Written by: Wendy, IBCLC.
Some of us plan when our last breastfeeding session will be and prepare ourselves for the moment. Others only realize we've experienced our last breastfeeding session once it's already passed. Either way, the last time we breastfeed our children can be a deeply emotional experience.
You are not alone if the idea of your last breastfeeding session makes you feel weepy, nostalgic, upset, or sad. Even if weaning was something you initiated, ending your breastfeeding relationship ends a very special and significant chapter in your journey as a parent.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN IT'S TIME TO STOP BREASTFEEDING
Deciding to wean in the first place can be extremely emotional. Weaning can happen at any time during breastfeeding—when your child is a baby, a toddler, or older. The decision to wean should be made on your own terms, and no one should judge your decision to stop breastfeeding.
Usually, breastfeeding parents decide to stop because they are feeling tired and depleted from breastfeeding. They may have returned to a demanding job and find it impossible to fit in breastfeeding and/or pumping. Other breastfeeding parents feel "touched out" and want their bodies back. In rare cases, medication or medical treatment you need means that you have to wean your baby.
You are the one who knows best that weaning is the right decision for you. But keep in mind that if you feel torn, weaning isn't "all or nothing." You can tell a toddler that the "milkies" go to sleep when the sun goes down or only nurse at certain times of the day.
HOW TO WEAN GENTLY
Once you have decided that weaning is the right decision, it's important that you do it gradually. This is not just so that you can emotionally prepare and don't end up engorged or with a breast infection like mastitis. It's also so that you don't experience the emotional toll of crashing hormones.
While breastfeeding, "feel good" hormones such as prolactin and oxytocin are elevated. After weaning, these hormones go back to pre-breastfeeding levels. If you wean too quickly, these hormones can plunge suddenly, leading to feelings of depression. So, if possible, it's important that you take it slow and easy, dropping a breastfeeding session every few days or even one session per week.
WHY WEANING CAN BE SO EMOTIONAL
Part of the reason weaning can be so emotional is because of the hormonal changes your body is going through. But that’s not the only reason.
When you are breastfeeding, being a breastfeeding parent becomes part of your identity. You plan your day around breastfeeding; you plan your clothing choices around it. So much of who you are is colored by breastfeeding. When that changes, you may feel disoriented and “off.” That’s normal and okay, but it can still be hard.
Weaning also marks a change in your relationship with your child. When you are breastfeeding, your child goes to you for food and for comfort. You exchange intimate, special moments together; there is nothing like the bond you will experience while breastfeeding. Weaning doesn’t erase that bond—it will continue in different and beautiful ways once you are done breastfeeding. But it will be different, and many of us feel a tug of sadness when we realize this.
HOW TO SOAK UP THOSE LAST MOMENTS
If you know when your last breastfeeding session with your child will be beforehand, there are a few things you can do to soak up those moments and make them special. First, you can have someone take a photo of the last nursing session. Some people will even hire professional photographers to capture this moment.
For those with toddlers or older children who are aware that weaning is happening, sharing a special meal or celebration with your child afterward can commemorate the milestone. Some families even have “weaning parties” replete with cake and decoration. Weaning is a special rite-of-passage for both you and your child.
If you weren’t aware of when your last time was until after the fact, there are still a few things you can do to make the experience of weaning special. Some breastfeeding parents will get “breast milk jewelry” made, where they express a little breast milk and have it incorporated into a ring, necklace, or bracelet.
Writing is another wonderful way to mark the end of breastfeeding. Try to write down everything you remember about that last time—where you were, what words were spoken, the way that your child smelled, their gestures. You can also write a letter to your child that they can read later detailing that last time and what the breastfeeding relationship has meant to you.
However you do it, try to honor your last breastfeeding session in some way. When we experience a transition such as weaning, it’s natural to feel deeply emotional. Commemorating the transition in some way helps us process it, make peace with how it ended, and honor our time as a breastfeeding parent.
Krol KM, Grossmann T. Psychological effects of breastfeeding on children and mothers. Psychologische Effekte des Stillens auf Kinder und Mütter. Bundesgesundheitsblatt Gesundheitsforschung Gesundheitsschutz. 2018;61(8):977-985. doi:10.1007/s00103-018-2769-0
Canul-Medina, G., Fernandez-Mejia, C. Morphological, hormonal, and molecular changes in different maternal tissues during lactation and post-lactation. J Physiol Sci 69, 825–835 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12576-019-00714-4