One of the less talked about subjects in motherhood is what happens to your mind and body once you wean your baby from breastfeeding. Imagine all the changes your body went through in order to grow a baby and then nurse it. Now try to think of those changes in reverse. Your brain is getting the signal now that there is no longer offspring suckling so there is no need to make milk anymore. Sounds simple, right? It’s not so simple when you consider the hormones associated with lactation and reproduction. That’s right, I said reproduction. Why are we talking about reproduction? Once you have weaned, not only is your body decreasing the hormones responsible for lactation, it is also increasing the ones responsible for reproduction.
Feelings of Depression, Anxiety and Stress
Two key hormones that aid in milk production and nursing are getting the signal to decrease back to pre-pregnancy/pre-lactation levels. These two hormones are prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin is responsible for making milk but it also creates feelings of calmness and joy. Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is released while nursing and the brain signals the body to make and keep stores of it while mother is still breastfeeding. Once she has stopped, the stores decrease back to pre-pregnancy/pre-lactation levels. Without continuous doses of these two hormones, you may have feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.
Another hormone worth mentioning here is relaxin. It is mostly known for the physical changes it causes in the body. This hormone is also decreasing to pre-pregnancy/pre-lactation levels. It is proposed to modulate emotional-behavioral functions such as arousal and behavioral activation, appetite regulation, stress responses, anxiety, memory, sleep and circadian rhythm. Adjusting relaxin back to normal level can make one feel upside down.
Basically, these three hormones turn you in to a temporary super human so you can grow and feed your baby (and be pretty darn happy about it) and when you are done they go back to normal human levels.
Feelings of the Old You
Feeling feisty at times? Feeling your sex drive has increased? But then also feeling like PMS is back stronger than normal? You can blame it on your reproduction hormones coming back in full force. Even if you’ve had your period back for months, if you were still nursing then you still had adequate amounts of lactation hormones suppressing reproduction hormones.
Once completely weaned, estrogen increases and/or is no longer suppressed by breastfeeding and pregnancy hormones. It has a broadly positive effect on mood and serotonin levels. It is back in full force now for the first two weeks of your cycle. Depending on how long you were in the pregnant or breastfeeding stages and how suddenly you weaned, this comeback can be intense! Be prepared for increased sex drive leading up to ovulation.
The downside to being your old reproductive self is PMS. The last two weeks of your cycle are flooded with progesterone which can have a depressing effect on mood. Progesterone is also responsible for triggering the amygdala, the part of your brain that responds to cues in the environment. So, you are more likely to feel stressed.
These hormones are nothing new to your body and it’s perfectly normal to go back to reproductive mode. As always, if weaning is sudden, the comeback will be more intense than if weaning was gradual.
Muscle, Ligaments and Connective Tissue
Mothers are often told to take it easy after giving birth but there is very little discussion on the two key hormones that cause your body to be unstable and stretchy. Relaxin and prolactin, which were discussed earlier for their help with lactation, are also responsible for ligament laxity. They are responsible for making your ligaments, muscle and connective tissue more stretchy and flexible, primarily in the pelvic floor! This can be very helpful for getting that baby through the birth canal but it can cause you to leak pee when laughing or sneezing or jumping on a trampoline. I have found very little research on these hormone levels in mothers who have weaned. Some studies have shown that there are elevated levels in the mother up until 6 months after completely weaning!
When the weaning process has begun, mothers are likely to have engorgement for the first few days. Only stimulation will keep this rebounding engorgement. Next, the breast will soften back up and deflate. Deflating is most likely from a temporary loss of fat. The fat moves out of the breasts to make room for ducts and milk. At about 6 months of being completely weaned, the fat has returned and breast are back to life as much as they will be anyway. Extra milk is absorbed into the body. You may feel solid lumps during the weaning process and it’s completely normal. The cells that were responsible for aiding in milk supply switch gears and begin to break down the leftover milk. This can take several months.
Since progesterone is back in full force and is responsible for oil production in your skin, you can expect the normal breakout right before your period. Oxytocin has decreased and without it suppressing cortisol, your stress level can increase, causing breakouts as well.
During a mother’s breastfeeding journey, it has been found that approximate 5-10% of the calcium from their bones goes to their milk! Once the mother has weaned, the body puts it back into your bones and sometimes puts even more back than it originally had. Studies have shown that the more children a mother has, the stronger her bones are, simply because of this process.
Tips for a better weaning process
The best tip for weaning is to make it gradual. If the process has at least 6 months from starting weaning to completely weaning then the changes will feel gradual and not sudden. Although these changes can be overwhelming, it helps to know that we were remarkably and purposefully made to endure them in this journey called motherhood.
Blog submitted by WarmLine Member Natalie Garrett