Breastfeeding always comes to an end – at some point, every breastfed baby or child stops breastfeeding. This article looks at what happens after your toddler or older child weans,1 how it feels for you and what it might mean for you going forward.
Sometimes, because of difficulties, breastfeeding your baby comes to an end much earlier than you thought it would or than you had hoped for. And with that can come feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, hurt and disappointment. If you are currently struggling with breastfeeding ending earlier than you had hoped, we would encourage you to talk to someone – your local LLL Leader would be pleased to support you. You may also find this article of interest: Five ways to help when breastfeeding doesn’t go as expected. Amy Brown’s book Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter which explores the deep feelings women have when breastfeeding doesn’t go to plan, may also be helpful.
Will weaning happen?
What is certain is that all children stop breastfeeding eventually. Children outgrow breastfeeding on their own, just as they outgrow other toddler and young child behaviours. For many families, taking the approach of being led by your child works well and the transition from breastfeeding to no longer breastfeeding is uneventful. It may all feel less noticeable if weaning takes place slowly and gently.
This process of ‘natural weaning’ allows a child to develop at their own pace, giving up breastfeeding according to their own natural timing. Rather than choosing a specific time to stop breastfeeding, many mothers just continue nursing while it is working well for them and see how it goes. That might mean breastfeeding for years beyond what you expected as you first breastfed your newborn.
Once weaning has happened
If you are following your child’s lead, it is unlikely they will wean suddenly or overnight, especially if they are under one year old (see our article on Nursing Strikes if you are concerned this is happening). It is really common for the natural weaning process to take a long time and feel like a few steps forward and a few back. This can feel confusing at times.
It’s not uncommon for children to look like they are weaning, only to come back – often with renewed energy – to breastfeed when you least expect it or when you thought they had weaned. A new baby, an unsettled family time, a change in their days such as whenstarting preschool or school, or illness can often lead to an increase in breastfeeding just when you thought they were stopping. That can be unsettling if you are trying to decide if you are still breastfeeding or not – one day you might not be, and then the next you are again. One mother said: “I thought she was weaning and I was starting to feel the grief of it around three years old, but we are still going at four.”.
‘The Last Breastfeed’ might not be a significant event. For some, weaning happens so gradually, that suddenly you realise your child hasn’t asked to nurse for a while, and you can’t remember your last breastfeed – or at least, you didn’t know it was the last time.
This is often the time mothers wish they had captured more photographic memories of their toddler or child breastfeeding, not realising that soon it might be the last breastfeed. Taking photos of you and your child nursing can be really special, so you may want to consider taking more at this stage.
The topic of what it feels like after weaning isn’t talked about much and so you might be wondering if what you are feeling is normal. It almost always is.
For many, weaning is an emotional adjustment
As breastfeeding comes to end it can be an emotional time and mothers can experience a wide range of feelings. For some it might be a time of sadness – a sense of loss for the time that’s gone before and a sorrow that your special ‘baby days’ are passing and behind you. For others it might be a huge relief and a time you had longed for and thought would never come.
Or it might be a mix of both.
Perhaps one moment you may feel a sense of relief that the intensity of breastfeeding is passing and the next moment sad that this stage of motherhood is drawing to a close when it has been so important to you.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding says: “You may revel in your non-nursing status but also feel weepy or supersensitive for a time.”2
One mother described the time of her two year old weaning as a confusing time of feeling a sense of loss but also happiness: grief and relief. Another, as her four year old weaned, said that she was completely ready to stop (and was desperate to), but then realised it meant she had to redefine how she viewed herself as she always thought of herself as a breastfeeding mother.
This huge mix of emotions around your breastfeeding journey coming to an end is common. Especially if you worked so hard to make it happen in the early days. When breastfeeding has been such a central part of how you have mothered your child, it can feel like a new and perhaps uncertain stage.
Distress around weaning is more likely the earlier it happens, or where it happened before you wanted or had intended. Where weaning has happened very early on, mothers can be left with deep feelings of anger, grief, sadness and disappointment. Where weaning has happened suddenly, or has been stressful, it is more likely that the emotional impact may be greater. How old your child is when they wean may not be as important to how you feel about weaning, rather the sense that things ended well. As Diane Bengson says: “Mothers who wean gradually, or who feel that weaning happened at a time when both they and their child were ready, often feel peace and contentment when weaning is complete3
But even if you initiated weaning or encouraged your child to wean, you may still find moments of sadness. Even when weaning is a positive experience for both of you, ‘letting go’ can still feel emotional. Some mothers and parents describe it as nostalgia for the early times of breastfeeding your baby. Perhaps this is even more apparent if you know this is your last baby and you know you won’t be a nursing mother again.
If you felt that your child initiated weaning rather than you did, and it was sooner than you had hoped for, those feeling of sadness can be stronger. Or if your toddler or older child weaned quickly, you may feel a sense of hurt or rejection. In The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning, Kathleen Huggens says:“ Even if you had planned to wean soon, you may feel surprised and a little disappointed when your child rejects you in favour of a cup or bottle.”4
Or you may actually feel nothing but relief – that you are pleased to be moving on from the intensity of the early days and years and enjoying a sense of having your body back. You might be relieved to finally ditch your nursing bras and look forward to wearing clothes that no longer need easy access. You may find a sense of relief that you can sit down without being asked to nurse, and that maybe that intense need for you is easing a little – and that feels good.
The key is that whatever you are feeling emotionally about weaning – it’s normal. What one mother experiences won’t necessarily be the same as another. Talking about it with others who have weaned at LLL groups (in person or online), might help.
When weaning happens, there is also a physical and hormonal adjustment which, despite limited studies on the subject, seems to reflect across the experience of many. This adjustment can lead to a short time of feeling quite low, as your hormones settle down.
It can be really common to feel down or weepy – or even depressed – after weaning. And for some, the feelings are strong and may mean there is a sense of anxiety, insomnia, anger, swings between high and low moods. In part, this is because of hormonal changes happening in your body as you adjust to reducing, and then no longer, making milk or having the repeated closeness of your child at your breast. Your breasts may still continue to produce milk, but gradually they will stop and for some mothers it might be months before they can no longer squeeze a few drops out.
There is little research on the topic, but we know that the hormones so important in breastfeeding – prolactin (milk making hormone) and oxytocin (the hormone of love and responsible for the milk ejection reflex) – play an important role in how we feel emotionally. Both oxytocin and prolactin contribute to feelings of calm, love, relaxation, closeness and contentment. As breastfeeding ends, both prolactin and oxytocin levels will lower – and so may your mood and sense of wellbeing. It may last a few days, or it may go on for longer.
So if you are feeling low or weepy after weaning, it can be reassuring to know that it is likely that your body is also dealing with hormonal changes, as well as any emotions you may have around weaning. Even if you are totally at peace with weaning and know the time is right for you both, there are changes happening in your body that might have an impact on how you feel.
It has often been described as similar to how you feel hormonally as part of your menstrual cycle, but more intense and more long lasting. Others may go further and say that they feel really sad and depressed for a few weeks after weaning. Often your hormones settle within a few weeks and you and your child adjust to a new rhythm where breastfeeding is no longer part of your current story.
These feelings of sadness and general lowness that can happen after weaning are normally temporary. Being gentle and patient with yourself is important. If you have ongoing low mood or depression after the initial weeks, it may be helpful to talk to your GP.
How do I do ‘this’ without breastfeeding?
If your child has stopped breastfeeding gradually or they have led the weaning process, you may see this as all part of the bigger picture of watching your child grow into an independent little person. Your role of mothering ‘your baby’ is changing. Perhaps your child is spending longer away from you, may be sleeping longer or on their own, and maybe there is a sense that their need for you isn’t quite so intense. That can be both a relief and an adjustment.
You may feel proud of how they have grown and how much you have learnt about parenting through breastfeeding, but perhaps wonder what it means for you if you no longer have breastfeeding in the picture. Perhaps you are relieved that your breasts are no longer the focal point of your child’s day?
Where breastfeeding has been important to you both, it can sometimes feel a bit uncertain about how things might go without nursing as a go-to or back-up for when parenting is tricky. How will you get them back to sleep if they wake with a bad dream in the middle of the night? How will you calm them down when the emotional whirlwind takes over them? What will you do when they bump themselves? How will you get some extra time in bed in the morning if your breast no longer offers the oasis of calm it once did?
Often looking back at all your breastfeeding relationship gave you and your child, can help shape your ‘new’ picture of parenting without breastfeeding. Many mothers would say that breastfeeding their baby beyond babyhood is one of their proudest and greatest achievements. If that is the case, it might feel right to celebrate or mark the event in some way for you that feels significant – for both you and and your child. Be proud!
And if you are feeling low, or missing that physical closeness, sometimes finding other ways to connect on a physical level with your child can help. If your arms are feeling “empty” without your child nursing at the breast, cuddling lots, having baths together and playing physical games with them climbing on you or rolling around together, can help with getting a hormone boost. Simple cuddles and touch, or sniffing or nuzzling your child’s head, can work wonders for having a surge of oxytocin.
It’s likely your breasts and chest will be a special place for your child for a long time. Many mothers have commented how their older child still likes to place their head or hand near their breast, or when upset, will cuddle into a breastfeeding position without actually breastfeeding.
As you watch your child wean – be it entirely on their own, or with some gentle encouragement from you – you may find that you swing between various emotions and thoughts. Whether weaning passed uneventfully and feels like a natural end to your breastfeeding journey, or you found it an emotional and challenging time, looking back and acknowledging what you achieved and what you have given your child is something you can be rightly proud of.
Breastfeeding has taught you so much about recognising your child’s needs and emotions, their demands and their wants. Your ability to nurture them, to read their cues and respond to them hasn’t changed, but it might be that instead of offering the breast, you now meet those needs in different ways. And while your baby may no longer need comfort at your breast, they still need you.
Many mothers and parents look at their older children, even grown-up children, and know that the shape of their relationship has its foundation back in their nursing days. The closeness, understanding and connection that you grew together at the breast over the years, will continue – in new and different ways but shaped by your breastfeeding journey.
- Weaning here describes the process of stopping breastfeeding, not the introduction of family foods which takes place around the middle of your baby’s first year.
- La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th Edition, 2010: 337.
- Bengson, D. How weaning happens. La Leche League International, 2000: 137.
- Huggins, K and Ziedrich, L. The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning. 2007: 177.
Weaning: How to
Written by Justine Fieth, LLL Cambridge, October 2020.
Thanks to Ginnie Sullivan and the Leaders of LLL Cambridge for their help writing this.