What is post-weaning depression?

You’ve likely heard about postpartum depression, but did you know that the end of your breastfeeding relationship can also trigger depression?

Although it’s very under discussed and under researched, post-weaning depression is a real concern for many mamas. Post-weaning depression can happen for moms who choose to wean their baby, when it’s a mutual decision between the two, or if baby decides to wean before mama is fully ready. It tends to be more common in mamas who are forced to wean before they’re ready or experience rapid weaning.

If a mom isn’t ready to wean, it makes sense she’d experience sadness about this special relationship ending. Post-weaning depression is more intense and includes a broader range of symptoms than just sadness. Some moms experience an onset of night sweats, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, irritability, trouble concentrating, loss of motivation, weight loss, insomnia, and/or emotional numbness. Symptoms can happen on a spectrum; some mamas experience mild symptoms while others experience intense symptoms.

These symptoms can appear soon after weaning or it may take awhile to experience the shifts, which makes it harder to pinpoint the cause. You may find yourself wondering why you’re so upset that it’s over and looking for something to blame. What caused baby to stop nursing and why am I feeling this way? Why is this happening to me?

The fact that it can also happen to mamas who are fully ready to wean sheds light on hormonal factors.

Hormonal Changes

There are clear hormonal shifts in the body that happen when you wean. Your body decreases production of hormones like prolactin and oxytocin which help produce breast milk and stimulate milk letdown. Your body starts increasing levels of estrogen and progesterone, which can also contribute to feelings of irritability and moodiness. There’s even new research looking at the role of shifts in allopregnanolone, (a neurosteroid metabolite of progesterone) and its impacts on GABA sensitivity (a “feel good/calming” hormone) in post-weaning or post-menstruation related mood changes.

Two big changes occur here. A drop in oxytocin, well-recognized as another “feel good” bonding hormone and a drop in prolactin, another “calming” hormone. This may potentially cause physiological mood changes to occur.

If you’re someone who was sensitive to shifts in hormones (particularly estrogen/progesterone) during your menstrual cycle, you may notice this change more dramatically. If you identify as dealing with PMS/PMDD pre-pregnancy, this additional shift in hormones combined with sleep deprivation, a new transition in motherhood, and other life stressors can be a lot to handle. Weaning may trigger this type of depression or an adjustment disorder with depressed mood. 

Screening or identifying mood concerns around weaning is complex. Not only is this a topic that isn’t well known or understood in the medical profession, but it also may not line up with when you’re seeing your physician or pediatrician who could offer a screening, such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. You may wean after your 6-week check up or well into toddlerhood when well-visits happen yearly instead of every few months. That means you may have to identify this as a reality for yourself or have someone point it out to you.

What To Do

If you’re reading this and currently nursing, you may worry this will happen to you after you wean, which can feel scary. Post-weaning depression doesn’t happen to everyone. You may notice a temporary sadness that resolves on its own with no need for further treatment. If you do start feeling intense sadness or anything described above, you’re one step ahead of most people because you know what you’re experiencing and can get proper help.

Knowledge is power! Before you wean, if possible, it’s a great idea to rally your support. Let your friends/family know that this is a possible scenario for you so they can make sure to watch out for signs and symptoms. This will be helpful especially if you know you’re sensitive to hormonal changes, have a history of depression/anxiety, or feel like your baby is starting to wean before you’re ready. 

If you’re able to wean slowly, that may help as rapid/abrupt weaning can be more triggering than a more gradual approach, although this isn’t always the case.

Just like approaching postpartum with a plan, you can make a plan for post-weaning.  Identify what kind of support you’ll want from friends and family, have a therapist lined up, or plan a fun event to celebrate your breastfeeding/pumping journey. 

Here’s what some of the mamas in our community said about their post-weaning depression:

  • ”Post-weaning depression definitely caught me off guard, but it’s helpful to know it’s more common than I realized.” 
  • “I didn’t realize post-weaning depression was a thing, but man I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I’ve been avoiding refined carbs and sugar and taking my multivitamin and maca to help.” 
  • “I had no idea this was a thing. I just thought I made it up in my head since my doctor didn’t take me seriously when I brought it up”
  • “It felt like a light switch turned off in my brain and a huge dark cloud came over me. Nobody understood it, so I saw a therapist and started taking some supplements like St. John’s Wort to help my post-weaning depression.“
  • “This type of depression happened to me when I went down to just once a day at bedtime. Even though I had done it gradually that shift made me feel out of sorts. When we dropped that final session, I was totally fine.”
  • “Acupuncture and fish oil seemed to help a little bit. I had a hard time for about a week or two.”
  • “I found other ways to release the “feel good” hormones that decreased post-weaning. For me this was exercise and spending more time with friends since I didn’t have to be home to nurse/pump as often.”

You are not alone

It’s normal to feel mixed emotions post-weaning. If you notice, however, that these feelings are impacting your quality of life, it’s time to seek support. Your provider may refer you to a mental health therapist. They can identify what type of treatment plan makes sense for you. It may be something that time, social support, diet, and exercise can resolve. Or you may require therapy, supplementation, and/or medication.

It’s important to note that some providers aren’t aware that this is a concern. That doesn’t mean what you’re experiencing isn’t real. Your best bet may be reaching out to organizations like Postpartum Support International who offer social support and a list of providers who understand unique concerns mamas have.They can offer solutions to help you navigate this.

Know that you are not alone or exaggerating how you’re feeling. We see you, mama!

Want to read more about post-weaning depression? Check out these additional articles: