My purpose with this post is to draw awareness to the shifts and changes that happen within a mother’s body, emotions and heart during the weaning process more than it is about “how to wean.”. Please bear in mind that this is my personal experience. Much of what I learned along the way I hadn’t heard from anyone else. I’m writing it down because I wish someone would have told me. You may experience similarities or your path may look completely different.
I loved breastfeeding! I found out we were pregnant with our second when our daughter was 14 months old. When she was born, I had hoped to nurse anywhere from 12-18 months. I was proud of our journey and felt ready for the weaning process to begin. Some may choose to continue nursing through pregnancy and then tandem nurse, but I knew my body needed a break between babies.
I was surprised when pregnancy was more difficult this time around. I had assumed it would be easier because my body was familiar with the process and because my first pregnancy was such a breeze. As nausea lingered until around 20 weeks, energy waxed and waned, and I regularly felt drained and moody, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I had just come from a “high” of feeling strong and connected and vibrant in my postpartum body, and this little dip through the first trimester and the beginning of the second trimester was confusing. When I passed out cold at eight weeks pregnant in the middle of a newborn photoshoot, I knew I needed to pay attention! (Thankfully no infants or adults were harmed during the fainting spell!) I felt depleted but I thought it was just first trimester tiredness. I hadn’t put the pieces together yet, but the demands of nursing (at that point still four times a day) in addition to being pregnant were weighing heavily on my body.
As these feelings and this weariness lingered I mentioned it to my midwife at our 20 week appointment and she recommended I see a primary care provider to ensure everything was okay. I was also experiencing some odd shortness of breath and feelings of heart palpitations. I scheduled an appointment with a Naturopathic Doctor the next week.
Following my appointment, I felt seen, heard, validated and equipped with a few more tools to help get my feet back under me. This ND happened to be a married female and mother of two. I resonated with her and felt like I’d found a wise friend who understood pregnancy and breastfeeding and motherhood.
We went over my health history and recent labs together and I shared my midwife’s concern regarding the shortness of breath and heart palpitations. I shared that overall I felt good, but felt like I hovered right around “okay” and that it seemed I was never fully nourished on a nutrient and energy level. We talked more and she then asked when I had my last menstrual cycle. When I told her September 2017, nearly two and a half years before (miscarriage straight into another pregnancy and birth, straight into a third pregnancy), her eyes got wide and she said, “Oh I see!”
She proceeded to tell me that she thought most of what I was feeling was due to an overrun endocrine system and adrenal fatigue and recommended some adrenal support and iron. Oddly enough, I already had this in the back of my mind because my wise mother had given me similar tips just a week before. [Our thyroid and adrenals are closely related, and iron (specifically ferritin) helps disperse our thyroid hormones throughout the body.] The ND also recommended some good quality red meat twice a week (a stretch for someone who has been a vegetarian most of her life) for another source of ferritin, and told me that lamb and buffalo are great options that are easier to digest than beef. I’d been feeling like my digestion was a bit sluggish as well and like I wasn’t really absorbing the nutrients I was taking in, and the ND recommended some digestive herbal bitters and probiotic capsules.
I felt hopeful when I left my newfound doctor’s office and had such excitement recounting what I had learned to my husband that night. I thought that now that I was officially done nursing and had the advise of my midwife and an ND working for me, I’d finally feel some physical and inner balance again. I had no idea what was coming.
The very next week turned out to be one of the hardest weeks I’ve faced for quite some time. It was as though everything I had been struggling with for the past four months got turned up to BROIL. My energy levels tanked. My patience tanked. My emotions were haywire. I felt angry and triggered over the littlest things, which left me with feelings of guilt and self-loathing for being such a horrible person. What reason could I possibly find to be angry with my understanding husband and my sweet toddler? I had no idea what was going on. I cried myself to sleep three nights in a row during this week…that NEVER happens.
This is ultra dramatic…but I felt flawed to my core, hopeless, melancholy, depressed, in a pit with no way out. It was rough. I tried to talk it out with my husband each night, but just felt like I was wandering in circles. It felt like I had some hidden character flaw that had been lurking inside of me, just waiting to come out like a monster. I was disheartened. Auren was so kind through it all and the only thing that brought any kind of resolution was prayer, and trying to find a little grace for myself thinking it was just a weird wave of hormones from being 23 weeks pregnant. Granted, as I look back through my camera roll at the week we actually had, there were some beautiful and peaceful memories. I’m thankful for that. It was my internal dialog and struggle that was almost unbearable.
HERE’S MY TIMELINE:
- Friday 1/31/20 – 20 week ultrasound/midwife appointment. Down to nursing once a day in the mornings. Feeling a little “off,” midwife recommends I see a primary care physician.
- Friday 2/7/20 – Final nursing session with Libbi after cutting back to every other day for the final week. Emotionally processed the end of the beautiful season with my daughter.
- Thursday 2/13/20 – Met with Naturopathic Doctor and started taking adrenal cortex supplement, digestive bitters and probiotic.
- 3rd week of February – One of the most challenging, emotional and taxing weeks of my life. The climax of confusion and weariness.
- Saturday 2/22/20 – The dots connect! Finally uncovered that most of the above oddities and heaviness was caused by hormone changes due to WEANING.
- To add some hope…It’s been getting better ever since!
This dismal week (again, dramatic but true) came to an end and by Saturday evening after a restful day, I felt enough sanity and presence of mind to do a little research. I started researching what happens to a woman’s body during the weaning process. It was so obvious once I discovered it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t connected the dots.
I typed, “What happens to your body when you stop breastfeeding?” into the Google search bar. The information in the articles that surfaced floored me.
Our bodies must go through a number of physiological steps as we stop lactating. During my weaning process with Libbi, I was aware of the emotional side of stopping this sweet bonding time with my daughter and knew I needed to process the closing of a season, but I didn’t consider the physical side of what weaning would be like for my body beyond the thought that I could have some discomfort and maybe even some engorgement for a few days afterward. This was the first article I stumbled across and I felt SO SEEN. It’s a raw and comical explanation of what happens to your body during the weaning process. There is some language, but it just made sense to my half-crazed, desperate mind.
Here’s the skinny. When you give birth, there’s a sudden drop in estrogen and progesterone as soon as the baby and the placenta leaves your body. When you hold your baby, smell their head and bliss out over the beauty that is this little life that just came from you, oxytocin and prolactin levels skyrocket and those are the two magic hormones behind lactation.
Oxytocin is often nicknamed the “love or cuddle hormone” and has a calming and uplifting effect on the body and promotes a sense of well-being. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and discharged by the pituitary gland. Prolactin is a hormone produced in the pituitary gland and so named because of its primary roll in lactation. It is known to produce a feeling of contentedness. Every time a mother nurses her baby, there is a substantial release of oxytocin and prolactin throughout her body. Are you making the connection?
As you begin the weaning process and cut back on nursing/pumping sessions, or as your baby grows and their demand starts to slow, your body gets the message that you don’t need to produce as much milk and those happy hormone levels start to subside. Many women begin to feel a kind of emotional letdown wherein they feel less calm and less contented. As oxytocin, prolactin and progesterone drop, estrogen starts to increase.
These hormone shifts can trigger anything from an increased sex drive, the return of menstruation, sadness resulting from the change in the nursing relationship with your infant/toddler, headaches, anger, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, weight gain, skin changes, anxiety and/or depression (post-weaning depression). HEART PALPITATIONS! EXTREME FATIGUE! HELLO! Like a triple-edged sword I realized that my body had been trying to balance pregnancy, tired adrenals AND the hormone shift of weaning at the same time.
A text to my sister-in law at 11pm read: “Okay, it’s late for a text, but I’ve just been researching weaning and I’m not the only woman who has felt the swing of it. Not all women notice a change but even the shift created by not producing oxytocin or prolactin while nursing makes so much sense. Can’t believe I missed seeing or hearing about this anywhere. Like my word. Here’s to transitions and building back up again.” She replied…”See you’re not a crazy person!” What a relief.
By the way, not all women notice these hormonal shifts and I have many friends who appear to pass seamlessly through this transition.
Many women who exclusively breastfeed will not experience their menstrual cycle for months on end because the high prolactin levels needed for lactation subdue ovarian function. This is also why some women claim breastfeeding works as a natural birth control (not true in my case, haha). In the weaning process as prolactin levels drop, the ovaries begin to function and the cyclic period can then return along with normal symptoms of menstruation. In my research, I came across several stories of women who said it took months for their cycle to return to its pre-pregnancy regularity. Mamas, we need to have a TON of patience with ourselves while we are in this era of life. Grace upon grace for yourself, and do what you need to do to care for your mind, body and emotions. Little self-care habits like prayer, meditation, exercise and a nourishing diet will do a lot to bring sanity throughout these hormonally changing seasons.
Just as we prepare for the changes that pregnancy and breastfeeding will have on our body and hormones, so we need to prepare for weaning. Our bodies jump from producing enough milk to sustain the life of our baby, to drying up, and these changes can affect everything from our boobs to our brains.
WHAT I LEARNED FOR NEXT TIME:
Thankfully I wasn’t in a rush to wean my daughter and instinctively knew to drop one feeding at a time. I never attempted dropping more than one feeding per week. I often gave it 2-4 weeks after I had dropped a nursing session before I proceeded to drop yet another session. As I’ve studied, I’ve come across many recommendations from healthcare professionals that “slow and steady” is one of the best weaning approaches and can lead to a less abrupt shift in hormone levels and thus ease the symptoms many women experience during this process.
If possible, before we have our next baby, I want to be intentional about the weaning and then conception process. I now know I need a few months of space between nursing and pregnancy to replenish nutrient stores and allow my hormones to balance.
Also for next time…GRACE UPON GRACE. And whatever kind of self-care is necessary to keep mama sane during the transition. Don’t be too hard on yourself and over communicate with your partner and children so they understand what is going on. Bite your tongue if you can’t find anything nice to say and ASK FOR HELP. A solid nap (and a few tears) or some alone time to recharge, courtesy of a husband, grandparent or friend who is willing to watch the kids for a bit can work wonders. The hardest transition for me came a few weeks after we had weaned completely. And the crazy did pass eventually. In the scheme of things it was a short period. It’s not ALL bad. Look for the bright spots. Don’t dread it, just be aware. And if you’re one of the women who passes this zone without noticing, embrace that goodness too!
More power to you mamas!
Magon N and Kalra S. The Orgasmic History of Oxytocin: Love, Lust and Labor. 2011. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3183515/. Accessed April 2020.
Ramirez K. 13 Crazy Hormonal Affects Mom Experiences from Weaning. 2017. https://www.babygaga.com/13-crazy-hormonal-affects-mom-experiences-from-weaning/. Accessed April 2020.
Bonyata K. Sadness and Depression During (and After) Weaning. Kelly Mom. 2018. https://kellymom.com/ages/weaning/wean-how/depression-and-weaning/. Accessed May 2020.
Lachelle has a love for writing and holistic health. MBA, 500RYT Yoga Instructor, founder of Ello Lifestyle and Ello Candle Co., Lachelle spends most of her time as a wife and mother to two daughters, looking for ways to optimize health, create an efficiently running home, embrace the chaos, and pursue those things that make life feel enchanted.