Breastfeeding is complicated. If you do decide to do it, there’s a lot to consider. Will you exclusively breastfeed? How will you deal with its impact on your relationship and on your body? How long will you do it? And what happens to your body when you do eventually decide to wean your baby?
Leigh Anne O’Connor is a board-certified lactation consultant who has coached many folks through the process of weaning. She says that one of the factors determining how your body reacts to weaning is whether you do it quickly or slowly. When it’s quick, for example, O’Connor says you might experience dramatic hormonal shifts, which can manifest in anxiety and even a miniature bout of postpartum depression. (This is usually short-lived and can depend on your previous experience with PPD.)
Your breasts can change shape, in both size and appearance, because you’re still producing milk while weaning, and you might experience discomfort as well as medical issues such as blocked ducts. Avoid breast binding, says O’Connor. It can exacerbate the blocked ducts and also lead to mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue that can occur when bacteria from the baby’s mouth, enters a milk duct through a crack in the nipple. A supportive bra, however, is a must during weaning, and you can also take painkillers like ibuprofen to mitigate the pain from engorgement, which will go away if you avoid stimulating your breasts.
As a lactation consultant, O’Connor asks people about why they’ve made the decision to wean. “People say, ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘Someone told me I needed to.'” She advises people not to think of breastfeeding as all or nothing. “You don’t have to stop because you’re going back to work,” she says. “You can still do it some of the time, just at night or in the morning if that’s become part of your ritual.”
There’s a lot of judgment in deciding to continue breastfeeding past a certain point. It is O’Connor's belief that it’s both normal and appropriate for 2-year-olds to nurse. In other words, you don’t have to rush weaning if you feel it’s not right for you and your baby.
“There’s this cultural norm that says bodies have to go back to being sexual immediately after birth and stop being maternal," she says. "We don’t understand that a body can be both.”
And if breastfeeding isn't for you or you'd like to start to wean earlier rather than later, that's normal and appropriate too.
Jessica, who lives in Wisconsin, has two boys, each of whom she weaned at different speeds. Her first son was weaned at 18 months, “basically overnight,” she says. Upon reflection, quick weaning worked well for her.
“My sex drive was super-high [and] I lost all the baby weight just by eating healthy and moving around as usual,” she explains. She weaned her second son, who’s now 2 years old, over a period of six months, which was a very different experience. Her sex drive virtually disappeared (as well as her ability to orgasm), she gained weight, she felt much more anxiety, and her marriage was also under stress.
“It wasn’t right for me. I should have been done,” says Jessica, who recommends that weaning be introduced at night when you are likely waking up to nurse. “I felt like a milkmaid after a while, like I’d lost my sense of self. You have to go with your gut and not be afraid to say no. Your kids aren’t going to be traumatized if you stop. They’ll turn out fine.”
The moral of the story is that like breastfeeding itself, weaning is a personal process you should do when it feels right and works for you — regardless of society's standards.
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