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Planning to wean soon? Awareness of this little-known complication can help you succeed



Anna O'Neil - published on 07/27/19

Knowledge is power.

When my son was born, I signed up for every lactation consultant visit the hospital offered. I’d heard my share of horror stories about how hard this was going to be: tongue ties, latch issues, mastitis … I didn’t want to assume that just because it was “natural,” that it was going to be easy. It was hard, but we figured it out. Two years later, when I was ready to stop, it didn’t occur to me that weaning was going to come with a big pile of challenges, too. 

I was pregnant again, and my doctor had said, “Go ahead and wean, it can’t hurt.” But it did hurt. I’m not talking about engorgement, infections, or the emotional pain of bringing change into the relationship I’d always had with my son — I knew how to weather those.

What I didn’t know how to weather was the sudden spike in anxiety and depression. It was so bad I felt like I didn’t recognize myself. It was only weeks into the weaning process, that I finally started googling “emotional problems from weaning.” And there was the usual slew of articles reminding women that weaning might make you a little nostalgic for your baby’s infancy … but when I dug deeper, I found that you can’t always chalk this phenomenon up to nostalgia.

I didn’t find much from sources that only deal with official diagnoses. Post-weaning depression isn’t recognized the same way postpartum depression is.  But it became clear through the sheer number of personal stories I found that what I’d been through was real. On the message boards, in personal blogs, was storyafterstory describing the same phenomenon.

KellyMom, one of the most comprehensive, evidence-based sources of breastfeeding information, explains, “It’s not unusual to feel tearful, sad or mildly depressed after weaning; some mothers also experience irritability, anxiety, or mood swings. These feelings are usually short-term and should go away in a few weeks, but some mothers experience more severe symptoms that require treatment.”

Nobody’s exactly sure why this occurs. It’s hypothesized that it’s hormonal (what else is new?) and has to do with the “drop in prolactin and oxytocin levels.” Kellymom writes, “Prolactin, a hormone that is required for milk production, also brings with it a feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation. Oxytocin, the hormone that is required for milk ejection (let-down), is sometimes referred to as the ‘love hormone.’ It makes sense that a sudden decrease in these hormones could have an effect on a weaning mother’s emotions.”

Anecdotally, post-weaning depression symptoms tend to hit harder when you’ve weaned suddenly, rather than gradually. Like many mood disorders, it’s made noticeably worse by stress and lack of sleep. 

This is one of those situations where knowledge is power. There’s no pill to make the transition easier, although if your symptoms are severe, your doctor might want to treat this depression like any other kind of depression — with therapy, and maybe an antidepressant. Even when post-weaning depression doesn’t require intervention, though, it’s an incredibly difficult experience to go through. For me, it was just awareness of the phenomenon, and knowing that I was not alone, not crazy, that got me through. If it’s a tunnel we have to travel through, at least we know what it is, and that there’s a light at the end.

Upset Pregnant Woman

Read more:
How to deal with the anxiety you may feel right before childbirth

Read more:
The five wonders of pregnancy

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