This time around I could see it coming. When my first daughter Josie self-weaned at 14 months I was really caught off guard. When she started to take super short feeds I thought it was just a phase. In my mind, she was going to be at least two years old before she stopped and I even wondered whether I was going to be able to keep my commitment to continue breastfeeding as long as she liked.
But at 14 months, Josie took her last feed. And I spiralled into an emotional void. I knew there would be hormonal changes when she quit feeding. I was weepy for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t explain my sadness to anyone and I felt like I just had to wait it out and I would get over it soon. The weepiness did end, but my hormones never found their groove. Over time I would go on to develop severe anxiety which was linked to a hormonal imbalance.
Soon after my hormones balanced and I was able to overcome generalised anxiety disorder and panic attacks, I became pregnant for the second time.
Looking back, I can say that I never felt better in my life than I did when I was breastfeeding Josie. I think that is why there was such a stark contrast in my life when breastfeeding ended. I didn’t know at the time that with breastfeeding I was getting the benefits of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin as well as endorphins. When the breastfeeding ended those benefits were cut off too, leaving me to feel lower than low! Of course, when I had baby number two I wanted to avoid succumbing to anxiety and depression once my baby weaned. And even though I was ‘aware’ this time, I admit that I was not emotionally prepared.
My second daughter Jade far exceeded her big sister, breastfeeding until she was 20 months old. This time I was paying attention as her feeds began dropping. They went from five feeds a day and dwindled until she was maybe having one side per feed twice a day. Some days she only had one feed.
I was able to go out to dinner without wondering if Jade could fall asleep without her night time feed because there were nights when she just wasn’t interested. I felt a little sense of freedom. I made plans for a quick overnight getaway with my husband. And the week before we left, Jade wanted five feeds a day for a couple more days. I panicked. Maybe her earlier behaviour was just a phase. I felt torn about whether to cancel the getaway. And then she went back to one or two feeds a day again. We had our getaway. Jade fed when she felt like it. She was still pretty excited to see me in the morning, grabbing at my shirt and shouting ‘mook-see’ which was her toddler-speak for milk. Some nights she would ask for milk before bed, but that was really dwindling too.
Then one morning Jade asked for milk and when I presented my breast to her, she decided not to latch and got upset. I tried the other side. Same deal. She asked for milk the next morning and when I offered her the breast, she just screamed at me.
I knew she was cutting back for weeks, but somehow her refusal crushed me. Making things worse was not knowing how to help her through her own confusion. She was asking for milk. A part of her wanted it. But suddenly that thing she did by instinct from her first day of life seemed to have become almost repulsive to her. She was lost and confused and so was I.
I had about two weeks of weepiness. Everything made me cry. My girls love the Disney Frozen soundtrack and as they played the songs over and over I cried. I cried to “Let it Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” as many times as they played them. And then I felt ridiculous for crying over a Disney soundtrack and wondered how I would have survived if they actually owned the movie.
I was astonished by how teary everything made me. Ads on TV made me cry. Watching my daughter walk into her Year 1 classroom made me cry. A tender moment with my husband made me cry. There were so many tears.
I knew that I needed to cry. I knew that the tears would eventually stop. But I also knew that I had to take special care of myself.
As I reached out to my fellow pregnancy and birth workers I got some great ideas on how to manage this change. And importantly, I got a new perspective. One of my fellow hypnobirthing practitioners used the word ‘grief’. When I read her comment, I realised that I was grieving the end of breastfeeding. And I found out although it isn’t often given much attention in our culture, it is a common reaction. This hadn’t occurred to me, particularly when I told some of the other mums at my daughter’s school and their reaction was to congratulate me. They said that I should be excited and relieved not to have to breastfeed anymore. This had left me feeling even more alone in my sadness. I have been very sensitive to hormonal changes in the past and so when I was weepy and grouchy I just blamed all of my emotional responses on hormones. I didn’t spend too much time considering my feelings, let alone come to the realisation that I was grieving.
But there it was. I was grieving the end of breastfeeding. And somehow knowing that I was grieving made it so much easier to manage. We have all been through grief in our lives. I knew from past experience that when you are grieving there are things you can do, other than just sit around and cry (although crying is important to me when I grieve).
So here’s what I did when I was grieving the end of breastfeeding. I hope some of these ideas will help you too.
I admitted to myself that I was grieving. Then I told my husband that I was grieving the end of breastfeeding and asked for him to be compassionate, loving, and patient with me. I asked him to support me in taking time to myself so I could write, meditate, and cry when I needed to. He was amazing and even took the lead in helping my six year old understand why mummy was so sad.
I also reached out to my community of birth and pregnancy workers who offered their own stories of how they felt at the end of breastfeeding. This helped me to know that I wasn’t alone and reminded me that I would get through this time of change.
I called the Australian Breastfeeding Association for support. I needed to be sure that I hadn’t ‘done anything wrong’ and I just wanted to talk to someone who would understand. The counsellor I spoke to was quite helpful and validated my feelings.
No real surprise here, but I spent time writing. I took out my journal and just wrote everything that came to mind. No judgement. No concern for penmanship or legibility. I let everything I was feeling pour out of me.
I wrote affirmations for the end of a breastfeeding journey:
I am so grateful that my body provided nourishment and comfort for my baby for as long as she needed it.
My child and I will always share a special bond.
I know that even though our breastfeeding journey has ended, we will continue to be deeply connected.
I allow myself to feel my emotions and I give myself extra love and care at this time.
I stopped trying to ‘make things better’ or ‘get on with things’ and just allowed myself to be sad when I felt sad. I allowed the tears to flow when they wanted to flow. I was gentle with myself when I was cranky. Fortunately, so was my family.
I looked for ways to adapt my relationship with Jade so that we could cuddle more. I read lots of books to her. She seemed to be more cuddly too, so I am sure this helped her to adapt to the change as well. I kissed her little head as I held her on my lap to read. I took in her baby scent. I was very mindful of how special it was to be cuddling her in those moments.
I also asked for more cuddles from my husband and he was certainly happy to help me increase my oxytocin levels by being intimate with me.
I sought out ways to commemorate the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I learned about breastmilk keepsakes and realised that I had no stored milk to create one with. I was not successful at expressing milk in the last few months so I thought that all was lost. However, a few days after Jade completely stopped feeding I had some milk leaking from each side over a couple of days. I pumped each side one time and now have some breastmilk stored. I haven’t decided on a keepsake just yet, but if anyone has recommendations please comment below!
I kept up my exercise routine, even though I didn’t feel like exercising. It’s only been in the last year that I have really figured out how much of an impact exercise has on my emotional wellbeing. The physical benefits are great too, but to be completely honest the main reason I exercise is for my emotional wellbeing.
While I would have loved to grab a hunk of chocolate every hour, I went the other way. I cut sugars out of my diet. I know how much I am impacted by sugar highs and lows and decided to give my brain the best chance at stabilising by avoiding sugar. I have also been drinking my “Balanced Woman Tea” from Blissful Herbs. I have added in Evening Primrose Oil and some additional supplements such as amino acids. You can check with your care provider to see what supplements could benefit you.
I am writing this three weeks and one day after Jade’s last feed. I am no longer weepy. I can hear “Let it Go” without letting the tears flow. But I admit that I am still working through my grief. I still feel more vulnerable than usual. I am still grouchier than usual. But I know that grief is a process and it takes time to work through our feelings of grief. I know that when changes are thrust upon us, they also take time to process. But what gets me through this is knowing that I have been through grief in the past. I have felt pain and sorrow as relationships have ended – including the end of a breastfeeding relationship. I’ve been through many sad airport goodbyes as I’ve lived overseas for years. I’ve felt the emptiness that comes when a life ends. I understand that grieving is part of life. I will get through this bout of grief just as I have every other.
And I know that I have to keep a good eye on things so my grief doesn’t turn into depression or anxiety. That’s why I have done the things I listed above. I am so grateful to have the awareness that my past experiences have taught me so that I can not only do those things, but so that I have the understanding that I need to and want to do those things. I know that brighter days are ahead and I want those brighter days. I don’t want to wear my grief or sadness like a badge of honour like I used to in the past.
If you are grieving the end of breastfeeding you are not alone. I would love to hear from you if you are currently going through this big change, or if you have a story to share from when your baby weaned (regardless of who made the decision – even if mum chose to wean it can be quite emotionally difficult on her). Your story could inspire other mothers, or you could find the support you need here when you share your story. If you don’t want to share publicly, you could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I could post anonymously for you. If you don’t want to share at all I still recommend you take the time to journal as I know that writing about your feelings can be such a powerful process in healing.
If you feel like your grief is unmanageable I recommend that you find a support person in your area who specialises in postnatal depression and anxiety. You can click here for some contact information.