How stopping breastfeeding changes your body

Much like deciding to breastfeed in the first place, deciding when to stop breastfeeding is a completely personal choice. That said, when the time feels right, there are some guidelines to keep in mind when weaning your child. 

The Mayo Clinic advises that it may be easiest to stop breastfeeding when you're seeing signals from your child that he or she is ready. The weaning process may naturally begin when baby food is added to their diet. Yet, other children may not start the process until they become toddlers and are uninterested in having to sit still to nurse. Although it may be less challenging to stop breastfeeding when your child initiates it, you may want to stop sooner — and that's okay! The Mayo Clinic advises to "stay focused on your child's needs as well as your own," and try not to compare your process with others.

Although there is a lot of information about weaning as far as your child is concerned, there aren't as many resources for moms to know what to expect from their bodies when stopping breastfeeding. That's not cool! After all, weaning affects you, too. So, do you want to know what happens to you when you wean your child? Here are some things you may experience.

Deflated, engorged, and everything in between

Get ready for some ch-ch-changes in your breasts when you stop breastfeeding. Kathleen Huggins, a registered nurse, international board-certified lactation consultant, and author of The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning told The Huffington Post that some women may initially find the weaning process easy peasy, with no pain or engorgement.

As they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Within two weeks of weaning, your seemingly great breasts could suddenly become engorged. Huggins cautioned, "Any stimulation to them will keep this rebound engorgement occurring." Instead, take some ibuprofen, wear a supportive bra, and let your breasts be. If you can put up with the discomfort for a few days, your breasts "should soften back up again." Woohoo!

While weaning, you may also notice solid lumps in your breasts. This is totally normal and caused by milk absorption, Kasper explained to Redbook magazine, and will go away after your milk "dries up." After you completely wean your child, you may also experience, for lack of a better word, deflated breasts. Don't worry, though. Huggins said this is most likely a temporary loss of fat. In six months time, some of the fat will return and your breasts will have found a new lease on life.

Your body takes care of the leftovers

Have you ever wondered what happens to the remaining milk when you stop breastfeeding? Although many use the expression "dries up" when referring to breastmilk, it's a bit more involved. Leigh Ann O'Connor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), explained the process to Romper. First, the breasts fill with milk, per usual. When this happens and you choose not to pump or breastfeed, your body tells your brain that no more milk is needed and, in time, your body gets the hint to stop producing milk. "The milk is then absorbed into the body," O'Connor added. 

Absorption is actually a pretty cool process. Diana West, an internationally board-certified lactation consultant and director of media relations for La Leche League, a nonprofit breastfeeding organization, elaborated on the process to Fox News. She explained that the cells that were originally responsible for aiding in milk production switch gears and begin breaking down the leftover milk. When the cells are done their job, they absorb themselves. Yes, your breasts essentially have magic milk-disappearing powers.

The letdown is a let down

Your body may very well absorb the milk you're not going to use but it's not exactly a seamless process. Boo! Kelly M. Kasper, an OB-GYN at Indiana University Health, elaborated to Redbook Magazine, saying, it can actually take several months for your body to completely get rid of the unused milk. Unfortunately, that means you could experience some annoying and painful symptoms during that time. According to Kasper, "leakage, feeling your milk 'let down', shooting pain, tingling sensations, and a lingering sense of fullness" are all potential parts of the process. 

According to the team at Parents.com, the letdown is actually a reflex. When the nerves in your breasts are stimulated, oxytocin is released. This hormone makes the small muscles near those milk-producing cells contract — milk is then pushed through the ducts. Wild, right? Unfortunately, the letdown becomes a nuisance when you're trying to wean. Your body can start this process when you hear your baby cry or even when engaging in some sexual contact with your partner — oh, no! However, this too shall pass when your body finally gets the hint that you're done breastfeeding.

Your hormones "wake up"

Your breasts aren't the only part of your body experiencing a rollercoaster ride when you decide to stop breastfeeding. Leslie Mills, a public health nurse in Vancouver, told Today's Parent how a woman's hormones change after weaning. Prolactin and oxytocin, which increase during breastfeeding, drop when breastfeeding ends, whereas other hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) increase. Because of this, Mills advised to gradually stop breastfeeding because quitting cold-turkey will mean a much more dramatic change in hormones.

Your body is definitely going through a lot during the weaning process, but it's not all bad. After giving birth and beginning to breastfeed, your libido may have taken a nosedive. But Batya Grundland, a family physician at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, confirmed to Today's Parent that when you stop breastfeeding, on the other hand, the increase in estrogen might just mean an increase in your sex drive. Hello, libido.

You may experience some serious sadness

As with your hormones, your emotions are on a wild ride of their own. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina's Center for Women's Mood Disorders, explained to The Huffington Post that women who stop breastfeeding earlier than they'd planned may feel sad and guilty as a result. She continued to explain that it is now thought that these women are essentially experiencing a postpartum mood episode.

However, even women who do want to wean can experience a great deal of sadness once they begin. "You've had these really nice high levels of oxytocin surging, and oxytocin has profound effects on your brain," Meltzer-Brody elaborated. And then, it just stops. Not exactly great for the psyche. Keep an eye out for the signs: If you've begun weaning and are feeling similarly distressed, it's important to reach out to your doctor for help.

You can laugh again without fear of peeing your pants

Peeing when you laugh may very well be one of your not-so-welcome post-partum gifts. Thankfully, that's all about to change — once you stop breastfeeding, that is. Jaime Knopman, a fertility expert and OB-GYN, shared with Romper that once your estrogen and progesterone levels return to pre-pregnancy levels, both ligament laxity and urinary incontinence will too. The science behind this is nothing short of amazing.

Basically, it works like this: When you're pregnant, your body produces an aptly-named hormone called relaxin (seriously, how great is that name?). According to the National Childbirth Trust, relaxin makes your ligaments stretchy so you can give birth more comfortably. Your pelvic floor, which is responsible for maintaining bladder control, is made up of muscles and ligaments so it, too, is affected by the hormone. Leaking a little pee is essentially a side-effect of this hormone (ugh!), but once your pelvic floor and other ligaments return to normal, you should be able to laugh, sneeze, and cough without fear of forming a piddle puddle.

Welcome back, acne

Remember when you thought breakouts were only going to be a problem in high school? Ha. Acne apparently has other ideas. Stopping breastfeeding — and therefore no longer getting that wonderful oxytocin fix — doesn't just cause sadness. It is also responsible for stress. Not to mention, you now have a new baby, which is stressful in and of itself. As Sonya Dakar, skin specialist and founder of Sonya Dakar Skin Clinic, explained to How to Adult, stress tends to cause your cortisol levels to rise and, voila! Acne is formed. 

Your shifting hormones can also be blamed for your skin woes. Mary Davenport, an OB-GYN in California, also explained to How to Adult how an increase in progesterone can lead to an increase in oil production. More oil equals more breakouts. However, you shouldn't worry too much — your breakouts should go away within two weeks to a month after weaning.

You become as strong as a superhero (sort of)

When you were breastfeeding, did you know you were actually sharing your own calcium with your child? It's true. Some of the calcium that was in your bones relocated to your milk supply. Mara Horwitz, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh's division of endocrinology and metabolism, told American Baby magazine (via Parents) that moms who breastfeed lose an average of five to ten percent of their bone mass within a six-month timeframe. Yikes! Fortunately Aubrey Richardson, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), confirmed to Romper that when you decide to stop breastfeeding, you'll get that calcium back, and possibly even more. 

If you're longing to have another child, good news. There is some evidence suggesting that the more children a woman has — or technically the more times a woman has been pregnant for 28 weeks or longer — the greater her bone density becomes, while the risk of fracturing bones decreases, so says The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. So, yes, you are a superhero of sorts. Bone Density Woman or Calcium Gal, perhaps?

Oh where, oh where, has Aunt Flo gone?

When you're weaning your child, your period can become quite the enigma. Richardson told Romperthat Aunt Flo may show up later than you expected, and when it finally does, it may be heavier than ever. How rude. While that may not sound so fun, periods are a good reminder that you're not pregnant, and that news can be a source of comfort to some women. 

However, Richardson also explained that it may take as long as several months before your period returns after you've stopped breastfeeding — and women can, indeed, get pregnant while weaning. If you don't envision having another baby any time soon, make sure to use your preferred method of birth control during this time. When your period does decide to make a comeback, it may also be heavier or more uncomfortable than you remember because of the increase of estrogen you're experiencing, Grundland explained to Today's Parent. While that's not exactly great news, it's comforting to know that heavier periods are totally normal.