Mums often lament about the endless feeding cycles or the pain of engorgement. You've heard about the horrors of cracked nipples and mastitis. But no one seems to swap stories about what can happen when you stop nursing: sadness, anxiety, even depression. Unlike postpartum depression and the post-delivery "baby blues," not a lot of people know about — or talk about — the blues that can sneak up on you when you wean your little one.
For me, the sadness came as a total surprise. I had chosen to stop nursing when my son was about 7 months old. My pumping efforts had been yielding fewer and fewer millilitres and an impending trip where I'd have little time to pump gave me a "reason" to just call it quits. Within a week, I had fully finished nursing, and, beyond the joy that came from putting my pumping supplies into storage, I honestly didn't think much about it. I felt totally OK with my decision until about two weeks later when I didn't.
I felt sad. I felt bad about stopping. I felt generally down. I wasn't enjoying my sweet baby like I had been. It was subtle, but it was still very obvious to me that something was off. And it seemed to come out of nowhere. After a few days in a slump, I took to the internet, as one does, in search of other mothers who also felt what I thought was just "guilt after weaning."
I stumbled upon an article that I remembered reading before I was even pregnant. It was Joanna Goodard's essay about realising her six-week bout of depression was related to abruptly weaning her son. In addition to her honest and relatable account, she shared stories from her readers and friends who'd gone through the same thing. She linked to another blogger's post about "weaning sadness." That article has 63 comments, many from women who'd had similar experiences. A further Google search of "weaning and depression" led me to a short post from the popular breastfeeding resource KellyMom confirming that "it's not unusual to feel tearful, sad or mildly depressed after weaning."
So this was, in fact, a real thing. Just a thing that no one seems to talk about, or really even know about. The medical literature to support this experience is hard to find, if it even exists. A decades-old article on La Leche League explains that "the sudden shift in hormones" that comes from abrupt weaning may lead to feelings of depression. The First Year version of the trusty What to Expect series casually mentions hormonal issues in a chapter dedicated to weaning and states that "you'll probably be more than a little misty at the end of this chapter of your child's life."
In my own ob/gyn's 78-page handbook given to expecting mothers, one page is devoted to breastfeeding and another to explaining postpartum blues and depression, but there is zero mention of the potential to experience changes in mood or irritability during or after weaning. Why is no one talking about this? Or informing mums about this?
Dr. Iffath Hoskins, a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at NYU Medical Centre says it's "quite rare" to encounter patients dealing with clinical depression related to weaning but that it is "quite common for patients to feel sad" due to the "transition from a phase that has large amounts of oxytocin production," which is "the hormone related to mothers feeling happy." She adds that because of the often gradual nature of weaning, "mothers may or may not be acutely aware of the related issues all at once."
Even if these feelings of sadness aren't always strong enough to warrant a diagnosis of actual depression, they often exist. And with almost 80 percent of women at least attempting to breastfeed, it's a possibility that mums need to know about. Just being aware of your feelings can help you get through them and taking your time to wean can also be beneficial. Dr. Hoskins recommends weaning in stages and replacing the "happy mother-baby bonding time" of nursing with other interactions to lessen the effects of the hormonal shift you'll experience.
My mood picked back up within a week, but I wish I'd known what I was dealing with at the time, however slight the slump was. Now, with my second, I plan to go easy on myself and take the weaning process slowly since I know what I'm up against.