These days, the majority of moms who are pregnant plan on breastfeeding. The rates of breastfeeding initiation in the United States are at record highs, which is great news for new mothers and their babies. This is, in large part, because we have so much more knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding than we did in the past.
But that doesn’t mean that breastfeeding is easy—for many moms, navigating how to feed a baby can be a source of incredible stress. We spend a lot of time helping people to get started with breastfeeding—but what about when people are ready to stop breastfeeding?
Weaning from breastfeeding, whether due to a breastfeeding challenge or because the time has simply come to stop can come with a lot of emotions. You may find that you’re relieved and excited, but it’s also normal to feel sad.
So let’s talk about why weaning from breastfeeding can make you sad, and some ways to feel better.
Why people may start weaning from breastfeeding
Problems that can result in not being able to breastfeed (or having to wean earlier than anticipated) include:
- Difficulty with latching
- Persistent pain while feeding
- Problems with milk supply
- Inadequate time for maternity leave
- Lack of support
And again, it may be that you have simply reached the time when you have decided to stop breastfeeding.
“I can’t breastfeed, and I feel like a failure”
Let me be very clear about this: You are not a failure—not even close. This is incredibly difficult, and it’s so essential that you realize that you are a wonderful mother, even if you can’t breastfeed. Be gentle with yourself.
People who can’t breastfeed, or who have to stop breastfeeding earlier than anticipated, may have mental health impacts—many new mothers have experienced this. Research has shown that weaning from breastfeeding can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and failure, and can also trigger postpartum depression (PPD). Let’s dive into why this happens (and then what to do about it).
Understanding mental health when we wean from breastfeeding
It’s important for new moms to understand the basic physiology of breastfeeding and milk production to appreciate the relationship between weaning and mental health. Much like pregnancy and birth, weaning from breastfeeding is associated with huge hormonal shifts.
During weaning, oxytocin and prolactin, the two main hormones involved in milk production, decrease and levels of estrogen increase. Oxytocin, a “feel good” hormone that promotes feelings of calmness and peace, is important for overall well-being and bonding with your baby. Prolactin also improves your mood by decreasing feelings of stress and anxiety.
When levels of oxytocin and prolactin drop during weaning, you may experience sadness and depression, and even start to withdraw from your babies and loved ones. Some moms also experience anxiety, irritability, rage, and PMS-like symptoms as a result of the hormonal shifts associated with halting breastfeeding.
Here are 7 ways to monitor and care for your mental health while you wean from breastfeeding:
1. Acknowledge your feelings of sadness, disappointment, guilt, and shame as you grieve the loss of the breastfeeding relationship that you had hoped for, or as you say goodbye to your breastfeeding journey. Talk about how you’re feeling with loved ones and allow yourself to lean on them as you process what has happened and figure out the “next steps” of how to feed your baby.
2. Connect with other moms who have had similar breastfeeding experiences. These may include friends, neighbors, co-workers, doulas and/or women you have met in support groups for new mothers.
3. Help yourself come to terms with the fact that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to weaning. Allow yourself to wean slowly, if possible, to prevent major hormonal shifts. Some women who wean might still nurse their babies 1 to 2 times per day for several months, and this is totally okay if it’s something you desire to do. There is not a “right” or “wrong” way to stop breastfeeding!
4. Spend as much quality time as you can cuddling and snuggling with your baby. This will help you continue to bond with your baby and the hormones produced while holding your baby, which include oxytocin, can help you feel better.
5. Brainstorm ways to practice self-care. Some recommended ideas for self-care for new moms include getting outside for walks, listening to music, taking a long bath, meditating, and getting a massage. Ask others for help so you can make time to take care of yourself.
6. Remind yourself to focus on and appreciate all of the ways that you are a “good mother.” And remember that your baby loves you, and is going to thrive, no matter how he or she is fed.
7. Monitor yourself closely for any symptoms of depression and ask your loved ones who see you regularly to do the same. These include persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite, and/or rejecting your baby. If you or a loved one notices you’re showing any worrisome signs of postpartum depression, get evaluated by a mental health professional as soon as possible.
It’s important for all moms to recognize the significant impact of weaning on mental and emotional health and well-being. Some mothers who stop breastfeeding may feel like they have “failed” or are “bad mothers,” which can lead to a rapid decline in mental health. If you’re a new mama in this situation, you need to regularly check-in with yourself, be honest about your feelings with loved ones and medical professionals and seek perinatal mental health care if necessary. Access to mental health specialists and support from loved ones are essential when you stop breastfeeding, no matter how far along you are in your postpartum journey when you wean and the reasons that you have to wean.