We all know about the ‘baby blues’ – that weepy period many new mums go through in the week or so after giving birth. It’s attributed mostly to the huge hormonal shifts that occur in our bodies once baby is no longer in residence, and midwives and health visitors are well-versed in how to soothe and advise us on getting through this rocky bit – and make sure it doesn’t turn into something more long-term.
But what about, for lack of a better term, the ‘booby blues’? Weaning your baby, if you’ve been breastfeeding, is another period of great change – and not just for your baby! It’s not well-researched, but anecdotal evidence shows that many mums experience a significant shift in mood when they drop breastfeeds, especially once that last cherished morning or evening nursing session has bitten the dust.
Some of this is probably emotional, of course. One of the lovely things about breastfeeding is the closeness it promotes between mother and child, and few mums find themselves able to consign that relationship to history without at least a fond backward glance. In that illogical, direct-from-the-heart way we process things as mothers, weaning can look like the first scary step toward independence, and it’s all too easy to leap ahead and envision that tiny person with bags packed, on his way out into the big bad world without us. Who wouldn’t get a little teary?
And yet, for many women there’s more to it than that. Only a few studies so far have looked at how weaning can affect a woman’s mood, but all have found evidence that there can be a link between the end of breastfeeding and symptoms of depression. Which stands to reason, really – after all, lactation produces quite a few powerful hormones in our bodies. Prolactin, a.k.a. “the mothering hormone,” increases milk supply, but it’s also a potent mood-soother that relaxes and encourages bonding between mum and baby. Oxytocin, one of the strongest hormones around, gives us a strong sense of contentment (and is also responsible for that potentially embarrassing let-down reflex). When we’re weaning baby from the breast, we’re also weaning ourselves off of this potent cocktail of natural antidepressants. The problem is, we don’t know we’re doing it – so no wonder it takes us by surprise.
“It was like I had hit a brick wall. The feelings of sadness and despair hit me so hard and suddenly, that I was actually shocked and confused,” writes one blogger. Another compared it to “the worst PMS I have ever experienced,” and a couple of poor mums even assumed they must be pregnant again because their emotions were so unpredictable. Their experiences are echoed all over the web; the scientists may not be researching this stuff in the lab, but it looks as if we mums are human guinea pigs, like it or not.
And yet, there’s hope: in a victory for modern motherhood, the power of the Internet is working in our favour. After popular parenting blogger Joanna Goddard posted bravely about her experience, the Huffington Post picked up the story and ran a fantastic piece that sparked lots of talk and doubtless helped thousands of mums who were secretly wondering whether they’d gone crazy. Since we originally posted on this topic in 2012, many bloggers and advice columns have addressed the issue, and now a Google search for “weaning and depression” brings up multiple sources of information and support. The unspoken secret of weaning is out, ladies; and no, it’s not all in your heads.
The good news in all this is that for most women who get weaning-related symptoms, the weepiness and irritability will likely pass in a few days when your hormones settle down, so tuck yourself in, treat yourself kindly and hang in there.
If you don’t start to see light on the horizon within a couple of weeks, though, please don’t suffer in silence. Go see your GP, and take a copy of this blog post with you. Ask him or her to look at the research, and explore your options. You’re absolutely not alone, and there’s effective help out there.
Weaning gradually is also a smart idea, if possible; after all, there’s no sense in going cold turkey unless you have to. Drop one feed at a time, and wait at least a few days before you try dropping the next one. And remember, the breastfeeding may be ending, but the cuddles never have to!
Have you experienced symptoms like these during weaning? Please share your story below, if you feel comfortable doing so; it just might help another mum!