A mixed bag
After nursing ends, mothers and their children experience a mix of reactions, both physical and emotional. These reactions vary greatly in kind and intensity, depending on the age and temperament of the child, how fast weaning has occurred, and how the mother has felt about breastfeeding.
Physical changes you will notice
Very little research has been done on women's physical reactions to weaning. For now, we must base our summary mainly on the experiences of women we know.
Unless your milk production has stopped before weaning is complete, you will probably experience some decrease in appetite when you stop breastfeeding. Some women report losing weight and feeling restless for a week or so after weaning. Others, perhaps because they eat according to habit rather than appetite, gain weight after weaning.
After any post-weaning engorgement and breast lumps dissipate, you will probably find that your breasts are smaller even than they were before pregnancy. The areola may look shriveled, from being stretched in the baby's mouth, particularly after several years of nursing. After six months or so, new fat stores may make your breasts fill out a little.
Your breasts will probably continue to produce some fluid, if you try to express it, for months after complete weaning. Some women notice continued milk production for as long as two years after nursing ends. And, for months after the last nursing, some mothers occasionally notice the tingling sensation of milk letting down. One mother, whose breasts had never leaked while she was nursing, said milk dripped from them one night when she was very worried about her child's cough, three months after she had stopped nursing.
If your periods didn't resume before the last nursing, they probably will within a few weeks -- and so, probably, will your fertility. If you began menstruating before weaning was complete, expect that your next period may be early and heavy. Heavy periods may continue for several months as your body adjusts to the hormonal changes of weaning.
With the resumption of menstruation may come an increase in sex drive and vaginal lubrication (Bricklin 1987). If your periods started while you were still nursing, your sex drive may still increase at weaning, though this may be partly due to the decrease in tactile stimulation from your child. Some mothers find, however, that their breasts are less sensitive to erotic stimulation after weaning than before.
Be wary of depression
In a few women who have personal or familial histories of depression, rapid weaning in the first year may precipitate severe depression or even psychotic behavior. This may result from the hormonal changes at weaning, perhaps in combination with feelings of loss of the symbiotic mother-baby bond. Extreme anxiety, fears, frequent tearfulness, insomnia, and loss of appetite are signs that medical help is needed (Susman and Katz, 1988).
Normally, a mother's feelings after weaning can vary from grief to relief. Distress after weaning is more likely the earlier weaning occurs. Some mothers, who never planned to nurse for long or who were determined not to be "tied down" by a baby, have no regrets about early weaning. But one study found that 63 percent of women who weaned at two to three months wished they could have nursed longer, and 50 percent of those who weaned at four to nine months regretted weaning so soon (Rogers et al, 1987).
If you have weaned before you were really ready, you may feel angry -- at yourself, for not being able to do what you feel should come naturally, and at other people, perhaps for encouraging you to breastfeed, for giving inconsistent advice or none at all, or for pressuring you to wean.
You may feel rejected if your baby seems to prefer the bottle to your breasts or your mate's care to your own. You may feel anxious about the baby, who is no longer getting "the best," or about your own mothering abilities. You may feel guilty about your failure to live up to your own expectations. Such feelings will be exacerbated if you had romantic visions of nursing, if you nursed an older child successfully and so feel acutely what the younger one is lacking, if you just like to do things the natural way, or if you suffered through engorgement after believing you had too little milk. If you've learned that weaning wasn't necessarily the best way to solve your problems, you may feel like a fool.
ON THE NEXT PAGE: Dealing with guilt, How time heals, Ambivalence, and weaning around the world