Weaning is the cessation of the breastfeeding relationship. It can be child-led or initiated by the mother. Child-led weaning usually does not occur until the baby is 18 to 24 months old. A mother may decide to wean her baby earlier than this for a variety of reasons, including an emotional need to have her body back, work schedules or going on a medication that may be contraindicated while nursing. Regardless of the reason or whether the mother or child initiates the weaning process, breastfeeding mothers may experience side effects related to the weaning process.
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Feelings of Fullness
When breastfeeding comes to an end, it will take a period of time for the milk to subside. During this time, mothers may feel an uncomfortable feeling of fullness, especially if weaning occurs abruptly. Certified lactation consultant Kelly Bonyata recommends expressing just enough milk to relieve the discomfort. Expressing small amounts of milk like this will not stimulate milk production to continue, Bonyata adds. Gradually weaning your baby by reducing nursing sessions slowly over a period of time will allow milk production to adjust and help minimize feelings of fullness.
Plugged Ducts and Mastitis
When weaning occurs, it is possible that very painful side effects such as plugged ducts can occur. When a plugged duct occurs, you will experience a localized point of tenderness on the breast. Massage, heat and milk expression are needed to remedy a plugged duct. If it is left untreated, a serious breast infection known as mastitis can occur. Symptoms of mastitis include severe pain in the breast, redness, fever and warmth to touch. Mastitis is treated using heat, milk expression and, most importantly, antibiotics. Gradual weaning can also decrease the risks of developing these side effects of weaning.
Discontinuing the breastfeeding relationship can trigger feelings of depression in the mother. As the milk production decreases, hormone levels begin to fluctuate. Prolactin is the hormone responsible largely for lactation. Prolactin can also impart feelings of calmness and happiness to the mother. When this hormone decreases, feelings of sadness may occur. The time of weaning can also elicit feelings of sadness when the mother realizes her baby is growing up and this part of the relationship is over. Mothers with a history of depression may be more likely to experience weaning-induced depression. Talk to your midwife or doctor if depression occurs and does not go away or worsens.
Sometimes the weaning process can cause a mother to experience other physical symptoms unrelated to the breasts. Nausea, mood swings and headaches are all side effects that may occur with the weaning process, most likely due to hormonal fluctuations. These symptoms can mimic early pregnancy symptoms, so some mothers may think that a new pregnancy has occurred when in reality it is the hormonal changes from weaning that are to blame. Discuss the process with your doctor well before your baby reaches the age when he's likely to self-wean or before you need to wean him for other reasons.