What happens to our hormones when we stop breastfeeding? While breastfeeding comes with its own physical, hormonal, and emotional changes, so does stopping.
Our bodies go through a number of physiological processes in order to cease lactation. Many women believe they will “get their body back” and “feel themselves again”. They assume diastasis recti and pelvic floor issues will resolve, they will return to pre-pregnancy weight, their hair and skin will return to its lustre and their energy and mood will lift. After all, our hormones are finally normalizing right? I know this belief all too well. I also know, that this is far from the truth!
When you start to wean your baby off the breast, the feel-good hormones of prolactin (which makes us feel calm and content) and Oxytocin (our “love” and “bonding” hormone) drop, triggering a rise in estrogen and progesterone. This can lead to a variety of post-weaning symptoms that affect women in a variety of ways.
Why do women experience post-weaning symptoms differently?
The same reason menstrual cycles, PMS, pregnancy and menopause differ from woman to woman. All of our hormones will fluctuate at different rates and at different intensities. We must remember that diet and lifestyle choices play a substantial role in how our hormones are produced. Stress, a history of depression or anxiety, metabolism and gut health, support, birth experience, diet, exercise, and how abruptly a woman discontinues breastfeeding all play a role in how she may experience symptoms.
9 post-weaning symptoms women can expect:
- ENGORGEMENT, CLOGGED DUCTS & MASTITIS – If you stop breastfeeding abruptly, you will likely experience engorgement and leaking for the first few days/weeks until your hormones adapt to the sudden change. With engorgement can come clogged ducts, which if left untreated can lead to mastitis (and infection of the breast). By slowly weaning over time, you will lose the fullness of your breasts gradually and can avoid many of these symptoms.
- LIBIDO – During breastfeeding, the higher oxytocin and prolactin help us feel very content with bonding with our infant, and intercourse is the last thing on our minds (we are very satisfied with just spending time with our LO). In addition, the lower estrogen can also lead to vaginal dryness and a lower drive. We assume then, that our libido will return once we discontinue breastfeeding. It can actually be quite the opposite. Post-weaning, the desire to procreate can be a distant memory (for a short time). Remember that post-weaning comes with a rise in estrogen. This rise in estrogen can cause a lot of mood changes which may affect libido. You also have to factor in the late nights, fatigue, stress, and attending to your child that could get in the way of you “feeling in the mood”. On the upside, eventually your bodies hormones will return to their pre-pregnancy levels and you may start to enjoy intercourse again.
- DEPRESSION & ANXIETY – A combination of hormonal fluctuations and the psychological stress of weaning are at fault here. You may experience irritability, sadness, loss of pleasure, fatigue and trouble concentrating. Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) drops, which can lead to attachment issues with your baby and a lot of guilt around this. You may miss the good feelings that this hormone brought and experience more sadness and a feeling of loss. Prolactin (the hormone of content and calm) also drops after weaning, and so you may feel more agitated and anxious. It also takes time for estrogen and progesterone to normalize after weaning, and an estrogen dominance can lead to more PMS, depression and moodiness. All hormones aside, you may just be very sad that this part of your relationship with your baby is ending.
- IRREGULAR PERIODS – Your periods may have been regular before, but now can be quite heavy, painful and irregular. Estrogen and progesterone imbalances are likely to blame here, and many women can suffer anemia if the blood loss becomes too extreme.
- INSOMNIA & FATIGUE – As our estrogen and progesterone try to rebalance, it can make us feel extremely tired. Also, sleep doesn’t just go back to normal as soon as you discontinue night feeds. After months (and years) of lack of sleep, we can’t expect our bodies to just pick up where they left off. Trouble sleeping can continue for some time.
- WEIGHT GAIN – Women burn about 500-700 calories per day while nursing, so when we discontinue nursing it can be more difficult to lose weight. Your caloric needs quickly shift back to baseline, but it takes time to break the habit of frequent eating and eating larger portions. The hunger signals are still going strong. This can lead to a lot of food shame. Prolactin is also known to reduce the metabolism of fat, and because this hormone decreases slowly post-weaning it can contribute to a few extra pounds. The higher estrogen can also block the uptake of thyroid hormone leading to an underactive thyroid. Weight gain or an inability to lose weight is one of the main symptoms of hypothyroidism.
- HAIR LOSS & SKIN CHANGES – Dryness, acne, stretch marks and other breakouts are common because of the rise in estrogen and usually the return of PMS. Hair loss can also be an issue if hormones are not regulating fast enough.
- PROLAPSE & PELVIC FLOOR DYSFUNCTION (PFD) – Many symptoms of prolapse and PFD will actually improve post-weaning. Hurray! Common pelvic floor issues postpartum include pain with intercourse (usually because of the lower estrogen), pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence. The muscles and ligaments of the pelvic floor are all estrogen-sensitive, and changes in collagen, due to estrogen deficiency can have a profound effect on the support network of the pelvic floor. In other words, estrogen is necessary to keep the ligaments of your pelvic floor strong and elastic. So as your estrogen rises after weaning, we can hope to see some of these pelvic issues resolve. On the flip side, if estrogen is too high (or if progesterone is too low), it can cause pelvic congestion (a dilation of blood vessels within the pelvis) and this can lead to pelvic pressure and pain.
- INCREASE IN FERTILITY – While prolactin is high during breastfeeding, it suppresses ovulation. So as prolactin begins to drop, we will see a return in our cycles and ovulation.
How can we make the weaning transition easier?
First, I always suggest for a woman to wean gradually. An abrupt discontinuation can lead to rapid hormonal shifts which will only worsen symptoms. Start by reducing the number of feeds per day or shorten the length of each breastfeeding session. Hormones should return to pre-pregnancy levels within eight weeks. If you feel engorged or experience mastitis, ice packs, warming pads, sage tea and a comfortable bra (with no underwire) can go a long way.
Another thing I usually tell women is to find other ways to bond with their baby. Playing together, cuddling, and having that 1-on-1 time can curb that “detachment” feeling or feelings of guilt.
We also cannot dismiss the power of a nutritious diet which consists of whole foods, lean proteins, healthy fats and high fruit and vegetable intake which not only balance our hormones but make us feel lighter and more energetic. Regular exercise is also vital. It improves moods, focus, stamina, confidence and can increase libido.
Lastly, if a woman is concerned about post-weaning symptoms, I encourage them to seek support and hormonal testing from their Naturopathic Doctor who can offer natural solutions, and also to seek out pelvic floor care through an exercise program designed for pelvic floor health postpartum and to see a pelvic floor physiotherapist.