Weaning Depression – It’s More Common Than You Think
There is a milestone in the breastfeeding journey that produces many different and confusing emotions: weaning. Weaning is just as complicated as breastfeeding itself. And often causes mothers to feel sad, lost, empty, happy, guilty, and even experience weaning depression.
The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends exclusive breastfeeding until at least 6 months of age, followed by combined breastfeeding and complementary foods at least until 12 months of age, and continuing to breastfeed for as long as mutually desirable by both mom and baby. In the real world however, not every mother-child pair is able to stick to these guidelines. Many things can come in the way (health, stress, work, low milk supply, etc.) and not allow full adherence to them. When a mother has to prematurely wean, she may experience many conflicting emotions on the subject and is more likely to experience weaning depression.
My Weaning Experience with my Eldest
I want to share with you the emotions I went through during my weaning process. My breastfeeding journey was off to a rocky start, as I talked about in My Personal Story of Overcoming Breastfeeding Difficulties . It took a lot of work to get things on track and as smoothly as possible.
But when my son turned 9 months, a new roadblock emerged – his teeth finally popped out. He was always into biting during breastfeeding (he would clamp down with his gums in utter delight, which I later found out is very common for babies with lip and tongue ties). But without teeth it was bearable, with teeth, not so much.
I struggled for a few weeks with him. But no amount of no’s, removal from the breast, or any other tried and true methods seemed to work. I got to the point that I was having anxiety about feeding him (which was still somewhere around 4 to 5 times a day) and decided that I could no longer take it. So I stopped breastfeeding him and began exclusively pumping for him.
I always had issues with pumping and knew that it was not sustainable for me. In about 2 months my milk dried up and we had to switch exclusively to formula. Even though I hated breastfeeding due to the pain it brought me, I still had a very difficult time when my milk dried up. I bounced between being happy about no longer being in pain, and guilty for not being able to feed my child “liquid gold” (as you can see, “breast is best” got deep into my head).
I would talk to my husband for hours on end about how I felt like a terrible mother. And that my body betrayed me and my child (even though breastfeeding was ruining all other parts of my life). But deep inside I could not help but smile, because my tether has been broken. I was no longer the sole food provider for my child (pure bliss).
My Weaning Experience with my Youngest
I breastfed my second son till around 10 months of age. While I was planning to stop at 6 months, he had other plans. At 6 months, my chubby little angel, decided that he hated bottles and wanted nothing to do with them. So I had to continue feeding from the breast, until he finally took a sippy cup around 8 months.
Overall, I didn’t have as many issues with him as I did with his brother. But still, breastfeeding was not an enjoyable experience for me. I experienced very low energy, extreme exhaustion, lack of libido, and constantly stress around the need to plan my day around feedings (even after breastfeeding the second time, I never quite got comfortable feeding in public).
So when I weaned this time, I had no feelings of guilt. I knew I gave him breastmilk for as long as I could, and that it was time to take care of my own physical and mental health. I was done with this chapter of my life for good. It felt wonderful and freeing. But I also have to say that because I weaned gradually, I didn’t experience any hormonal side effects from weaning.
What Causes Weaning Depression
I know there are lots of mothers out there who love breastfeeding and feel genuinely sad and lost when they have to wean. It hits them on a very deep emotional level, as it redefines their role as a mother. They are no longer the sole provider of food and comfort.
They may feel guilty if they are weaning due to disappearing milk or health problems. Or may be blind sided when their baby pushes them away, and wants nothing to do with their breast. It hits them hard.
There is also a hormonal component to weaning depression. Though not much research has been done on the subject, it is hypothesized that the drop on prolactin and oxytocin is responsible to weaning depression. Both prolactin and oxytocin are higher when a woman is lactating, and are responsible to creating feelings of warmth, calmness, and well-being. So when the levels drop post-weaning, a woman may feel symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Those symptoms are typically short lived (around 1-2 weeks) and disappear on their own. But in some cases, the depression sticks around much longer and requires medical help.
How To Cope with Weaning Depression
The most important thing to remember about breastfeeding is that it needs to only continue for as long as it is mutually beneficial for both mother and child. Once one party is no longer benefiting from this process, it needs to stop.
When it comes to feeling guilt about weaning, do your best to quell the feeling by reminding yourself of all the other wonderful things you bring to your child’s life. I am sure there is an endless supply of those. Focus on all the fun things you can do with your child that do not involve eating.
If what you are feeling is loss and sadness, try to first understand where those feelings are coming from. Are you sad because breastfeeding was the only source of peace and quiet with your child? Was it a private moment away from everyone else? Do you feel the loss of being the sole provider for your child’s needs and don’t understand how to redefine your relationship? The root of the problem will dictate the solution.
If what you’re experiencing is a weaning depression brought on by hormone changes, just try to hang in there. As I said before, your hormones will typically re-balance in 1-2 weeks. And in the meantime, try to focus more on your self-care. You may want to consider adding herbs to help with anxiety and depression. Do your research on what to take. There are many herbal remedies out there that work as well as pharmaceuticals (if not better) in helping support your mental health.
If what you are afraid of missing is quiet and private moments with your child, create new ones that don’t involve feeding. Cuddle up under a warm blanket and read a book. Spend a few extra minutes sitting or lying down next to your child as they drift off to sleep. Give super long hugs and inhale the sweet baby smell. It’ll will help you feel more connected.
If you are not sure about your role as a mother, now that you are no longer the sole provider of comfort, think about the kind of mother you want to be for your child. Think about how you can comfort them in different ways (hugging, speaking softly, cooking their favorite meal, etc.) and how you can teach them to comfort themselves.
All breastfeeding relationships come to an end. And instead of mourning them, we should celebrate them as a new beginning of our child’s independence. But, if you need time to mourn, please, take that time for yourself and mourn. And never feel guilty about it.
Quote of the day
“While many people see weaning as the end of something – a taking away or a deprivation- it’s really a positive thing, a beginning, a wider experience. It’s a broadening of a child’s horizons, an expansion of his universe. It’s moving ahead slowly one careful step at a time. It’s full of exciting but sometimes frightening new experiences. It’s another step in growing up.” – The Womanly art of Breastfeeding
Mental Health Tip of the Day
The weaning process may be difficult for you and the baby emotionally. In order to alleviate your negative emotions take some time to yourself. When you are meeting your emotional needs, you are better able to help your child cope with a difficult weaning process as well.