Breastfeeding Weaning May Lead Mothers Toward Depression
Changes in a woman's body during or after weaning can cause depression, yet this is a topic that's rarely discussed or researched. Read how breastfeeding weaning affected our editors.
Article by Rebecca Barnhart & Beth Mark
It’s no secret to most women that the wonderful journey of pregnancy and birth can also take an emotional and hormonal toll on our lives. As we’ve highlighted in previous articles about maternal mental health, postpartum depression is finally getting much needed attention from the medical community and beyond; however, there is yet another phase of baby’s first years that can impact maternal mood and well-being: weaning. With far less recognition of depression during and after weaning, many women feel in the dark about sudden shifts in their mood, energy, or anxiety levels many months after postpartum depression would be the likely answer.
If you have experienced such symptoms, two of the major culprits for the change you may be feeling are the prolactin and oxytocin hormones. Prolactin not only allows the body to make milk, but also contributes to well-being and relaxation. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and, apart from playing in a role in milk ejection (let-down), it helps produce feelings of bonding and affection toward your babe. It seems only logical, then, that a reduction of these hormones upon weaning would cause such a dramatic difference in mental health and well-being.
What is breastfeeding weaning really like?
Just like pregnancy and birth, it’s a deeply personal journey that affects every mother and baby differently. Here our editors share the stories of weaning their first children.
“While I did not experience any lasting depressive symptoms or moods, I did notice some small – but very uncomfortable – changes when I began to wean my son. A few times while nursing him, I would almost immediately feel irritable: my skin seemed to be crawling and I had the strongest sensation to abruptly remove him from my breast and body. I had never felt this before and it alarmed me. Granted, a couple of the times this happened, he had woken up while I was trying to transfer him to his crib for a nap, so I was already slightly annoyed and anxious to get him back to sleep quickly by nursing (before he became too alert and we missed the napping window altogether). However, the feelings were so intense and so strong, that I was taken aback. I had loved nursing, and the closeness and calm it provided us throughout the day. We had a long stretch with nursing: my son was 21 months when I began to wean him. At first I thought this strange reaction was perhaps a sign that my body was truly done with nursing and ready to move on, but, thinking on it more, I believe the strong feelings of irritability were more than anything due to the dropping levels of my hormones. I didn’t make the connection between this strange development and the weaning until a few days later…once it had come and gone.”
“During that first year everything to do with motherhood was ever-changing. Once I thought I had everything down to a science, something would inevitably get out of whack – and breastfeeding was no exception. I wasn’t one of those mothers that had a storage freezer full of milk in the garage that would supplement a block of hungry babies. Most of the time I made enough for my daughter’s needs, and enough was, well, enough. I fed, she ate, it worked. We squeaked by that first year, but around 13 months or so, when I noticed my daughter nearing weaning, I grew terrified before every feeding. I worried she didn’t want my milk, and she so often starting fussing for something a little more interesting. Solid food not only offered a lot more flavor and thrill, but it also kept her full, something I wasn’t sure I was able to do anymore. Her appetite was getting enormous. I felt unnecessary for the first time in my daughter’s life. At first I provided everything: a home for her growing body, then food for her nourishment. And then suddenly I was a side-show. I felt depressed for the first time in my life. And it wasn’t just the negative thoughts. It seemed my body was physically rejecting something, too. I cramped and felt nauseous for about a week during her weaning period. I took a few pregnancy tests since the symptoms seemed to all line up. In the end, I wasn’t pregnant and weaning worked well for my daughter. She kept nursing once a day until about 14 months, and when she was done she told me in her own way and my body finally caught on. But I was still shocked about how much it took out of me both mentally and physically. I was shocked that I had never heard anyone speak up about it before.”
With little existing research that connects all of the dots between the physiological changes women’s bodies go through during or after weaning and the development of depression, it’s important to share your story with other women. Some women feel a sudden break in the symptoms (perhaps when the menstrual cycle resumes normally), and usually the feelings are short-term, but this is not always the case. If you experience a sudden change in mood or mental state that lasts longer than a couple weeks, we encourage you to seek the professional help of a physician, therapist, or counselor.
Above all: be gentle with yourself. Weaning marks the end of an incredibly intimate part of the relationship you’ve developed with your little one; it’s a big change to suddenly remove it from your life and routine. Remember that weaning signifies the healthy development and growth of your child, and be proud of your ability to nourish your baby for as long as you both were able to make it work. If it feels like this milestone is causing unmanageable or frightening symptoms, don’t be afraid to reach out. There are women who have walked in your shoes before and there are people who can help.
Breastfeeding may not always be easy, but you can bet that it gives baby the best start. If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, or weaning your baby from the breast, reach out to your doctor or a professional lactation consultant. They can provide reassurance and give you knowledge about how breastfeeding works and help in overcoming common hurdles.
Photo courtesy of bellybelly.com. Read their full article on Things to Know About Breastfeeding during your Menstrual Cycle