"The process of weaning involves hormonal, psychological, social, and physical changes."
By Cassie Shortsleeve| June 08, 2020
"Last month, one random morning while breastfeeding my 11-month-old daughter Sunday, she bit down (and laughed) then tried to latch back on. It was an unexpected snag in an otherwise smooth breastfeeding journey, but after some bleeding (ugh), a prescription antibiotic ointment, and shedding some tears, I decided it was also the end.
Not only did I beat myself up—I didn't make it to the (albeit self-imposed) one-year marker that I had set—but within days, those teary, dark moments that had been with me in the early postpartum period crept back up. I could almost feel my hormones changing.
If you just had a baby (or have new mom friends), you're likely aware of some of the mood changes that can accompany new parenthood, namely the "baby blues" (which impact some 80 percent of women in the weeks following delivery) and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), which impact some 1 in 7, according to Postpartum Support International. But mood issues related to weaning—or transitioning your baby from breastfeeding to formula or food—are less talked about.
In part, that's because they're less common than PMADs, such as postpartum depression. And not everyone experiences them. "All transitions in parenthood can be bittersweet and there is a wide array of experiences associated with weaning," explains Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., M.P.H., director of the UNC Center for Women's Mood Disorders and a principal investigator in the Mom Genes Fight PPD research study on postpartum depression. "Some women find breastfeeding very satisfying and do experience emotional difficulty at the time of weaning," she says. "Other women do not experience emotional difficulty or they find weaning to be a relief." (See also: Serena Williams Opens Up About Her Difficult Decision to Stop Breastfeeding)
But mood changes related to weaning (and *everything* breastfeeding, TBH) make sense. After all, there are hormonal, social, physical, and psychological changes that take place when you stop nursing. If symptoms crop up, they can also be surprising, confusing, and occur at a time when you may have *just* thought that you were out of the woods with any postpartum woes.
Here, what's going on in your body and how to ease the transition for you.
The Physiological Effects of Breastfeeding
"There are basically three stages of hormonal and physiological changes that allow women to produce breastmilk," explains Lauren M. Osborne, M.D., assistant director of the Women's Mood Disorders Center at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The first stage happens in the second half of pregnancy when the mammary glands in your breasts (which are responsible for lactation) begin to produce small amounts of milk. While you're pregnant, super high levels of a hormone called progesterone produced by the placenta inhibit the secretion of said milk. After delivery, when the placenta is removed, progesterone levels plummet and levels of three other hormones—prolactin, cortisol, and insulin—rise, stimulating milk secretion, she says. Then, as your baby eats, the stimulation on your nipples triggers the release of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, explains Dr. Osborne.
"Prolactin brings a feeling of relaxation and calmness to mom and baby and oxytocin—known as 'the love hormone'—helps with attachment and connection," adds Robyn Alagona Cutler, a licensed marriage, and family therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health.
Of course, the feel-good effects of breastfeeding are not just physical. Nursing is an extremely emotional act in which attachment, connection, and bonding can be cultivated, says Alagona Cutler. It's an intimate act where you're likely snuggled up, skin-to-skin, making eye contact."
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