baby eating adult food

The emotional preparation mothers can do before starting the weaning process

Often when we think about weaning, we only focus on the logistical side of the process. The truth is, there is—or should be—a fair amount of emotional preparation before a mother starts to wean her baby because like most things in motherhood, everyone has a different experience. Some moms have described weaning as an emotional roller coaster they weren’t expecting, while others find it liberating to be done and feeling more like themselves again. Here’s what our friends at The Haven Group had to say about the emotional preparation that goes into weaning, and how to identify if you’re experiencing any side effects commonly associated with perinatal mood disorders.

At what age should mothers start weaning their child from breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is such a personal decision and journey, so there’s really no age by which weaning should begin. For many families, the physical and/or emotional benefits can last for the first few years, so we encourage those families to continue breastfeeding for as long as they feel is appropriate and healthy. We’ve also worked with plenty of families for whom the benefits of breastfeeding were outweighed by the physical and/or emotional toll it took on the mothers or babies. As is the case with so many parenting decisions, there’s no “one size fits all” policy. Some moms wean at two months and some at three years. Other babies will self-wean.

Is there anything mothers can do to emotionally prepare themselves for weaning?

Going into weaning knowing that there may be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster is important because both the hormonal and emotional shifts can catch women off guard. The hormonal shift that comes along with weaning will improve with time, although it can be hard to wait until things feel normal again. Women can help to prepare themselves emotionally by recognizing the emotional impact that breastfeeding has on her—it may help her feel more connected to her baby, it may give her a sense of purpose, it may also be a relief for some women to have reached this point! It’s also important to recognize that there may be some ambivalent feelings about stopping. For some women, it may be helpful to identify other ways that those needs are already met or find new ways to meet those needs. Talking with friends who have had similar experiences or joining online forums can be helpful so you know what you might expect.

What are some of the emotional side-effects women can experience when weaning their child, and at what point in the process do they normally experience them?

For some women, emotional side-effects can begin with just the thought of weaning. For others, they don’t kick in until the weaning process has ended, or even after. We recommend that women take it slowly in order to allow for a gradual transition, both physically and emotionally. 

Some of the symptoms that women experience are:

  • Sadness
  • Feelings of loss
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties with sleeping

Please keep in mind that not all women experience negative emotional side-effects from weaning. Every woman has her own experience, and there is no right or wrong way to feel before, during, or after weaning!

Can you share a story or example of someone who struggled with weaning?

We recently worked with a client whose baby began to self-wean at 10 months. This client had anticipated breastfeeding for a longer period of time, so it was surprising for her when her child began turning down feedings. She had a lot of shame and guilt around what she was doing “wrong”. She also had ambivalent feelings about stopping—there was definitely some relief for her that the journey was ending. We worked with her to process these feelings and accept ALL of them as normal and valid. This client had an immense feeling of loss once the weaning process was completed, and we supported her in finding new rituals to experience with her child that would provide her with some of the same touchpoints she felt had been removed. She was able to create cuddle/story time each day that helped create a similar kind of moment for her, and that was very helpful. In addition, she felt like her hormonal changes were causing physical symptoms that affected her emotional well-being, so we helped refer her to a functional medicine doctor that explored some nutritional and vitamin supplementation to support those changes.

Are women who experienced prenatal depression/anxiety or PPD/PPA more susceptible to the emotional rollercoaster that can come with weaning?

There are so many factors that can contribute to the emotional rollercoaster that sometimes comes with weaning. We can’t say that any one of them will definitely indicate concerns about emotional responses to weaning, however, if hormone regulation impacted a mother’s moods in the postpartum period, it is possible that hormone changes could impact her again as a result of weaning. Many times, we see clients who rely on breastfeeding as a grounding attachment experience through the hardship of a perinatal mood disorder. So when weaning occurs, the weight of that feeding relationship ending is perhaps more intense than for other moms. If women who experience PPD/PPA are able to work through their depression and/or anxiety and develop coping skills, they will be better prepared for the potential emotional challenges of weaning.

What should you do if you recognize these signs and symptoms in yourself or someone you know, and when should you seek help?

Looking at more challenging signs and symptoms around weaning is not dissimilar to assessing for signs of perinatal mood disorders. If you or someone you love is having trouble sleeping, noticing a change in appetite, unable to complete normal daily activities, experiencing increased anxiety, or having periods of unexplained weepiness for more than several weeks, it is probably time to reach out for greater support. We encourage women to talk to their OB-GYN or midwife and ask for a possible referral to a mental health professional. There is no shame in seeking help!

What advice can you give mothers who are experiencing sadness, depression, irritability or anxiety during weaning, and are there any resources they can utilize?

There is often a grieving period, as this can feel like a big loss for many women. Take the time to grieve the loss of this part of your life and your baby’s life, and please don’t judge yourself for needing to do so! It’s important to honor this transition and to take advantage of the new ways that your baby needs you. Stimulating oxytocin can jumpstart your hormones getting back on track. It’s a great excuse to spend extra time snuggling with your kiddos and/or partner. Keeping a routine can also help with regulating your body. Be sure that your sleep, eating, and exercise habits are healthy—it will make a difference!

How can the people around you support you?

People around you can help by making sure that your basic, non-breastfeeding related needs are met so you can focus on your physical and emotional health. This may include errands, bringing over meals, taking your other child(ren) for a few hours, holding the baby so you can nap, etc. It may also be helpful for certain people around you to spend time talking with you about your experience, especially if they have also experienced weaning.

How do you prolong nursing when you don’t feel supported by your spouse?

It’s important to explore the differences of opinion about prolonging nursing. We’d recommend discussing both your and your spouse’s feelings about nursing in general and about the length of time that’s healthiest for you and your family. Talking about it with outside professionals such as lactation consultants and pediatricians may also be helpful in order to provide some psychoeducation that the spouse may need. If you and your spouse are having a difficult time finding a middle ground, couples counseling may be beneficial, as there could be bigger issues at play.

Based in Chicago, The Haven Group offers a range of support services for family members. From the early stages of family planning through the transitions into new roles and dynamics, The Haven Group aims to provide comprehensive care that goes beyond the range of a typical mental health professional. As therapists in addition to former birth and postpartum doulas, the clinicians at The Haven Group have unique perspectives on the challenges that women and their families can face in the prenatal and postpartum periods. Through counseling services, The Haven Group strives to assist individuals and families in identifying and managing any areas of new or changing family issues that may be challenging.

For more information about The Haven Group, please contact Jenny and Amanda at info@havengroupchicago.com.