I am happily a part of a quartet of mom friends. We’ve known each other for over twenty years and had our individual paired subgroups amongst us. By mere chance the quartet evolved this year and we have become really close. The new dynamic has kept us sane and created what has essentially become a relief valve.
Among the four of us, we have seven children and counting. And all of us breastfed. The length of time varied, as well as whether we did it exclusively. But there is consensus among us that breast is best. The newfound intimacy of the group allows for candid discussions of topics about every imaginable topic under the sun.
Breastfeeding made its way into the group discussion. One of us is still breastfeeding. The toddler is almost three years old. The topic has come up before where we’ve joked about how our very talkative toddler articulates very clearly where and when she wants her breasts. The follow up is usually someone in the group asking why she’s still being breastfed. Once again, we encourage a safe space with complete candor. All is fair game.
Upon further dissection, it became clear that the toddler wasn’t the one holding on, it was mom. This was indeed a new phenomenon. It was clear that the child didn’t pine for the breast and there would be no trauma attached to weaning her. So, what exactly was going on with mom? In her own words, she identified three areas.
Mom was not psychologically ready to let go. She and her husband have decided not to have more kids, so she sees this as her very last breastfeeding experience. The feeling existed that this is virtually the end of her fertility and it is akin to being almost menopausal. The biology of this is of course untrue, but that does nothing to stop the feelings. Her mind has basically linked the end of breastfeeding to her loss of fertility.
Weaning of the last child signifies the end of an era. The child now asserts more independence and mom now feels almost useless. There was unimaginable pride in being able to exclusively feed her child for more than one year. Then to continue that practice for almost three years. Breastfeeding her child provided a sense of exclusivity. This was something that she alone could do. Their very own elite club of two, mom and baby.
Many moms will speak to the emotional connection that occurs during breastfeeding. The act of cradling your infant and feeding while gazing into their eyes. Intimacy has no greater definition. It is said often that the mother-child bond is like no other. This is a lifelong bond, but grieving the end of breastfeeding is more common than known.
After having this conversation, and with breastfeeding week on the horizon, I decided to do some research. Surprisingly, there is very little scientific and medical research about the topic. “It really hasn’t been explored very well,” said Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders in Chapel Hill. Meltzer-Brody’s research has explored the emotional fallout of undesired weaning. “Like many issues that fall under women’s health, there has been inadequate research,” she said. Most of what is out there is shared experiences and anecdotal. For all intents and purposes, the condition is referred to as depression after weaning and weaning anxiety. I definitely believe my friend has the anxiety portion. While in her case it may not be a mental health crisis, it is important that her feelings be labelled and given credibility.
The biology behind the emotions of breastfeeding is solid. According to Sarah Hart-Unger, a Pediatric Endocrinologist in Florida, “While a woman is breastfeeding, prolactin (which is responsible for milk production) is high, and this suppresses levels of estradiol (AKA estrogen) and progesterone,” says Hart-Unger. “Some say there is a calming effect from the combination of high prolactin and low progesterone.” The corresponding expectation is that after the cessation of breastfeeding, hormonal changes will cause changes in moods, anxiety and even depression.
The quartet was able to provide support in this instance, as it has done in the past and will continue too do. But many women don’t have support and are clueless to what is happening to them.
Identifying weaning depression and anxiety is of course the first step. Having more moms sharing their experiences will hopefully increase awareness and trigger more formal research of the area. Anything from extreme sadness to panic attacks and insomnia is a sign and symptom. Mood swings after weaning is a biological expectation. Weaning moms can be on the look out for if these emotional shifts in case they become extreme and seek help. Often just being aware that there may be a problem can make a huge difference.
Having the knowledge that it exists isn’t enough. Moms need to know what to do. If you’re planning to wean soon, take it in stages. Ease both you and baby into this new phase of life. This will cushion the blow for baby and the grieving process for mom. For the moms currently weaning and suffering from anxiety, find support. My friend has us, the quartet. Find your group, your tribe. The support makes the difference. Also make an extra effort to take care of yourself. Fresh air and long walks, a balanced diet, or a new self-fulfilling hobby will definitely help. Remember also that physical contact with the toddler and other family members like cuddling is scientifically proven to help by raising oxytocin levels. This will in turn will lift your mood.
If none of that works, seek professional help. The best mom is a healthy mom. That includes mental health. So, as we celebrate breastfeeding week, I encourage you to look closer at your breastfeeding friends. Firstly, remember that the decision to breastfeed or not, and the length of time is a personal and private decision. Your job as a friend is to support regardless. Do not downplay the anxiety of the mom who is trying to wean her child. Her emotions are real and valid. Be her haven. Be a mom friend.