All breastfeeding comes to an end. It does! It has to. Every person who provides a first breastfeed will definitely – certainly – provide a last, whether that is minutes, days, months or years later. I’m certain that all of our logical (albeit sleep deprived…!) brains can make sense of that. However, if you Google the factual statement “breastfeeding comes to an end” you see…
So – actually – this inevitable end to breastfeeding can feel like a massive loss.
But why can it be so hard, so emotional, when breastfeeding does come to an end? And what can we do about it? Partly, we can thank evolution. Hormones are released within mother and baby during a feed; perfectly designed by nature to make sure breastfeeding is generally a positive, enjoyable, bonding experience. These hormones are prolactin (which promotes feelings of calmness and relaxation) and oxytocin (which gives us those ‘feel-good’ vibes of love and positivity). They act upon the brain to help us decide what to do in any given situation. If the happy hormones are flowing, it’s like our brain is saying: ‘Do it! Carry on! This is amazing!’ – cue feelings of happiness, relaxation and love. Reduction of these hormones and an increase in stress can put our brains and our bodies on guard, and our ‘threat systems’ fire up: ‘Stop! Something’s wrong! I don’t like this!’ – cue worry, stress and sadness . . . So, the balance of hormones which make us enjoy feeding our young are those very same hormones which drop off and can make stopping such a difficult, emotional experience. Cheers nature.
The good news: there are a whole host of things which raise oxytocin (and other happy hormones) in our bodies. Hugs, caring for animals, thrill-seeking activities such as rollercoasters and sky-diving, giving random acts of kindness, having a bath, having sex, eating chocolate . . . Fitting some of these lovely things into life while weaning can help us feel a little more positive, loved and connected; though I probably wouldn’t recommended trying to do them all at once!
(Example of an oxytocin molecule; courtesy of Wikipedia, 2019)
Another reason that the end of breastfeeding can feel difficult is that it is a significant ending. It marks the end of a unique and special relationship that you have worked so hard to build and maintain. Sometimes we feel ready. Sometimes – for various reasons – it is taken away from us far too soon. Along with this, many mothers have ‘goals’ in mind: wanting to reach a whole week of breastfeeding; one month; six months; one year . . . not being able to reach a goal can feel especially painful. So, when it’s gone, it makes sense that we might feel intense sadness, grief and guilt. These feelings of loss can be similar to those of losing a beloved friend, family member, or pet. It might seem like a bit of a leap, but things which help at times of bereavement can help during breastfeeding loss too:
- Talking about your feelings rather than bottling them up. Talking to family, to friends, to professionals if needed. And trying not to feel guilty for finding this hard. It is sad. It is hard!
- Look after yourself. Eat, sleep, enjoy, relax.
- Be kind to yourself and take time to grieve. Know that some days might feel better than others.
- Find ways to hold on to your memories of this special time. Memory boxes can be a really nice way to do this, for example collecting together photos of your nursing relationship and other reminders you have. A reminder of what you achieved (e.g. ‘silver boobies’ badges, etc, online), a ‘tree of life’ photo, a favourite muslin, having unique pieces of breastmilk jewellery made, designing a tattoo, writing a poem or finding affirmative quotes online . . . the list is endless!
(‘Tree of Life’ breastfeeding photo; courtesy of boredpanda.com)
So, we’ve been talking about loss – loss of happy hormones, loss of special bonds, loss of breastfeeding. But what if we can reframe this whole thing? Seeing the end of breastfeeding as a gain? Taking all the things that are now gone and turning them into opportunities for new things – for yourself, for your family, and for the exciting new kind of relationship you have with your child. Our journey ended over four months ago, so I have had lots of time and space for positives to come to light. Of course, I also still have lots of things I miss deeply about breastfeeding . . . but here goes! Happy thoughts!
10 Things We’ve Gained From Not Breastfeeding Anymore:
For anyone who is really struggling with their feelings or would like to talk to someone, there’s lots of help available. If you want to speak to a professional, then your GP, Health Visitor, or Social Worker (if you have one) can be a useful first point of call. Get Me Out The Four Walls is a charity in Norwich supporting parents’ mental health (https://www.getmeout.org.uk/), and of course the BMM Facebook page and our regular BMM Meets across Norfolk provide a safe space to talk to others who are probably going through similar struggles.
– Bored Panda (no date) Tree Of Life’ Breastfeeding Photos Are Taking Internet By Storm [online] Available at https://www.boredpanda.com/breastfeeding-photos-tree-of-life/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic (original photograph by user milliemummymelbourne)
– Wikipedia (2019) Oxytocin [online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin