science of us

Life on Planet Weaning

I stopped breastfeeding and became a hormone detective.

Photo: Marie Bertrand/Getty Images
Photo: Marie Bertrand/Getty Images
Photo: Marie Bertrand/Getty Images

When you stop breastfeeding, your body must do a number of physiological processes in order for it to stop lactating. I think of it like pregnancy in reverse. Your boobs shrink back steadily, until they feel like empty sacs, and instead of delivering a baby, you are delivered back unto yourself, somewhat worse for the wear.

You change up your routine, hoping the baby doesn’t notice. Your boobs get engorged, or maybe they don’t. You feel great about the decision; you’re so ready to be done; it’s clearly time. Or maybe you feel very sad but feel like you’d be a better parent if you aren’t always thinking about how and where to pump. Or maybe you are deeply looking forward to life after breastfeeding — like, deeply deeply— but also you cry when you talk about it out loud or think about it too much.

And then the baby wails in the morning from the crib, having slept the entire blessed night, and it’s not for an hour or so when you pass in front of a mirror that you laugh in semi-horror to see you have two big wet circles on your T-shirt; a big, poignant target over each boob. For months afterward, you can squeeze them and see little white milk drips.

When I see the drips I think, The secret bodily operations are still underway. I think of it like that fairy tale with the shoemaker and the elves doing all the work for him in the next room, while he slept. I am the shoemaker and my hormones are the elves, and while I can’t see it happening, I can certainly feel the effects. The weaning elves get an icy grip in my chest, and destroy my sanity and my confidence for a few months, so that all I can do is chew CBD gummies, watch bad TV, and stare into my period-tracking app, counting down the days until relief would come with my next period (for me, weaning feelings closely track with PMS, and as with PMS, they tended to wane with the rising estrogen of the follicular phase).

I am still fresh off the weaning train; it was my second time aboard and I know now that it is those unseen bodily operations that really fuck me up. All the chemicals moving from your boobs to your brain to your boobs. Cellular-level shit. Brain shit. Hormone shit.

I have found it consoling to keep in mind, when on planet weaning, that while I am busy living my life, trying to send normal-sounding emails and not yell at my children while escaping to the bathroom to squeeze my nipples to see if anything comes out, major shit is going down inside of me.

My self-directed weaning research intensive (searching “weaning feel bad why” on my phone at 3 a.m.) eventually led me to a more answerable question: How does all the milk machinery built in pregnancy get dismantled? Rome* wasn’t built in a day, after all (Rome being my lactating breasts).

I got more than I bargained from a New Scientist article with the headline, “Your boobs start to eat themselves after breastfeeding is over.” Excuse me? “When a woman stops breastfeeding, her breasts go from being full-time, milk-producing factories to regular appendages, in a matter of days.” The article explained that a “molecular switch” that transforms breast cells “from milk secretors to cellular eaters that gobble up their dying neighbors.” Phagocytosis. Cell-eating! NBD.

This did not exactly explain why I felt like my emotional life was also a structure that was undergoing a similar systematic dismantling, though I appreciated the metaphor. No, for that I had to look to hormones.

Weaning turns me into a Google Scholar, as you can see. A medical researcher. An actual doctor. (Not an actual doctor.)

Making the switch from lactating to cell-destroying requires a dramatic shift in your hormonal makeup. Estrogen and progesterone drop precipitously as soon as the placenta detaches from the uterine wall. Prolactin and oxytocin rise, and your milk comes in, creating a feedback loop between nipple and brain and milk production. The trick is that prolactin is known to create feelings of contentedness, and oxytocin, also famously released during orgasm, is often called “the love hormone,” and according to the World Health Organization “induces a state of calm, and reduces stress.” (Although some people get to further complicate things by experiencing D-MER, or dysphoric milk ejection reflex, which feels like an intense emotional drop when your milk lets down.)

When you cut back on breastfeeding or pumping, or your baby does, and/or stop altogether, your body produces less and less oxytocin and prolactin, these “good hormones,” so it follows that you might feel something akin to a comedown, feeling less and less calm (to put it mildly) and less and less contented (borderline suicidal in my case). Although as with breastfeeding, the dramatic hormone shift that happens when milk production decreases affects people as variously as all the other hormone shifts: from puberty to menopause; PMS; birth control; pregnancy; birth (I’m starting to think of death as simply the ultimate hormone drop).

With my second baby, I noticed that as soon as we introduced solids and he was nursing less, I started feeling worse. I hated the act and experience of breastfeeding around the clock, but losing the hormones that came with it was equally bad, if not worse. I found myself debating whether I should keep breastfeeding him until a year, feeling 50 percent bad for six more months, or start really weaning, and feel 100 percent bad for six to eight weeks.

“I warn all of my lactating clients about the weaning hormone crash and possible mood changes so it isn’t so mysterious why they suddenly feel like garbage,” says BreAnna Dupuis, a reproductive mental health therapist and a clinical social worker, who said she herself experienced “bouts of anger or rage and a big increase in anxiety and intrusive thoughts” when she weaned. She pointed me to studies that show preliminary evidence that breastfeeding alleviates OCD. It’s a very specific study, and the results are not surprising, but it’s so validating to read. So little research exists about the maternal psychological experience of weaning that I have read the abstract to this 1988 case study so many times I almost have it memorized: “The role of breast-feeding and weaning has received remarkably little attention both in the more biologically oriented studies and in epidemiologic work. This paper reviews endocrinologic data which support the thesis that postpartum psychiatric disorders have a hormonal basis and discusses the possible psychiatric effects of breast-feeding and weaning.”

YOU THINK? How many times have my compassionate, knowing friends and I exchanged texts to the effect of WEANING! Skull emoji, knife emoji, despair emoji. A person could come to me to say their house burned down and their mother died and they can’t stop crying and I would look at them askance and say, “Did you drop a feed recently?”

“I didn’t realize how much my breastfeeding hormones were propping me up until I weaned,” one of such mom friends, Jess, tells me from East London, corroborating my own theories. She has three kids. “As soon as I dropped to one or two feeds, I was flattened by anxiety and depression. Weaning my first two children, I had insomnia between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. every night. Lying awake, my thoughts were full of cancer and climate change.”

It is not like that for everyone, of course. Lots of women I’ve spoken to or been friends with have no idea what I mean when I add a skull emoji after weaning. My old friend Meredith, for instance, has four children and has breastfed them for varying durations for varying reasons, and when I ask her about weaning she says she doesn’t have anything to say. That she doesn’t remember anymore, but that, oh, she remembers having night sweats! And her sex drive returning after. “No big insights!” she tells me, while she is breastfeeding her newest one. I tell her I am happy for her. Diagnosis: no weaning depression.

Carla is a book publicist and a writer, but when she first had her daughter she was a schoolteacher. Her milk supply steadily decreased when she went back to work and had to pump behind a curtain in the teacher’s lounge, and she told me that four years later, she still tears up talking about it. “I tried to reason with myself a thousand different ways, not wanting to give myself yet another reason to feel guilty, but … that clearly didn’t work.”

Weaning can be like that, too. It can happen quickly and without your consent. Other times it is fine and great, like one of those mutual breakups where both parties walk (crawl?) away satisfied, just older and more themselves. Maybe it’s simply a tearful, tender few months because, well — the passage of time, things never being the same, you can’t go back, or not unless (don’t say it!) you have another baby.

Regardless of how you feel physically or emotionally about weaning, try to slow down, take a step back, and remember this: The epithelial tissue in your breasts must undergo massive cellular death and then eat itself.

Life on Planet Weaning