Breastfeeding – weaning blues, the depression nobody talks about

12
65440

“At 4 months we took the advice of health professionals and started offering top up bottles after a medical report noted “failure to thrive”. This was heart breaking. Unfortunately, of course, my supply dropped and my boy was getting more and more frustrated at the breast, until his bottle arrived. There were tears at every feed. At 5 months we weaned as it seemed unfair to see our baby getting upset and frustrated. 6 weeks on I am still mourning the loss of our breastfeeding relationship. When he has an unsettled day I have feelings of inadequacy, not being able to comfort him at the breast. I also feel haunted by hindsight, could I have done more?”

It’s perfectly normal to have feelings of grief and self doubt when weaning from breastfeeding happens earlier than you have planned. But there can be other, strong emotions, including vicious mood swings that can be related to weaning, whatever the age of your child or if this was a ‘natural’ weaning decided by your baby or a gradual ‘mother –led’ weaning.

While there is a plethora of research about postnatal depression and  awareness programs,  there is a lack of information about post weaning depression and a paucity of awareness, even among health professionals. On mum who suggested her diagnosis of clinical depression seemed to be associated with weaning was told by her psychiatrist, “well, if that’s what you want to believe.”

Is it any wonder then, that women who experience  symptoms of depression, including extreme sadness, low energy  and vicious mood swings, around weaning are anxious about speaking out? In fact, most discussion of post weaning depression comes from the ‘blogosphere’.

Blogger ‘Swistle’   who describes her feelings in journal entries says:   “At 1 week and 4 days: “I don’t know what’s the matter with me; it’s like I’ve lost my mind. I’m on the edge of fury all the time; I spent all yesterday and all morning so far today losing it over every little thing. EVERYTHING drives me crazy in about 2 seconds. It seems way out of hand.”

Susan Schade, a writer and 39-year-old mother of three, weaned gradually, around her son’s first birthday. She says, “ I took plenty of time and started by just dropping one feeding a day. About three or four days later, I dropped another one. The transition was very smooth. It was easier to stop breastfeeding my son than I thought it would be. I wasn’t expecting that it would be worse for me than him. She describes in her blog  how her emotions began to change as she started dropping feeds and plummeted to ‘like the worst PMS ‘ she had ever experienced:  “I snap at my husband when he tries to use a certain coffee cup. I grit my teeth at my kids when I hear them fighting with each other. I look at my baby drinking whole milk out of a sippy cup and I burst into tears. It is 6.40 am on a Monday and it has been two days since I quit breastfeeding.”

Breastfeeding is a finely tuned chemical connection between mother and child. Although there is a veritable cocktail of hormones involved in breastfeeding and mother/infant bonding, the hormones prolactin and oxytocin are most important for milk production. While prolactin is known colloquially as the hormone of tender nurturing, oxytocin is often referred to as ‘the love hormone’.  And it seems that the withdrawal of these two hormones which give mothers a sense of calm as well as encouraging a strong connection with their babies, could be the link to post weaning depression.

Alison Stuebe, an obstetrician-gynecologist at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, led a pilot study of 52 mothers of infants, which found that depressed mothers produced less oxytocin during breastfeeding. That research, published in the Journal of Women’s Health,  raised the interesting question of whether there is something wrong with a woman’s oxytocin production that is making her anxious and depressed, or is the anxiety repressing the oxytocin,” Stuebe said.

While this study was investigating the link between depression and oxytocin in women who had ‘failed’ breastfeeding experiences, Dr Stuebe says “we don’t have the data that measure oxytocin levels with breastfeeding and weaning. It’s certainly plausible that losing that is going to make people feel physically bad, independent of any cognitive sadness they’re experiencing.”

The good news is that unlike postnatal depression which can take months or even longer to recover from, post weaning depression seems to be short-lived and, although it can be debilitating, usually resolves within weeks as women’s hormones rebalance.  In her blog, A Cup of Jo  , New York blogger Joanna Goddard describes how after about six weeks of feeling utterly debilitated by depression, she simply woke up one morning and it was over:  “It felt like I had been swimming in a pool, and suddenly—woosh!—I had resurfaced and my head had come back out of the water, and I could see the bright sun and breathe in the fresh air again. It felt like waking up from a bad dream. Suddenly, I was myself again. That Tuesday morning, I woke up, the sun was shining and I felt happy again. My depression had just…ended. And the crazy thing was: I got my period the very next day, for the first time in over a year and a half. It was as if my hormones had finally figured themselves out, and boom! I was back to normal.”

For other women though, medical help may be necessary to overcome depression.  This is a quality of life issue and if low moods, mood swings and symptoms of depression are present for more than two weeks, it is wise to seek help.

Of course, many women will wean babies without any psychological side effects apart from the normal sadness that goes with realising your tiny baby has grown into a little person who needs you in different ways. The best way to wean and avoid sudden hormonal withdrawal is to consider the mantra ‘gradually, with love’, dropping breastfeeds slowly over several weeks or longer.  A good rule of thumb is to drop no more than one feed a week.  And, to help you stay chemically balanced, try implementing other activities that will release oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ – cuddling and intimacy with your partner, massages, sharing fun and food with friends, as well as eating healthy foods and exercising to boost your endorphins (happy hormones) and meditation to help you feel calm.

Pinky Mckay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling baby care author. She has an ebook ‘Weaning With Love’, covering all aspects of weaning whether you are starting family foods, wondering how to gently encourage your toddler to wean or needing reassurance that your little one will wean naturally.  

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe this is what is happening to me at the moment. I’m struggling to feed from one side due to ongoing nipple trauma (bubs is 13 months and feeding has been a roller coaster since day one). I am not feeding as often from the injured side to try to get it to heal, I’m still expressing but not getting a lot from it. Wonder if it’s possible I could have ‘weaning depression’ from this? Or could be lack of sleep of course!! I am happy one minute and angry the next…

    • Hi Carol,
      You are doing an awesome job under what sounds like a pretty tough ride.
      Regardless of the reasons for your mood swings, it is worth getting a checkup. See your GP and ask for blood tests as well as discussing what is happening – thyroid, iron and vitamin D levels. Also try and get some help so you can have a rest. Exercise, omega 3 and counselling support will help too.

    • Hi Carol,
      I have been experiencing these moods and feelings as well, usually worse the week leading up to getting my period! I am off to the doctor this week as I believe I could also be suffering from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, it has to do with your period, (if you have it back yet, I got mine back when my little girl was 16 weeks old, sorry if TMI) & it isn’t the same as before….. & I take Vitamin D.

      Pinky is right! You are doing an amazing job & the fact that you have noticed you aren’t feeling right in yourself & that you are talking about it & taking steps is also amazing! You’re a great Mum!! ♡

  2. Oh wow so thankful for this information I have hit the ground hard it’s been a week since stopping breastfeeding after 14 months our journey has come to an end and many more new journeys to begin but I have been so numb, sad, moody the heaviest period ever, so tired all the time I even considered it could be chronic fatigue syndrome and just no patience then. Read this and as soon as I read it bubba wakes up I give him a bottle and I break out into happy sad tears finally knowing what I was going through finally an explanation so thank you pinky not only did you get me through tough times early on with your bikkies helping to boost my supply constantly but now this I’m so appreciative there are women like u out there 😊

    • Hi Briony, I am so glad this was helpful for you , it’s simply not talked about yet it feels so terrible and it is ‘chemical’ so you aren’t ‘losing it’. If you are feeling so tired it would be worth also getting your thyroid and iron levels checked. Be gentle on yourself.

  3. I’m so glad I read this too. I had my suspicions that this was why I was feeling so low, short tempered and tired. It’s so much more emotional than I thought. My little baby girl is growing up so fast.

  4. This has really helped me ! After feeding my daughter for 16 months , we went cold turky 1 week ago! I started feeling tierd and moody about day 3 and by day 6 fully depressed mood , exausted , anxious and just an awful empty feeling in general! I have had bad episodes of depression in the past and was worried i was slipping into that again. But now I know why and feel alot calmer about it ! Time and patience !

  5. I have been experiencing horrible mood swings and terrible PMS since my periods came back. however my last period has been the worst yet. It has been debilitating and much more like depression then PMS. I have a horrible sense of being overwhelmed by everything, I’m reclusive, moody, exhausted and prone to tears at any given moment.

    This also corresponds with my LO dramatically reducing her breastfeeds. she is 16mo and in the last two weeks has gone from feeding 6 times a day to 3. we haven’t weaned completely, I’m just following her lead but I have seen a significant reduction in my supply. could this be a factor to how I am feeling? I haven’t seen anyone else say it is worse around the time of their period but with the hormonal upheaval it seems to make sense…?

    • Hello Helen, yes this sounds perfectly reasonable that your mood swings are influenced by hormonal upheaval. There are women who have supply issues around periods, a drop in milk supply that is associated with your period can be associated with a drop in blood calcium levels which occurs in the middle of your menstrual cycle, around the time that you ovulate. To combat this, you can take a calcium/magnesium supplement. It would be helpful to see your doctor about your mood swings /PMS to see what other help is available.

  6. I’m so glad I found this! I’ve felt like I’ve been going crazy. My boy has been off the breast for a week and my head’s been all over. Feeling like a bad mum, Crying, uncontrollably laughing in tears over how crap I’ve felt. Lack of concentration and just completely down. Acting normal for my family worrying they would think I’m crazy too. But at least I know now it’s going to pass even if it doesn’t feel like it will right now. Thanks for the light at the end of the tunnel 😇

  7. I had wondered about this and I’m glad I found this article. I only cut down one feed a day with my (now 3yr old) girl when she was about 20 months – just the post lunch pre nap one, still having morning and night time feeds everyday and I really struggled. I was miserable all afternoon at work for weeks and weeks (I used my lunch break for the feed as we have an amazing workplace with awesome ECE on site). Also just generally down. It was like having really bad PMS but consantly for weeks, And I had had regular periods despite exclusively bf from 2months post partum. I did consider at the time that it was likely to be oxytocin withdrawal but struggled to find much data on this. So yay- now I feel vindicated and will certainly be better equipped to manage this stage next time around. Interestingly I did go to my GP when I was feeling low and useless after cutting the final feed and had a full suite of bloods done but nothing came up.
    On top of this I got mastitis (with a 20month old!!) just from dropping that one feed (I have always had issues managing over supply from about day 3 post partum and had mastitis a few times). Next time I dropped a feed (I waited months) I used cabbage leaves and thankfully that saw me right, and did the same when we finally dropped that last 5 minute before bed feed.

Leave a Reply to Lydia Simpson Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here