Breastfeeding seems like such a complex process for something that is argued to be one of the most natural things a mother can do. Seriously, all mammals do it. From Provincetown moms to platypi, it's simply evolution. However, we know how deeply it can affect mothers. It's not just cracked nipples and back pain, and it's not only while you're breastfeeding. Weaning is just as hard. It can spring a deep emotional well you didn't know existed, thanks to hormones. It makes you wonder if it does the same to the baby. Does weaning affect baby's hormones in the same way it affects a mother's?
There is a real dearth of research on this topic in the scholarly literature. While we know a lot about the hormonal implications of weaning on the mother, there is nothing published that looks at the same phenomena in the child, so we're forced to draw conclusions based on what we know about the hormones that are in-play in the baby's brain during the breastfeeding process. Namely, oxytocin. While breastfeeding, oxytocin reaches the far corners of the baby's brain, wrote Neuwrite San Diego, a neurologic science website. Once weaned, a baby would need to access this oxytocin release by other means.
This oxytocin release is no small thing. According to Neuwrites, "it stands to reason that oxytocin release in breast milk could have evolved in part as a mechanism to make sure that babies get their daily dose of that feel-good hormone, and also that they are calmed and soothed to ensure that healthy epigenetic changes can occur at the same time." An epigenetic change is a change that happens at the cellular level. Epigenetic changes happen regularly, but they're important because they happen in the development of the cell. During sequencing, shifts in lifestyle or environment can affect what cells are produced, including brain cells or adipose tissue (fat). Given how important oxytocin appears to be in this process, it's striking how little study is given to it.
In my quest to answer the question about weaning affecting a baby's hormones, I spoke with Raylene Phillips, MD, MA, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC, a neonatologist and Director of Neurodevelopment at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital and Medical Center Murrieta. She tells Romper that while we don't have the empirical scientific regarding hormone changes in babies during the weaning process, because we know what happens to babies in regards to the oxytocin release during breastfeeding, "it stands to reason that babies would experience a dip in this breastfeeding-associated activity after they're weaned."
“Breastfeeding involves suckling, physical closeness, and skin-to-skin contact," and we don't know how much of the oxytocin "released to both mother and baby during breastfeeding stems" from the "suckling mechanism the physical closeness, or the skin-to-skin contact, or, perhaps it’s the combination of all three", but that it has a positive benefit on the baby and the mother. Phillips says that it's likely possible to alleviate some of the dip in oxytocin that likely occurs during and after weaning by engaging in close physical contact. "We know that hugs, kisses, cuddles, and skin-to-skin contact produce oxytocin, so extra doses of those activities could help to balance the potentially decreased oxytocin levels after breastfeeding stops."
But Phillips is adamant that breastfeeding and weaning don't make a difference in the value of you as a mother. “It is important to remember that your value as a mother and the quality of your relationship with your child is not defined by whether or not you chose to breastfeed or by when you and/or your baby decide to wean. Motherhood is about connecting with your child in different ways at different stages of development. Breastfeeding is a special way to connect with your baby, for sure, but it is not the only way, and the connection you have with your baby can, most certainly, be maintained whenever you decide to wean.”
I've been through the weaning process a few times, and it's not easy; there is a period of adjustment for both mother and child. So perhaps a bit more skin-to-skin cuddling is in order, a few more hugs and kisses, and a lot more cuddling. In the end, no matter when you wean, there's going to be a bit of a shift. It's going to take effort and strategy to make it as comfortable as possible for the both of you, but it's by no means impossible.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.