Why New Moms Need to Talk More About Post-Weaning Depression

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Breastfeeding looks different for everyone—and whether you breastfeed for one week, one year, or more, it’s an accomplishment you should feel proud of. Yet many mothers are unprepared for what happens after they successfully wean their child, and are surprised at the intensity of their emotions.

The fact is, it’s common to experience a bout of depression or mood swings after you’ve weaned from breastfeeding.

This can happen whether you’ve weaning voluntarily or reluctantly. It can happen whether you’ve nursed for a short time or a longer duration. The problem is that so few of us talk about this, which can make the experience all the more confusing and isolating.

So, what is post-weaning depression? How do you know if you have it, and what can be done to make weaning a less emotionally tumultuous experience?

What Is Post-Weaning Depression?

Post-weaning depression is experienced by many mothers after they have weaned their child from breastfeeding. As of now, the phenomenon hasn’t been researched extensively, but there are many anecdotal stories of mothers sinking into intense depressions following weaning, and many lactation consultants describe this occurrence frequently among the mothers they treat.

Post-Weaning Depression vs. Postpartum Depression

Post-weaning depression may occur concurrently with postpartum depression, but it’s a distinctive experience. Most importantly, post-weaning depression is linked in time with the ending of breastfeeding, whereas postpartum depression (PPD) is linked with the birthing of a baby.

Postpartum Depression

  • PPD is a clinical diagnosis affecting about 1 in 9 women in the first year after giving birth.
  • Most instances occur within the first month or so after birth (initial onset can begin shortly before or after delivery, or present up to 6 to 12 months postpartum).
  • Symptoms may include, among others, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, disconnection from your baby, irritability, obsessive thoughts, and in severe cases, suicidal ideation; this is not an exhaustive list.
  • Some cases pass on their own, but most require treatment from therapists or other medical professions.

Post-Weaning Depression

  • Occurs within a few days or a week after breastfeeding has ceased
  • Has similar symptoms as postpartum depression (sadness, hopelessness, irritability), but the symptoms usually aren’t as severe and don’t usually require clinical evaluation
  • Usually short-lived and passes once hormones become balanced

Causes of Post-Weaning Depression

Post-weaning depression is caused by a combination of physiological factors, situational dynamics, and emotional triggers.

Although each mother experiences post-weaning depression differently—and some women experience it minimally or not at all—the mood swings that happen after weaning can usually be attributed to a few distinct causes.

Shift In Hormones

Breastfeeding your baby releases a cocktail of “feel good” hormones—prolactin and oxytocin—that can lift your mood and bring feelings of peace and tranquility. Prolactin, which supports milk production, is known for producing feelings of relaxation and inducing sleep. Oxytocin, the hormone that causes your milk to letdown, is often called “the love hormone” and helps you bond to your baby and generally feel uplifted.

After weaning, levels of these hormones drop significantly. If weaning happened abruptly, it may feel like you aren’t getting your “fix” of those happy hormones. Research has found that breastfeeding protects some mothers from depression, so it stands to reason that ending it could lead to mood shifts and depressive feelings.

Return of Your Period

If your period hasn’t yet returned, you will find that it does shortly after you wean your baby. This is also a major hormone shift for you. As your body adjusts, you may find that your cycles are irregular and that your PMS symptoms are more intense than usual. This hormonal shift may contribute to your feelings of irritability, anger, and depression.

Change in Your Identity

Even if you were looking forward to weaning and weaned by choice, ending your time as a breastfeeding mom is a momentous shift in your identity. For the time that you were breastfeeding, you shared your body with your baby in a significant way. It’s likely that your life revolved around nursing or pumping for your baby. As stressful as that may have been at times, it gave your life a special purpose, and you may be feeling discomfort and angst about what your mommy-role will look like now.

Guilt

Again, even if weaning was something you were excitedly waiting for, it’s normal to have some mixed emotions when it finally happens. If you weren’t able to nurse as long as you wanted to—or if life circumstances made it difficult to maintain breastfeeding—you might be feeling guilt and regret over how weaning happened. This will be even more likely if you weaned before you were ready, or felt forced or coerced to do so in some way.

You may feel that weaning was your fault. You may worry it was a mistake and will damage your baby. These unresolved feelings can lead to post-weaning depression. Your baby will be fine and you have nothing to feel guilty about; you did nothing wrong.

What Are the Symptoms of Post-Weaning Depression?

Each mother experiences post-weaning depression differently. Most women experience feelings of sadness or general unhappiness, but others describe it as more of a period of irritability or anxiety. There is no one way that you are “supposed to” feel. Post-weaning depression simply means that you are experiencing extreme emotions and mood swings concurrent with weaning your baby.

Common symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Grief
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling extra weepy and sensitive
  • Lack of interest in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Guilt
  • Some women describe it as “really bad PMS”

Is There a Way to Prevent Post-Weaning Depression?

There is no surefire way to prevent post-weaning depression. After all, whenever you wean from breastfeeding, you are going to experience a hormonal shift. Even when moms wean when they choose to and on their own terms, it’s normal to experience a kind of mourning as you let go of a special time in your life as a mom.

However, there are a few things you can do to minimize the symptoms.

Wean Gradually

You will experience much less of a hormonal crash if you wean very gradually. Weaning that lasts several weeks rather than just a week or a few days is much easier on your system. You can drop a feeding once every few days or even less often until you are done nursing or pumping for your baby.

Wean On Your Own Terms

Moms who take ownership of the weaning process and don’t give into peer pressure—from friends, family, or even medical professionals—about how long they should nurse generally feel less conflicted after weaning their babies.

People around you will have very strong feelings about long it’s appropriate for you to nurse. But nursing for many months or even years is healthy for you and your child. Only you can know when the right time is to end the nursing relationship, and when you do it on your own timetable, you will be able to do so confidently, and with more ease.

Talk About Your Feelings

Some mothers who experience post-weaning depression feel reluctant to share how they are feeling with others. They may feel that they don’t want to be a burden their loved ones or they may believe they are overreacting to weaning. However, talking about your feelings with trusted friends or family members is one of the best ways to feel better.

Just letting things out and being honest about what you’re experiencing will decrease the intensity of some of the feelings. It will make you feel less isolated in your experience, and you will be better equipped to come up with a plan for the kind of help you need to start feeling better.

How Long Does Post-Weaning Depression Last?

Post-weaning depression should only last a month or so, as your hormones adjust and you acclimate to your new normal as a non-breastfeeding mother. If after a month or so, your feelings of depression and moodiness don’t subside, speak to your healthcare provider about seeking mental health help, or a medical evaluation.

You don’t have to wait for a full month to do this, though. If post-weaning depression is making it difficult for you to function in your day-to-day life or if you are experiencing suicidal ideation, you should seek medical attention right away.

What Can I Do to Feel Better?

Post-weaning depression usually passes on its own as your body and emotions adjust. But that doesn’t mean you just have to grin and bear it. Here are some things you can do to make this period easier and more manageable.

Eat Well and Rest When Possible

As your body adjusts to its new hormonal makeup, it helps to nourish yourself with wholesome foods, drink plenty of fluids, and sneak in as much rest as possible. This can be easier said than done when you are taking care of a baby or a young child! But do your best to take care of yourself. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and as you are going through this transition, you need all the extra TLC you can get.

Substitute Breastfeeding With Lots of Cuddles

Breastfeeding is more than a feeding method, and when we wean, we often miss the extra closeness and snuggles we get with our little ones. But breastfeeding doesn’t have to mean the end of those cuddles. You can still make feeding time a bonding experience between yourself and your child.

If you have a baby, you can still do skin-to-skin while bottle-feeding (as a bonus, skin-to-skin naturally releases some of those “feel good” hormones you might be missing). This will also help ease the transition for your child, and when your child is happier, you will probably feel better too.

Seek Help From a Therapist

There is never any shame in making an appointment with a mental health professional. You don’t have to go into therapy full-time to reap its benefits: some therapists will help you short-term if you are experience a mental health disruption like post-weaning depression. Meeting with a therapist is something that almost all moms find beneficial at one time or another. If your therapist feels your situation would be helped by medication, this is also something you can discuss.

A Word From Verywell

 If you are experiencing post-weaning depression, you are far from alone. Weaning your baby is no small thing: it changes your body chemistry quite dramatically, and it can elicit many strong emotions. It’s easy to feel shame about what you are experiencing, but there is nothing wrong with you.

In many ways, feeling sadness and even depression after weaning is a rite of passage for a breastfeeding mother. Usually, these feelings pass and you are able to make peace with the experience.

At the same time, if your feelings are very intense or you are finding it difficult to care for yourself or your baby, you shouldn’t delay in getting help. Most cases of post-weaning depression are difficult, but they diminish on their own. In some cases, however, they trigger a period of depression that needs therapeutic treatment.

Either way, post-weaning depression is a time to learn to make self-care a priority, and to honor your body and your feelings as much as possible. You are worth it.

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Article Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression among women. Updated December 5, 2019.

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Postpartum depression. Updated November 2019.