Plenty has been written about when and how to stop breastfeeding, but most of this advice focuses on the baby. Of course, weaning will affect your child and you'll need coping strategies to help them through it. But what about you? Weaning creates emotional, hormonal, and physical changes in women, yet this big transition is often treated as an afterthought. Here's how weaning affects your brain, according to the hormonal changes associated with breastfeeding and weaning. While the end of nursing may trigger anxiety, depression, and other changes in mood, motherhood in general is good for brain health.
To understand how weaning affects your brain, first you need to know about the hormonal and mental changes caused by breastfeeding. Over email, Romper talks to Sarah Hart-Unger, a Pediatric Endocrinologist in Florida who shares her own experiences with breastfeeding, weaning, and other parenting topics on her blog the SHU box and podcast Best Of Both Worlds. "While a woman is breastfeeding, prolactin (which is responsible for milk production) is high, and this suppresses levels of estradiol (AKA estrogen) and progesterone," says Hart-Unger. "Some say there is a calming effect from the combination of high prolactin and low progesterone." Another factor in the "blissed out" feeling some breastfeeding mothers experience is oxytocin, commonly called the bonding hormone, which triggers milk let-down in response to a baby's sucking.
While breastfeeding, sex drive and vaginal lubrication are suppressed, and in many cases so is ovulation, says Hart-Unger, though she notes that the break from ovulation (i.e. your period) varies widely between women. For example, I've done long-term breastfeeding with both my kids and in both cases my period didn't return until around 18 months. I have friends in similar situations who got their cycle back much faster. Various factors, such as working outside the home or night nursing versus night weaning, can also contribute to the length of ovulation suppression.
So in terms of your brain and mood, breastfeeding is thought to promote feelings of calm, well-being, and bonding. Women who typically experience mood swings and other menstrual symptoms may experience a reprieve for as long as their cycle is suppressed. As you wean, Hart-Unger explains, "prolactin levels drop and the pituitary sex hormones — LH and FSH — are able to start cycling again, causing the monthly changes in estrogen and progesterone that occur with periods. There can definitely be increased emotional sensitivity around this time." Remember that weaning can also be a gradual process, so you may still be breastfeeding some, but experience these changes once your period returns.
Speaking from her personal experience, Hart-Unger says, "Both times I weaned, I experienced some flulike symptoms, and there are anecdotal reports of others experiencing this as well. There’s often some shifting of water weight too — sometimes those last few pregnancy pounds come off very quickly with weaning. And of course, the return of periods bring corresponding emotional swings." Along with these physical changes, women have different feelings about weaning. Some may have grown weary of breastfeeding and feel relief when their child finally gives it up. Others may feel sad and nostalgic, especially if this is the last child they expect to have. Seek out support from family, friends, and mental health professionals if you need to. Talking to others who have been through the same transition can be helpful.
Contrary to popular conceptions of the absent-minded mom, motherhood overall has a positive impact on brain health. According to a 2005 article called "This Is Your Brain On Motherhood" from The New York Times:
"Research shows that learning and memory skills can be improved by bearing and nurturing offspring. A team of neuroscientists in Virginia found that mother lab rats, just like working mothers, demonstrably excel at time-management and efficiency, racing around mazes to find rewards and get back to the pups in record time. Other research is showing how hormones elevated in parenting can help buffer mothers from anxiety and stress."
So there you have it. Motherhood transforms your life, body, and mind. Breastfeeding and then weaning bring additional changes caused by hormones. And while in the sleep-deprived haze of early motherhood, or the struggle of trying to wean a child who doesn't want to give up the breast, it's natural to focus on the negative side of these changes. But science tells us what our ancestors have known all along — mothers are tough, fierce, smart, a force to be reckoned with.
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.