As some of you who have been following our blog posts for a while know, my journey into breastfeeding was a challenging one… to say the least. It was something I was determined to be successful at, but when it came down to it, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And it definitely spurred a mild case of postpartum anxiety. This difficulty is something I see happening over and over again with friends and clients.
That being said, we did eventually get it. And we did eventually get to that sweet spot that I had fantasized about before I even had my son. Those lovely moments of connection, me rocking him, him looking up at me while I twirled my finger in his curls. So we kept doing it.
Around his first birthday, I gave myself the present of no longer pumping. I was SO SO SO done with Regina. (Yes, she had a name. When you spend that much intimate time with something, you give her a damn name. Her sound still haunts my dreams.) This time period made nursing even better- I still had that connection, but no longer felt tethered. We would still nurse when I was home, mostly when he first woke up and right before bed time. It was our thing. It was that thing that only I could do for him. It continued well past when he started talking, around 15 months. It continued when he could specifically ask for it. “Boob, please!”
People would ask me all the time, “when are going to wean?” Or say things like, “If they can ask for it, they’re too old for it”. In fact, we know that the WHO recommends that infants be breastfed up until they’re 2 years old “and beyond”, and that many cultures outside the U.S. do this regularly. I believe that weaning is a personal decision, made between breastfeeding parent and baby, whether that be day one, or on their 3rd birthday.
But that being said, our journey ended last week, at 19 months. This decision to stop was actually not mine, it was my son’s. One day, just like any other day, I went to get him out of his crib when he woke up. I brought him into bed with me to nurse him and he just pushed me away and said, very clearly, “No, no boob mama.” And that was that. He has not asked for it since.
I’m happy that he felt autonomous enough to make that decision. I would prefer that route, actually, rather than me having to cut him off. But I have to say, weaning comes with quite an emotional journey, whether it’s planned or not.
I find myself feeling intense sadness, maybe even grief, that this part of our relationship is over. I also feel some relief, like, “hell yea! I finally have my WHOLE BODY BACK!” I feel pride that our journey went as long as it did. I find myself wondering if I will ever breastfeed again, and even some anxiety thinking about going down that potentially difficult path with another child.
Turns out, these aren’t unusual emotions to have for someone who is weaning. In fact, there’s a lot anecdotal evidence that weaning parents often go through some emotional turmoil. Unfortunately, there is very scant research done on post-weaning emotional changes. There are some educated guesses. Breastfeeding naturally increases both prolactin (a “relaxing” hormone) and oxytocin (also known as the bonding or “love” hormone), for example, and a drop in these could potentially trigger a depressive or anxious episode. And those who wean more abruptly tend to have harder times. I suspect it also has a lot to do with the emotional transition I mentioned above. The grief, for example, that comes with such a big change, and how that can feel like such a loss.
There are other factors that put weaning parents more at risk for mental health issues, including a history of depression or anxiety, or being forced to wean, such as for those who are not given the space or time at work (which, by the way, is illegal, but happens all the time).
So how can we lower the huge emotional swings that come with weaning?
1. Wean slowly, if that’s an option.
It seems that those who wean abruptly have a more difficult time adjusting. IF it’s an option, cut down slowly, such as by one feeding per week to give yourself time to adjust.
2. Be mindful during the last feeding, if possible.
I love this parent’s idea to be mindful during the last feeding, to soak it in, and to tell your baby the “story” of your breastfeeding journey (even the hard parts). I wish I had thought of that!
3. Increase self-care
Self-care is important ANY time, and it’s crucial to recharging your “batteries” and being a good parent and partner. But it’s especially important when we’re going through a difficult transition or stressful time. So schedule in that yoga, that meditation, that long, comforting bath, that Netflix and wine.
4. Get regular exercise
I know, I know. But exercise is a natural way to increase some “feel good” hormones, including endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. So, even if it’s a small goal, like going outside for fresh air and a walk around the block, it can be so helpful.
5. Make sure you’re eating well, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water.
6. Take advantage of things you can do now that you’re not nursing.
One of the first things I did when I started cutting down on nursing was ask my husband to put my son to bed, instead of me. I’d been doing it every night for the first year or so of his life. It felt so good to hand him over, pour myself a glass of wine, and turn on some Netflix. Of course, I still love the bedtime routine and take part in it often, but it’s nice to not HAVE to do it.
7. Increase oxytocin in other ways, such as through sex, cuddling and kissing your kids and partner
Although we think of oxytocin related to babies, it’s not the only way to access it! There are so many ways. In fact, there was even a study done that showed oxytocin levels increased in both the owner and the pet when the person was petting their dog or cat for at least 15 minutes… so cuddle that fur baby (if they’re into that kind of thing).
8. Don’t be afraid to seek help.
Much like with postpartum illnesses, but even less talked about, sometimes those hormonal fluctuations turn into more than just a difficult adjustment and can lead to clinical depression or anxiety. If you’re struggling to function, even after increasing healthy coping methods, it might be time to reach out. Medication and/or counseling with someone who has experience in depression related to weaning can be crucial to getting better again!
How was your journey with weaning? Did you experience any of the emotional turmoil explored above? And, if so, how did you cope with it? Comment below!
Ariel is a therapist with Porch Light Counseling, who specializes in fertility, pregnancy and postpartum mental health, as well as relationships and adjusting to major life transitions.