Have you been weaning your baby from breastfeeding? Do you find yourself feeling unusually blue — and is that normal?
As your baby grows and begins to wean off your milk, some moms feel they are losing the close connection that comes with breastfeeding. In some mothers, this change, along with hormonal changes, can cause post-weaning depression.
How do you know if you have post-weaning depression? What can you do about it?
- What is Post-Weaning Depression?
- What Causes Post-Weaning Depression?
- Do You Have Post-Weaning Depression?
- How Long Does Post-Weaning Depression Last?
- What Should I Do?
- Can Post-Weaning Depression Be Avoided?
- Am I At Risk?
- When Do I Have to Wean?
- If You’re Scared of Your Feelings
- Have You Experienced Post-Weaning Depression?
What is Post-Weaning Depression?
As the name suggests, it happens during or after weaning — the process of slowly introducing other foods into your baby’s diet as you stop feeding them breast milk.
What Causes Post-Weaning Depression?
Though post-weaning depression is a relatively new area of study, doctors and scientists believe the emotional changes that happen during weaning, coupled with hormonal fluctuations, cause the disorder (2).
The “feel-good” hormone of oxytocin is essential for breastfeeding. It’s what triggers our let-down reflex, the flow of breast milk from the breast. Oxytocin also produces feelings of calm and affection that help you bond with your baby. In addition, Prolactin, the milk-making hormone, produces feelings of sleepiness and relaxation in mom (3).
As you wean, the levels of oxytocin and prolactin — and other hormones — start to decrease in your brain. This can be quite sudden and trigger post-weaning depression.
If weaning is going faster than you expected, or if you are not ready to wean but need to for medical reasons, you are at increased risk for post-weaning depression (4).
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Do You Have Post-Weaning Depression?
If you are going through or have completed the weaning process, be on the lookout for these symptoms of post-weaning depression (5):
- Extreme exhaustion and fatigue.
- Trouble sleeping at night.
- Intense, persistent sadness.
- Little interest in your baby or family.
- Anxiety and constant worrying.
- Thoughts of harming yourself.
Every woman is different, so the symptoms of postpartum depression and post-weaning depression can manifest with varying levels of severity. Listen to your body and your emotions. You’ll likely be able to tell if something doesn’t feel right.
How Long Does Post-Weaning Depression Last?
Post-weaning depression is generally a short-term problem. As your hormones stabilize and you fall into a new routine, you should start to feel better.
As a baseline, if you have feelings of intense sadness that last longer than two weeks, you may want to talk with your doctor. This is especially true if you have experienced depression before, whether during your pregnancy or with other children.
What Should I Do?
If you start noticing the symptoms of post-weaning depression, talk to your doctor. Medication and therapy are often the best courses of treatment. Talking through this transition period can provide comfort and clarity.
Many women feel like seeing a doctor or taking medication makes them weak or less of a mother. This is not true. Depression is a common side effect for many women throughout pregnancy and baby’s first years.
There’s no shame in getting help and support!
Can Post-Weaning Depression Be Avoided?
To reduce your risk of post-weaning depression, follow these three tips:
- Wean slowly: Take your time weaning your baby from breast milk. Drastically reducing feedings at an accelerated rate is a surefire way to confuse your hormones.
Gradual weaning allows your body to adjust over time, making the hormonal fluctuations less pronounced.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
- Live healthfully: Parenthood is hard! Many mothers struggle to take care of themselves the way they deserve to be cared for. Focus on implementing healthy living habits, including getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and getting some exercise daily. Even a little bit helps.
- Make bonding time: Bond with your baby in a physical way even after breastfeeding ends. Maintain skin-to-skin contact, give your baby a massage, and play at your baby’s level.
Am I At Risk?
Post-weaning depression may happen to any mom, but you may be at greater risk for post-weaning depression if you have:
- A history of depression or other mental illnesses.
- Experienced postpartum depression.
- Experienced a traumatic birth, such as an unplanned Cesarean.
- Struggled with life changes, such as the death of a loved one, during pregnancy.
- A lack of a support system.
Discuss your risk of postpartum and post-weaning depression with your doctor before you give birth. If you have a plan in place ahead of time, you can approach possible depression with confidence.
When Do I Have to Wean?
If you are able, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you breastfeed your baby until they are 6 months old, and then start introducing other age-appropriate foods alongside breast milk until your baby turns one and for as long after as you and your baby would like (6).
It’s in this period from 12 to 18 months old that weaning is most often undertaken.
However, deciding when to wean your child from breast milk is a personal decision to be made with your doctor. Some women decide to breastfeed into the toddler years. Babies often will self-wean as well, providing a more natural transition for the both of you.
If You’re Scared of Your Feelings
For some women, depression can cause the desire to enact self-harm or even harm their baby. If you’re experiencing these thoughts, it’s important to seek help. Discuss your feelings right away with your partner or close family member.
If you feel you cannot open up to someone you know, reach out to a hotline. The more you try to suppress or hide your feelings, the more they may intensify.
If you find yourself having these intrusive thoughts, you’re not a bad mother, and you have not failed your family. We all have struggled in some way or another! Needing help is normal.
Have You Experienced Post-Weaning Depression?
Post-weaning depression is relatively unknown and should be discussed more. While it can be a difficult emotional time, remember these feelings can and will end.
You can rely on the suggestions of your doctor and the support of those close to you.
If you have experienced post-weaning depression, we want to hear your stories. What helped? What didn’t?
Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below. And forward this to a mom you know who might need a show of love, encouragement, and support!