Picture this: After nine rewarding months of nursing, you decide it’s time to transition your baby away from the breast. Good for you, Mama (we support your hypothetical journey however long or short it may last). It may take a few weeks, but eventually you and Baby will be on the same page — all bottle, no boob, and no problem, right? Kind of.
This is what you wanted — what you’ve been striving for — so why do you feel so darn sad? Why are you having a hard time letting go of this moment in time? And, seriously, what is up with this sudden emotional distress and mental exhaustion? It is called post-weaning depression. It’s real, and it’s confusing — so let’s clear some things up.
What is post-weaning depression?
While you most likely know about postpartum depression, there’s a good chance you have never heard the term “post-weaning depression.” And while it warrants more attention, there is a definitive lack of medical research around the topic. The gist of it is this: After weaning a baby from breastfeeding (after any amount of time), a mom may, quite suddenly, feel depressed, anxious, irritable, emotional, or guilty. She may experience mood swings and sudden exhaustion; the effects may be mental and physical — and the symptoms may last for a few weeks.
Why do some women experience post-weaning depression?
While scientific research is limited, there are several quite obvious reasons women may experience some degree of post-weaning depression:
- Hormonal changes after weaning: First and foremost, keep in mind that your postpartum hormones are already all over the place. In some ways, breastfeeding has regulated and stabilized your hormonal levels. What’s more, when you nurse your baby, you benefit from the effects of the “happy hormones,” prolactin and oxytocin. As you wean your little love bug from the breast and ultimately stop nursing, these hormones plummet. This may be especially true if you stop breastfeeding quite suddenly. It’s possible that you may feel temporarily sad (among other emotions) once these hormones are no longer regularly flowing.
- The return of your period: If you have not gotten your period back yet, you can anticipate that it’ll most likely make its long-awaited encore performance soon after weaning. Watch out, it may be a doozy, and this, too, will put your hormones to the test. You may feel “extreme PMS”; these mood swings and strong emotions can contribute and pile on top of that post-weaning depression.
- Ending a milestone: In addition to the very real hormone and chemical responses happening in your body, there’s also the emotional pull of ending your breastfeeding journey. Even if you are eager to have more freedom and take back your breasts, you may suddenly be surprised by the overpowering sadness that comes with wrapping up a major mama milestone.
- Mom guilt: And then, of course, there is mom guilt. It’s a phenomenon and a fact of life that moms will perpetually feel guilty no matter what they do or how hard they try. Parenting is no easy feat — and you will likely question every decision you make, big or small. Ending breastfeeding is just one choice that may come with an instant surge of doubt. Just you wait.
5 tips for preventing or dealing with post-weaning depression
Whether you’re just about to start weaning or in the throes of a mini depression after your last nursing session, there are some ways to blunt the physical and emotional effects of ending your breastfeeding journey. Here are five tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t make this decision hastily. Before you decide to wean Baby, really take the time to hash out the pros and cons. This has to be your choice — no one else’s — so quiet the external talk and listen to your gut. Think you maybe want to keep going a wee bit longer? Take it day by day. Decisively ready to quit? No shame in that game; go for it, but be prepared that as you are weaning and eventually stop, you may, once again, feel conflicted — it’s natural.
- Take your time. If you have made the call to stop weaning, try to take it slow and make it a gradual process. Cut out one nursing session at a time and give yourself and your baby the opportunity to adjust and transition. This will also help to keep your hormone levels relatively stable.
- Focus on a healthy lifestyle. Whether you’re actively weaning or fully moved on, try to focus on your own health and well-being — especially if you’re facing feelings of depression or anxiety. Eat a balanced diet, get movement (exercise can work wonders!), and prioritize sleep. It’s important to take care of you, too. Self-care is not selfish, it’s necessary.
- Maintain the skin-on-skin connection. You may not be offering your breast any more, but that doesn’t mean you have to skimp on snuggles. Get some sweet cuddle time in, and you and Baby may have an easier time with this transition. Furthermore, you may continue to benefit from the calming hormones that skin-to-skin contact can help to produce and release.
- Seek help. Of course it never hurts to speak with your OB, primary care physician, or a mental-health professional when you are not quite feeling like yourself. Do note that post-weaning depression typically lasts a few weeks to a month; if you continue experiencing symptoms, it’s important to rule out other mental and physical conditions. Also note that while postpartum depression typically starts soon after birth, it can occur any time within a year. Either way, if you are unable to care for yourself or your child, or are having thoughts of self-harm, seek immediate help.
Whether you breastfeed your baby for one month or two whole years, the journey is meaningful — physically, mentally, and emotionally. You and your child have benefitted in more ways than one from this special bonding time. When you’re confidently ready to move on, do it on your own terms.
That’s not to say that you won’t feel any temporary sadness, guilt, or anxiety, but you’ll be able to remind yourself that this too shall pass. And if you experience post-weaning depression, you can be prepared to understand that this is not your imagination at play; you are feeling this way with good reason. You’ll be okay, in time. In the meanwhile, go cuddle that cutie of yours — you’ve got this.
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