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Will weaning hurt? I’m ready to stop breastfeeding, but I’m scared! Babble.com’s Parental Advisory.

I’m having a really hard time finding any good info on what happens when you wean. What does it feel like? Does it hurt? I’ve heard it’s kind of emotional for the mom? I’ve been breastfeeding for over a year and may be going through this soon, but I’m nervous. – Drying Up Is Hard to Do

Dear Drying,

Weaning will probably not top your list of fun experiences, but it’s not necessarily something to dread. Generally, the more suddenly you stop, the more likely you are to have a hard time physically. It’s simple, really: your breasts will keep making milk for any feedings you’ve cut out for at least several days before production slows down. The pressure of the milk from one missed feeding will be a lot more manageable than the pressure of ten missed feedings.

Unless you wean super-duper slowly and are making very little milk by the time you quit completely, you will experience a certain amount of breast pain when you wean. This feeling of fullness and/or engorgement will last for a few days to a week or more. Since your baby is older than a year, you probably won’t feel instant and painful engorgement as milk production has generally slowed by this point; any pain you experience will probably show up after a day or so of not nursing.

Basically, your body needs to shut down milk production, and the only thing that will get that message across is time without emptying the breasts. If you pump, it will make you feel better in the short term, but it will just keep your body making milk and prolong the process. It’s fine, and even a good idea, to hand-express just enough milk to stay reasonably comfortable. The point is to keep the breasts full, not full-to-bursting. This can help prevent major engorgement and the accompanying risk of breast infection. You can also use a pump to lessen the pressure to the point where you’re no longer in agony. For pain relief, you can try cold compresses, cabbage leaves, or some ibuprofen. Some women use sage or other herbs to try to suppress milk. Hot showers can help, though direct heat on the breasts can encourage milk flow and production. In any case, most of the discomfort will pass relatively quickly. Most women feel little to nothing within a week. At that point the milk will start to “dry up”, or more accurately, get reabsorbed into the body. You may have some lingering milk in your breasts for weeks or months, depending. There’s no harm or pain in this, it just might take time for it to go away all together.

As for the emo component: stopping milk production also involves a hormonal shift. When you’re nursing you have a regular influx of oxytocin (the “bonding” or “love” hormone) and prolactin (the “nesting” hormone). The balance of these hormones can make mothers feel calm, spaced out, bonded, content, and/or sleepy. Together they can have an antidepressant effect, though not everyone feels this. Either way, a drop in these hormones is not insignificant for the mother. Any chemical upheaval can be intense as the balance adjusts itself. On the good side, women sometimes feel a boost in sex drive after weaning, which can be a nice perk.

The combination of this hormonal shift and a changing dynamic with your baby/child might lead to sadness, anxiety, joy, guilt, relief (sometimes all at once). It’s not uncommon for a weaning mother to have mood swings and some depression. If breastfeeding has been a huge part of your interaction with your baby, letting go of that connection can be sad. But there are so many gains involved as well. When you stop breastfeeding, there’s room for other kinds of intimacy. It may take a while, but eventually, most ex-nursing moms feel great about how their relationships with their babies or children broaden after weaning. Weaning – like many major changes – is often bittersweet. Acknowledging both sides will help you move on with the sweet part.

Have a question? Email parentaladvisory@babble.com

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