Weaning blues. If postpartum depression weren’t enough, it’s also possible to have depression and mood shifts from weaning from breastfeeding. During breastfeeding, oxytocin, the cuddle or love hormone, is released every time milk lets down. This feel good hormone helps reduce the risk of post partum depression and aids in bonding with baby. Prolactin, the hormone that actually makes the milk, also brings a feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation. There is very little research on the subject, but it’s hypothesized that when you wean, the decrease in prolactin and oxytocin can make some feel moodiness, sadness or even anger. The faster the weaning process the more abrupt the shift in hormone levels, and the more likely that you will experience feelings such as being tearful, sad or mildly depressed. Some also experience irritability, anxiety, or mood swings. These feelings are usually short-term and often go away in a few weeks. Dropping no more than one feeding per week is a gentle way to wean and adjust to shifting hormones. People who are forced to wean before they are ready (or for reasons beyond their control) and those with a history of depression are also more likely to experience depression after weaning. Even for those who are ready to wean and doing so gradually, there may still be a sense of loss and sadness. Your breastfeeding relationship has been a major part of your parenting journey and it is understandable that you’ll feel a wide range of emotions.
Did you know that you will ALWAYS be able to make milk? You’ve had the milk making glands in your breasts since puberty. They’re like little empty clusters of balloons at the back of the breast. Pregnancy activates your milk making hormones, allowing the glands to expand and start filling with milk between 16-20 weeks gestation. In the early days after birth, the more stimulation the breast has (from feeding or pumping), the more the milk making glands and their corresponding hormone receptors multiply. The milk balloons fill and empty milk multiple times per feeding.
After at least 40 days of not expressing any milk, once you completely wean, your milk making balloons deflate and become dormant, like before pregnancy. But they aren’t dead. Pregnancy and breastfeeding hormones caused a permanent change in your body. Your milk making glands will FOREVER remember how to make milk. They can ALWAYS make milk again, no matter how long it has been. They just need enough of the right stimulation to turn on and start filling again. Some times years after breastfeeding a mother may feel the tingle of let down if she hears a baby cry. Or she may leak if her partner does enough nipple stimulation. There are grandmothers in other cultures who bring back milk to breastfeed their grandchildren! Our bodies are AMAZING!! Now you know!
Natural weaning is the biological process of gradually decreasing milk supply as baby gets older. This process starts around 7-9 months as baby takes more solid foods and progresses toward sleeping longer stretches at night. It ends when baby finally weans (which may not be until 2-3 years old!!). Natural weaning doesn’t mean that you need to wean baby from the breast. Decreasing milk supply doesn’t mean you’re at risk of losing your supply, either. Your breast is designed to match the stage of development your baby is in.
Milk supply iss highest from month 1-6 when baby is going through multiple growth spurts. They need to double their birth weight by 6 months. Milk is also the only food in their diet. Therefore, your milk supply is supposed to be at its highest to meet their nutritional needs. From 6-12 months, weight gain slows but their need for milk volume needs remain stable. It is natural as baby transitions from a full milk diet to a milk+solids diet to then a solids+milk diet that breast milk supply will shift along with it. Your milk supply varies compared to baby’s solids intake and there is a wide range of normal based on your individual baby. Some babies love solids and eat them in large quantities many times a day. Other babies continue on a mostly milk diet until almost 1 year. At 12 months, milk finally takes a back seat to solids, but still fills in nutritional gaps and acts like medicine against illness. From 12 months on there continues to be a wide range of normal for milk supply depending on your child’s eating and feeding habits. Some babies continue to nurse occasionally over night while others seem to become boob barnacles again and would happily stay on the breast all day, every day.
So what does this mean? If you’re exclusively breastfeeding you may not notice anything. You can continue to bring baby to breast for as long and often as baby wants. You may notice baby spacing out feedings or not nursing as long. They may want the breast more when teething or going through growth spurts or developmental leaps. They have days with little interest in the breast.
Moms who pump (either exclusively or because of work) report overflowing milk in the early weeks, often able to pump 4-6 or even 8-10 ounces in a morning pump session. By 4 months supply regulates and mom gets about 3-5 ounces per pump in place of a feeding. By 9 or 10 months it can feel like your trying to wring out a wet rag to get even 2-4 ounces a pump session. As long as baby has unrestricted access to the breast when your not working and you still have a regular pump routine in place no intervention is usually needed. Every journey is supposed to look different because it is your unique journey.