When you were pregnant, everybody from your well-meaning aunt to your OBGYN probably talked to you about breastfeeding. Once your new baby was born, nurses and lactation consultants were available to help you as you began your breastfeeding journey. Unfortunately, you may not get as much advice from others when you are done breastfeeding. Stopping breastfeeding is an emotional and physical transition for both you and your baby. Understanding the changes that will occur can better prepare you for the experience.

What Happens to Your Body When Weaning Occurs

During pregnancy, your body prepared your breasts for breastfeeding by causing them to increase in size and your areola and nipples to darken. During breastfeeding, your breasts continued to change as your body began to produce milk. Once you are done breastfeeding, your breasts will change once more. Your body makes milk based on “supply and demand.” This means that your body will eventually stop making milk as the demand for it ceases.

It takes several months for this milk to completely leave your breasts and for the milk tissues to be replaced with fatty tissue once more. A hormone known as prolactin, which is secreted by your pituitary gland, is responsible for your body making breast milk. Once you stop breastfeeding, it will take some time for your hormone levels to return to normal.

Weaning Cold Turkey versus Slow Weaning

If you have to suddenly stop breastfeeding, your body will continue to produce milk at the same rate as it was when you were nursing. This can cause your breasts to become engorged with milk. They will feel heavy, full, slightly sore and may leak milk. This engorgement can sometimes lead to plugged ducts or mastitis.

To prevent engorgement, it’s best to slowly wean from breastfeeding. Start by dropping one breastfeeding or pumping session every two to three days. Many moms stop all breastfeeding except for the night or morning feedings when their baby may want to nurse the most.

If you have to stop breastfeeding suddenly, try using a breast pump in order to slowly decrease your supply to prevent complications from occurring. When using the pump, only remove as much milk as you need to feel relief. Don’t completely empty your breasts as this will signal your body to make more milk to replace it.

Breast Appearance After Nursing

Enlarged, tender breasts may have been one of the first symptoms that told you that you were first pregnant. Your breasts continued to change during pregnancy and nursing. Now that breastfeeding is over, it’s normal to wonder if they are ever going to return to their “normal” appearance.

You may have heard that breastfeeding can make your breasts look droopy. This isn’t true; pregnancy is actually responsible for the appearance of your breasts due to stretching. Your breasts don’t have any muscle. They are attached by ligaments to your chest wall, which allows them to move. This lack of muscle, along with the stretching skin, can give them a droopy appearance.

After breastfeeding and once you’ve returned to your pre-pregnancy weight, your breasts will be approximately the same size as they were before you were pregnant. Because of the changes your breasts went through, however, they will no longer be quite as “perky” as before. Approximately six months after weaning, fatty tissue will be redistributed to your breasts to replace the milk-producing tissue. This will give your breasts a fuller appearance.

Getting Emotional Support

Breastfeeding or pumping takes a lot of time and effort. While it is an incredible experience, you may have been excited about the time that you would wean and your body would become your own once more. So, it may surprise you that weaning can be an incredibly emotional experience for many moms. It signals the end of the “infant” period and stops the connection of providing for your little one from your own body.

Getting emotional support from your spouse, family and friends is incredibly important during this time. Talking with other women who have gone through the experience can be incredibly helpful. If you are worried about losing the connection with your little one, make sure to spend extra one-on-one time with him or her. Replacing breastfeeding with another activity, such as cuddling with your baby and reading before bedtime, can help you hold onto the bond that you felt with your baby during breastfeeding.

Congratulations on reaching this new phase of your life. No matter how long you breastfed, you provided your baby the best possible nourishment during the first part of their life. Make sure to take care of yourself as you go through this change and talk with your healthcare professional if you experience any painful lumps in your breasts, breast redness or are having a difficult time with the grieving process.