We know that breastfeeding struggles can intensify postpartum depression and anxiety. The following is a story about how weaning can also impact our emotional distress. The author, Cat Halek is a local IBCLC and the Education Chair on our Board. She wants everyone to know that we support all moms, no matter how they feed their babies! Happy Breastfeeding Month!
Holding the umbrella,
I knew I would breastfeed my son as soon as I knew I was pregnant. There was no other option. I planned a natural birth. I planned a beautiful empowering birth. Then at 36 weeks my son was breech. My doctor planned a c-section at 39 weeks. I showed up at 6:30 am at the hospital ready for my c-birth. I had grieved the birth I wouldn’t have. Though, my son had flipped probably during a massage the night before. I chose out of fear and pressure from staff and family to have the scheduled c-section. Having my birth not go as I had wanted, I hung on to breastfeeding. It became my "I'll show you" to the world. I sat at a week and a half postpartum in a La Leche League group and told the fellow mothers, “They took my birth from me, but no one will take breastfeeding from me.”
After my pregnancy depression, I and everyone else was relieved that I didn’t suffer from post partum depression. The oxytocin from breastfeeding made me feel over the moon for my son. I was blissed out and in heaven feeding him. I set small accomplish-able goals for breastfeeding. First I set my goal for 6 weeks.
Then at 6 weeks I made my next goal to reach 6 months, and reached it! At 10 months I went back to work as a Peer Counselor at WIC. I completed extensive training on breastfeeding. I worked with women who were breastfeeding 3 and 4 year olds. I came to believe that allowing a child self wean was optimal weaning.
What I hadn't know and what many people don’t understand is that weaning is a very long process. The first bottle of something other than breastfeeding is the beginning of weaning. Starting solids is also the beginning of weaning. Weaning is the process of transitioning from breastfeeding for table food, it is not the immediate end to breastfeeding.
I made it to a year of breastfeeding Ian. I had unlimited access to my IBCLC mentors and peer support from La Leche League and my fellow Peer Counselors. I remember talking to Daniel, my husband about my new goal to make it to 2 years of breastfeeding. I never knew the challenges and issues I would have from weaning and what mother led weaning would feel like. All I learned about was child led weaning; La leche League's advice of "don’t offer, don’t refuse". He said he would support me but was shocked by my choice.
Breastfeeding with large breasts and a toddler that could care less about your feelings of flashing your entire breast at the world is not for the faint of heart. Breastfeeding one-year old Ian was a display of nursing gymnastics. Around thirteen months, I started feeling terribly uncomfortable nursing my older child in public. I literally felt like Ian was holding my large breast and showing it off to onlookers when he took nursing breaks. This led to a feeling of Ian violating me by presenting my breast to others was definitely tied to my history of sexual abuse, but it was uncomfortable nonetheless.
That was my first thought of "HMMMM, maybe I want to wean him earlier." I started explaining the difference of breastfeeding in the car and at home vs breastfeeding anywhere, anytime to my toddler.
Around 14 months, I began feeling resentful and trapped while nursing Ian to sleep and during night nursing sessions. I would be trying to pretend to sleep while getting Ian to sleep. But my heart wasn’t in it. I felt pissed at my husband and pissed at my son for trapping me into being still, boob out, and frankly not feeling in control of my own body.
My husband, after some prodding, took over bedtime. It took about a month to get Ian off the boob for falling asleep and then a natural progression to him not nursing at night But we did it.
As he night weaned I started to enforce the boundry of only nursing at home on the couch or in the car. He adjusted beautifully to this. He would pull my pants leg and ask to go to the car or couch because he was ready to nurse. He would be fine with leaving what ever we were doing to go nurse in the agreed upon places. Keep in mind Ian n talking since 9 months and could speak in sentences at this time. Not every child could understand or verbalize these needs and adjust
At 20 months I stopped offering the breast at all. When he would ask for mum mums I would offer him a hug, a snack, or a drink. Also I would change positions and attempt to distract him with activities. If he would get really upset I would give in but over the next 4 months he weaned to 2 to 3 breastfeeding seessions a day. I was doing ok and so was he.
The menstrual cycle that started 2 weeks after Ian’s 2nd birthday hit me hard the first day. My nipples were painful and sensitive. I was emotionally and physically drained. I was over anyone having access to my breasts.
Dan came home that day. Ian came over to nurse. I offered him everything to distract and get him to change focus. He kept crying. I looked at Daniel and told him this is my last day breastfeeding I just cant do it any more. Daniel took Ian and told me to go lay down. I curled into a hormonal crying ball of mess and let Daniel take over parenting that night.
The first month of not breastfeeding felt pretty good. I could wear clothes I hadn’t worn since Ian was born. I had my body back. I had successfully weaned a child. I was proud of myself. My peers couldn’t believe that I mother weaned in such a great way.
A few weeks later I had to go to work. I went to the store to pick up some lunch before going and teaching a breastfeeding class. I started feeling emotional and anxious in the store. By the time I made it to the car, I could not stop sobbing; full body ugly cry in the middle of a target parking lot. I finally got calm enough to look at the clock. I was 20 minutes late to work. I called my boss. I couldn't stop the tears while explaining I just couldn’t get to work that day. There was no one to take over the breastfeeding class for me so I powered through and left afterwards. I was so distraught. I knew something wasn’t right.
The sobbing and sensitivity didn’t stop that day. It continued. It interfered with everything. Finally I decided to see my doctor and schedule a counseling appointment through EAP at my job. I saw my primary care provider to see about adjusting my thyroid hormone. She had been resistant to prescribing certain medications until I fully weaned Ian. Since I had weaned my provider felt comfortable to prescribe a different thyroid medicine and told me I may be having issues related to weaning and it changing my hormones. That was the first time I had even thought of weaning depression as a possible culprit.
I was under the impression that weaning depression was something that happened to moms that stopped breastfeeding abruptly and early, not to some one who had weaned gradually over a year. I breastfed only 2 or 3 times a day how on earth could this gentle transition from 2 sessions a day for 5 minutes down to zero breastfeeding cause this emotional response!?
When I discussed with peers and friends that I was suffering weaning depression they told me I could go back to breastfeeding. I didn’t want to start breastfeeding again I needed people to understand that my hormones were going haywire and that it was triggering a major depressive episode. I didn’t want to hear that I hadn’t made the right choice. I needed to hear that I could live a new normal with out breastfeeding and still be a good mom.
My counselor I chose to start seeing was exactly what I needed. She understood that this was a specific issue and I didn’t need to be told to wait it out until my hormones regulated. My counselor Rachel Haskell was the person who let me know I could cope while my hormones regulated and that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. While I was in the dark of middle of the tunnel our counseling sessions became the flashlight I needed to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.
I am here. My son is 6 years old. I have accepted the Bipolar 2 diagnosis, the counseling and medication recommended for treatment is what I have to do for myself. I have to be the best I can be so I can be a mom and wife. Having prenatal and weaning distress where only my life and future weren’t the only thing to consider is what I need to continue to push through the dark into the light. It got me to accept my history and understand that unlike other mothers where perinatal mood distress may only be a temporary hormone induced issue, My story would be ongoing of seeking out medication, peer support and therapy for the rest of my life.
I want all moms to know that breastfeeding is your child's first intimate relationship. Setting boundaries and allowing yourself to put your needs at time above your child when appropriate is teaching them about how to treat their future partners. I know that my weaning and prioritizing myself enough to get and continue treatment is going to make my son be a better partner.
August is National Breastfeeding Month, the first week (8/1-8/7) is World Breastfeeding Week and the last week (8/25-8/31) is Black Breastfeeding Week. Thus, it is a time of increased breastfeeding advocacy and celebration. It is not a time to shame non-breastfeeding families. In fact, as a breastfeeding advocate, certified lactation counselor, and breastfeeding mother, nothing irritates me more than an attack on a formula feeding family.
My advocacy and promotion for increased breastfeeding support is not an attack on the use of formula. It is an attack on the lack of appropriate social support that fails the moms who wanted to breastfeed. My celebration is about how far we have come, while simultaneously recognizing how much more work there is to be done.
The percentage of women who indicate they want to breastfeed is rather high. In Florida, 77% of women do initiate breastfeeding. However, by the time that mom is 3 months postpartum, only 37.6% are exclusively breastfeeding and at 6 months only 17.3 are exclusive (CDC 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card). It is this 60% of moms that wanted to, but for some reason did not maintain exclusivity, that I work and advocate for. They must be provided the support necessary to make a change in the health of moms and babies.
Nothing good comes from placing blame, fear, or guilt on the individual family. As a system of care, as a society we need to recognize how much of breastfeeding is not in the individual's control and help to build appropriate social supports that build up all mothers, regardless of feeding method. A happy healthy mom is more likely to breastfeed. A properly supported mom is more likely to breastfeed. So let's stop throwing "Breast is Best" in the faces of moms and as a society offer true support to help moms reach their feeding goals.
When it comes down to it, a happy healthy mom feeding her baby is the most important thing. Whether it is breastfeeding, pumped breast milk-bottle feeding, or formula feeding, a healthy mom, confident in her decision is the most important factor for the healthy development of her infant.
Supporting All Moms,
Each walk is different, but we walk together, and that makes all the