, people who nurse longer generally report fewer symptoms from weaning.

“Parents who choose to nurse for two or more years often report few, if any, noticeable hormonal symptoms when weaning occurs,” she said.

Weaning impacts you emotionally, too.

In addition to dealing with the possible return of your menstrual cycle and the loss of those regular influxes of oxytocin, there is the emotional component of bringing your breastfeeding journey to an end.

“If a parent feels comfortable with their plan and has good information and support, there may be feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment during this transition. Conversely, if a parent feels pressured to wean and if they lack that information and support, they may feel resentful, afraid or confused,” said Wilson Lanoue.

Many former breastfeeding parents will say that that special breastfeeding bond, closeness, and time with the baby is the biggest thing that they miss,” added Kellams.

Additionally, although we usually associate nursing during the night with getting less sleep, Kendall-Tackett says that “some people might find their sleep affected” by weaning. Changes in sleep patterns impact both your mood and your mental health overall.

Tips To Make Weaning Easier For You And Your Child:

Whether you want to draw out the weaning process over a number of months or are working against a deadline, there are a number of things you can do to make the process easier for yourself and your child.

  • Continue to make time to connect with your child.We’re gonna stop the feeding part, but we’re not stopping the love part,” Kendall-Tackett explained. Your child will continue to want physical closeness, and if you snuggle skin to skin, it can even help replace some of that oxytocin that you’re missing out on. An older child could be engaged with a toy or book while you spend time close to each other.
  • Keep your child nourished. If you’re weaning after your child has turned 1 year old, you can offer them cow’s milk (or other milks) as well as water. Make sure your child is getting plenty of other foods to make up for the calories they are no longer getting from breast milk. If your child is not yet 1, you will need to replace the breast milk with infant formula.
  • Ask other caregivers to help. Have another parent or caregiver step in to soothe your child or help put them to bed. Try to do so “in a gradual fashion if baby has been used to breastfeeding at certain times,” said Kellams.
  • Don’t expect weaning to solve other issues. If you’re expecting your baby to begin sleeping through the night because you wean, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. “As so many parents begin weaning because they are told it will solve a particular issue and, depending on the situation, it may not, they can lose confidence or feel a sense of hopelessness, frustration or failure,” said Wilson Lanoue. “They haven’t failed, of course. Often it is simply that developmental stages can’t be rushed!”
  • Take your time. “Contrary to what parents may be told, there is rarely any need to rush,” said Wilson Lanoue. All of the experts HuffPost spoke with recommended gradual weaning whenever possible for the ease of parent and child.

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