By Shel Franco
Whether your child is 2 months old or 2 years old, weaning from the breast is a big deal. If you’re like most mothers, you hash and re-hash the best time and the best way to bring an end to this intimate relationship. While you concentrate on how to prepare your child, don’t overlook the impact that weaning will have on you.
“Most women find that their breasts look and feel kind of ‘empty’ and saggy for about six months after weaning.”
What that impact will be depends a lot upon where you are in your breastfeeding relationship, where you want to be and how you intend to get there. “The mother who has a baby who is nursing frequently and has a large supply built up will have more physical problems with abrupt weaning than the mother whose baby is only nursing once or twice a day and has a low supply to begin with,” says Anne Smith, a lactation consultant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Mary Jane Hoover, of Rochester, New York, once wore bras with tags that read 36C. Through the course of breastfeeding several children, her breast size has decreased considerably. “I now have 34AA,” she says.
Before drawing the conclusion that breastfeeding caused this alteration in breast size, Jana McCarthy, a lactation consultant in Lake Forest, California, points out that breast changes have more to do with a woman’s overall fat loss or gain before, during and after pregnancy and nursing. This can be easily illustrated by the fact that many bottle-feeding mothers experience changes in breast size.
McCarthy adds, “Most women find that their breasts look and feel kind of ‘empty’ and saggy for about six months after weaning.” She also notes that the majority of women eventually return to their normal breast size.
And what about body size? Breastfeeding mothers are inundated with information that says nursing burns extra calories and helps trim back those extra pregnancy pounds. Once you wean, are you doomed to gain back those inches?
“I breastfed all four of my children,” says Sharon Waldrop, of Crestline, California. “Within a month of weaning each one, I lost 20 pounds, bringing me back to my pre-pregnancy weight.” But before you go getting all excited over the idea of losing 20 pounds, think again. Some women actually gain weight after weaning.
“Weight changes are dependent on a lot of factors,” says McCarthy. “Just stopping breastfeeding, by itself, may not affect weight at all. But [a woman] may increase her activity, in which case she’d probably lose weight, or she may continue eating more calories, in which case she may gain weight.”
Hormones Numbers on the scale aren’t the only thing that you might find going up and down with weaning. “There is a hormone change,” says McCarthy. “Therefore, it can affect your moods. How much is very much dependent on the woman herself and why she’s weaning. Women who want to wean seem to adjust better than those who are weaning against their will.”
Add to this the possibility that your period may return after a several-month-long hiatus, and you could be in for a real roller coaster ride. To help cope, “Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, keeping a good diet and taking vitamins,” says McCarthy.
Any pain and discomfort of weaning is almost always due to engorgement. But according to McCarthy, it doesn’t have to be this way. “If you wean slowly, [engorgement] shouldn’t be a problem,” she says.
Remember, the younger your child is, the more likely he or she is to nurse frequently throughout the day and possibly the evening. If you decide to just stop breastfeeding, your body will need some time to turn off the “faucets.” As a result, you will continue to produce large quantities of milk that now have no place to go. Your breasts will hold as much milk as they possibly can, they will most likely become hard to the touch, and soon, pain will be a very real occurrence.
On the flip side, if your baby or toddler is only nursing once or twice a day, your breasts are already producing a smaller amount of milk. Completely weaning, at this point, would not yield nearly as much storage of excess milk. And chances are, you would close this chapter of your life with nary a twinge of physical pain. Now, the emotional pain is quite the other matter.