The breastfeeding journey is unique for each person. While we may plan for breastfeeding and consider things like pumping, burp cloths, a healthy diet, and learning about different holds or getting the latch just right, not many of us consider what happens after we finish breastfeeding. Regardless of whether you fed for three days, three months, or three years, many women experience weird symptoms, intense emotions, or mood swings after stopping breastfeeding. Some individuals may go on to develop post-weaning depression.
Post-weaning depression refers to feelings of anxiety, depression, irritation, and moodiness after someone stops breastfeeding. It’s important to understand that regardless of how long you breastfed or whether you wean intentionally or for other reasons outside of your control, you may experience post-weaning depression.1 It’s also important to differentiate that while it is not a clinical diagnosis like postpartum depression, and research is still emerging, post-weaning depression experiences can be very real for many women. So, let’s dive into why it might occur and what symptoms to look out for.
Many of us know about the massive hormonal changes that occur after giving birth, but a similar shift also occurs when weaning.2 When we feed our babies via the breast, we release:2,5
- Oxytocin: Also known as the love hormone, our bodies release oxytocin when we are close or skin-to-skin with our babies. It helps us release or let down milk, supports our bond with our babies, promotes a sense of well-being, and reduces stress.
- Prolactin: This helps with milk supply and increases feelings of relaxation and sleepiness.
When we cease breastfeeding, our bodies no longer release these chemicals at the same level and consistency, and it has to adjust. We no longer have these feel-good chemicals on tap, and there can be an adjustment period as our body weans off these feel-good hormones!
In addition, breastfeeding is not just about chemicals. There are also the physical (body) and emotional changes to consider after stopping breastfeeding, such as:3,4
- Guilt: Perhaps you didn’t breastfeed for as long as you wanted or had to wean for some reason. Mothers feel a lot of pressure to breastfeed, and you may face stigma if you don’t or can’t.
- Bonding: Many feel that breastfeeding is a time for bonding and miss this experience when they wean. In addition, weaning signifies a step toward independence . . . and being away from you. This can be upsetting and distressing.
- Engorgement: There are physical side effects of stopping breastfeeding. For instance, when breasts don’t fully drain after feeding, they can become uncomfortable and full. They can feel warm to the touch, leak, and swell in size until they are used to no longer producing milk.
- Mastitis: This can sometimes feel like the flu and is associated with weaning. Others experience mastitis when their breast doesn’t fully drain, and it can lead to flu-like symptoms or infections because the stagnant milk can become a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Periods: Your period may return or change. This is because hormones influence our periods, and the swings and hormonal shifts when weaning can mean our periods look different in terms of duration, flow, pain, and emotional upheaval in the lead-up.
- Weight gain: We burn calories when we breastfeed, and when we stop, many women are used to a particular diet or volume of food. It can take a little while for appetites to return to normal, so it’s natural to experience weight gain or other body changes.
You may be curious about how long it takes for hormones to balance after weaning, and while there is no exact date or timeline, symptoms will likely resolve in a few weeks. Post-weaning depression is only temporary, and your body will adjust.1,2 Please know that even if things are temporary or relatively normal regarding weaning experiences or if your symptoms bother or concern you, it’s still okay and essential for you to seek support.
Because weaning is associated with chemicals and hormonal changes, you might not be able to stave off post-weaning depression entirely. But there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood or severity:3,4
- Slowly wean: This isn’t always possible, but if you can gradually taper down your breastfeeds, your body gets used to a gradual reduction rather than a sudden change.
- Don’t rush it: Some parents feel pressure to wean because of milestones like age, the development of teeth, etc., but don’t fall into that trap. Wean whenever is necessary or right for you and your child; only you will know when it is right.
There are some things you can do for yourself to help with post-weaning depression, like finding another way to bond with your baby or keeping up skin-to-skin contact, which helps with oxytocin release.1 You can also engage in other feel-good activities like exercise or self-care.
Understanding the potential changes and making plans is essential; if you understand the impact of physical and emotional changes, you can better plan for support. Consider things like meal prep (to ensure you have a good source of nutrients and healthy meal options while you wean), check in with your general practitioner, find telehealth services, or try face-to-face counseling if you need support. You could also check in with your local lactation consultant, find a local La Leche rep, chat with friends, or even arrange emotional support check-ins with loved ones.
Weaning is a big step. Sometimes, it’s the first significant marker for parents that their child is becoming independent. This can be a time of celebration but also a time of distress or mixed emotions. Ensure you make the right or necessary choices for yourself and your family, with no pressure from external influences. And make sure you have a good support network when you start the weaning process. You’ve got this!