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Why Aren't We Talking About Post-Weaning Depression?

Photograph by Twenty20

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a serious and debilitating condition affecting as many as 1 in 9 mothers. Part of what makes PPD so difficult is that these feelings of depression, detachment and intrusive thoughts feel like the opposite of what new motherhood is supposed to be like. And so many of us keep these feelings hidden, which usually only exacerbates the symptoms.

The good news is that awareness about PPD is growing and so many more women are speaking about their experiences and getting the help they need to feel better. But there's another time in a new mom's life when she might experience an intense bout with depression that no one ever mentions: after she weans her baby.

Post-weaning depression is definitely a thing, but it’s something no one is talking about. I spent eight years working with breastfeeding moms as a breastfeeding counselor and lactation consultant. Time and again, mothers called me, not realizing that the massive depression they felt—usually many months or even years after their babies were born—were a result of weaning their babies.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this would happen?” they’d ask me.

Certainly not every mother experiences depression after weaning, but in my experience, it's extremely common. Although there's not a lot of research about it at this time (come on, researchers, get on it!), most lactation professionals believe it is triggered by the hormonal shift that happens when you stop breastfeeding.

For the months or years that you nursed, your body was flooded with the “feel-good” hormones oxytocin and prolactin, and now, well, it’s not. Not only that, many moms get their periods back when they wean, so that emotional shift can be jarring, too.

Even if you're so ready not to be nursing anymore, you may still grieve the loss more than you expected.

And then, of course, is the transition away from your identity as “breastfeeding mom.” Even if you're so ready not to be nursing anymore, you may still grieve the loss more than you expected. And if your baby or toddler wasn’t ready, and acts extra clingy/cranky, that can exacerbate things even more.

I remember a mom telling me that it felt like her happy drugs were being yanked away from her when she weaned. Other moms described a heaviness on their chest, and an increase in anxious thoughts. Sometimes mothers would confide in me that they felt pressured to wean, but weren’t actually ready, which made the feeling of loss that more intense.

So is there way to ensure that you don’t get post-weaning depression? Making sure you wean when you are ready and on your own terms can really help. Remember, breastfeeding is about you and your baby, and no one else gets to decide when it’s time to be done. Also, whenever possible, it’s important to wean very gradually—eliminating one session at a time until your body is used to the hormonal shift.

All of that said, I have seen plenty of moms who followed all the guidelines and still experienced depression. The same is true for mothers who stopped breastfeeding when they were sure they and their children were super ready.

In most cases, post-weaning depression is short-lived. Your hormones adjust, you and your baby adjust to your changing relationship and it’s all good. But in some instances, the depression lingers or intensifies. If this is you, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You can contact a friend whose been there before, a lactation consultant or a therapist.

The most important thing to remember is you are not a failure for feeling this way, it’s not all in your head, it’s much more common than you think and you absolutely deserve to feel better.

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