Merriam Webster defines the verb “wean” as “to accustom (a young child or animal) to take food otherwise than by nursing.”
The use of the word “accustom” implies a process rather than an abrupt movement. This couldn’t be more accurate in terms of what is best for Mom and Baby. The more gradual, the better.
First taste to last sip
The true start of weaning is always the moment a child takes a first taste of food other than breastmilk — be it sweet potato puree, supplemental formula or frosting on the first birthday cupcake. That first taste is the first step to becoming accustomed to taking food otherwise than by nursing.
With this in mind, many parents start the weaning process without even realizing it’s happening. This is a good thing!
This is an individual, instinctive dance and it’s different for each family and baby. The catalyst often comes from the wisdom of Baby, reaching for your food or moving his mouth as you eat.
While some moms do get a little emotional about that first taste of “something” other than breastmilk, the real emotional upheaval comes with the last nursing session, which also might float by unceremoniously — because you may not know it’s the last.
Highs and lows
Breastfeeding is a continuation of the symbiosis of pregnancy. As with the development of the placenta and the first signs of labor, hormones are responsible for making breastfeeding work.
While several hormones come to play in the breastfeeding dance, the two big ones are oxytocin and prolactin. I describe them as “big” because they have powerful, positive side effects.
Prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production, also puts the mother in a mellow, patient mood. Biology is pretty cool. A calm breastfeeding mom transfers that feeling of calm to Baby!
Oxytocin, responsible for milk ejection, is often called “the love hormone” and brings about the sweet, tender feelings a mom gets while feeding her baby. It’s that natural high we get when we hold hands with a loved one, hug an old friend or experience an orgasm with a loving partner.
The breastfeeding mother is absolutely flooded with oxytocin at very high levels.
Of course, that which goes up must come down. Weaning often brings about a massive hormonal crash that can cause weepiness, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, low libido … or all of the above.
This can happen to any breastfeeding mother, but the crash is more significant in abrupt weaning and when the nursing duo typically has more than two feeding sessions per day.
Weaning, particularly abrupt weaning, may also lead to breast engorgement, plugged ducts and mastitis. Because you don’t want to encourage milk production, minimal expression of the milk should be done during weaning — just enough to release uncomfortable fullness.
Hot showers and warm compresses encourage natural milk flow; cool compresses relieve the pain.
Cold cabbage leaves are a traditional remedy for painfully engorged breasts, as the cabbage contains an amino acid which possibly acts as an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant, increasing blood flow to the area and thus milk flow. Whether or not this is true, many moms find the cool, dry cabbage leaf to be soothing.
Never bind your breasts. This is outdated and can lead to clogged pores, ducts and mastitis.
Healthy moms hurt less
Help for hormonal woes and engorgement comes best the old-fashioned way: Take impeccable care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, live well and ask for help if you need it. Hormones balance best with a diet that’s low in sugar and high in protein and healthy fats. Leafy greens and B-vitamins boost health and lower stress. Stress is a hormone disrupter, so do what you can to minimize it.
Again, all of the bummer moods and symptoms of weaning are less severe when weaning happens gradually, which usually means cutting one nursing session every few weeks.
I also recommend tuning into other oxytocin sources — your partner, your pet and all the many ways other than breastfeeding that you remain close and connected to your child, including hugs and snuggles galore.
The oxytocin found in these connections won’t come in a rush or a jolt, as with breastfeeding, but if you nurture these channels, you may find that a steady stream of the love hormone will keep you afloat.
It’s also a great idea to feel the wide spectrum of feelings — the elation, the freedom, the heartbreak, the exhaustion. Cry, scream, kick, sigh, laugh.
Weaning is just one of the many moments in parenthood where you will let go and move forward. It is, by nature, bittersweet.
Jen Wittes is a marketing director, writer, certified postpartum doula and mom of two who lives in St. Paul.