The ‘right’ time to stop breastfeeding or to wean comes at a very personal and unique time for every mother and baby pair.
Regardless of when weaning occurs, the experiences some mothers encounter when stopping breastfeeding can be quite unexpected.
Indeed, for some mothers, the end of their breastfeeding relationship with their baby can be a time fraught with emotional changes.
There can be physical changes which come with the end of breastfeeding too.
It’s often easier to accept and deal with the things we experience when we know they are normal.
Unfortunately, many mothers are unaware that many of the effects they may experience when weaning are completely normal.
So what are the possible physical and emotional changes of stopping breastfeeding? Here are 5 things to be aware of:
#1: You May Experience Mood Changes
When your breastfeeding journey ends, it’s not uncommon to feel upset and tearful. Some mothers may feel irritable or anxious at times too. Usually these feelings cease after a few weeks. If these feelings are severe, or continue beyond a few weeks, seek advice from your health care professional.
It’s thought these mood changes may be brought about by hormonal changes (i.e. drop in prolactin and oxytocin levels) that occur when stopping breastfeeding. This is not surprising since prolactin assists with feeling calm and relaxed and oxytocin is commonly known as the ‘feel-good’ or ‘love’ hormone.
Whenever possible, gradual weaning can help minimise any mood changes you may experience. This is because gradual weaning allows hormonal changes to occur more gradually over time and so gives your body a chance to get used to them.
Nonetheless, even if the end to breastfeeding occurs gradually, it’s still not uncommon to feel sadness and a sense of loss. Many mothers feel breastfeeding helps create a physical and emotional closeness between them and their baby. So, when breastfeeding ends, it’s not uncommon feel a sense of bereavement as a very special time in your life with your child has ended. It’s important to remember the bond you have with your child and the physical and emotional closeness can continue despite weaning (e.g. with hugs, skin-to-skin contact, baby-wearing etc).
#2: It Can Take A While For Your Milk To Fully Dry Up
It’s not uncommon for mothers who have weaned to continue to find breastmilk appears when they hand express. How long it takes for your breastmilk to dry up completely after weaning varies from mother to mother. For some mothers who have breastfed frequently over a long period of time, it could take weeks to many months.
Breastmilk production works on a supply and demand basis. The more often milk is removed from your breasts, the more milk they will make and vice versa. If breastfeeding stops when your breasts are making plenty of milk (e.g. when your baby is feeding often), it can take a long time for your breasts to reduce, and eventually stop, producing milk. If breastfeeding ends when your breasts aren’t producing much milk (e.g. for an older baby or toddler), your supply is likely to adjust more quickly. Exactly when your breasts fully stop making milk varies greatly between individual mothers.
#3: Your Supply May Be On A Roller Coaster Ride
When weaning has occurred, initially your breasts will want to keep producing the amount of milk they are used to producing.
Stopping breastfeeding gradually allows your breastmilk supply to reduce gradually overtime and so minimises the risk of engorgement, blocked ducts or mastitis. Whereas, the more suddenly weaning occurs, the more likely you are to experience engorgement, blocked ducts or mastitis. For tips about drying up breastmilk read here.
When trying to stop your breasts from making milk, removing as little milk as possible is important. If however, you develop a blocked duct, temporarily removing milk (e.g. with hand expressing) to clear the blockage is important to help reduce the risk of developing mastitis.
Likewise, if you develop mastitis, temporarily removing milk to clear the milk stasis is important to reduce the risk of the mastitis turning into an abscess. Once the blocked duct or mastitis has cleared, you can go back to not removing milk and just monitoring your breasts. Overtime, your supply will reduce and eventually your milk production will cease.
#4: Your Menstrual Cycle May Return
For many mothers, their period doesn’t return while they’re exclusively breastfeeding. In fact, there is a well-accepted form of birth control known as the Lactational Amenhorrhoea Method.
When breastfeeding stops, it’s likely your menstrual cycles will gradually return to normal. This does not mean that one cannot fall pregnant while breastfeeding, you still can as this article explains.
#5: Your Breasts Can Return To Their Pre-Pregnancy Size
Once breastfeeding stops, your milk making cells will gradually shrink and fat cells will get laid down again. As this process occurs, over several months, your breasts usually return to their pre-pregnancy size.
And, if you worried about saggy breasts, don’t be. Read here for more information.
The end of breastfeeding can bring about a variety of physical and emotional changes. While some changes can be unpleasant, knowing what to expect can help handling these changes feel less daunting.