This was my second baby in two years, and I was prepared. Prepared for the nausea and discomfort of pregnancy, the stares of strangers directed at my round belly. I knew what it would all feel like, the rise and fall of contractions, the marathon of labor, the bliss of an eight-pound newborn on my chest. I knew what to expect in the raw, beautiful days and weeks afterward, the love mixed with the exhaustion, the pain and fear intertwined with the heaven of those sweet newborn smells, the first sleepy smiles.
I was a nurse and a second-time mother, and I felt equipped for all of it. And I was, as much as anyone can be when it comes to guiding a new human into the world. Even with a 19-month-old at home, we managed. We developed a routine, created a new normal.
And this sweet state of preparedness lasted until approximately a month ago when I began to wean from breastfeeding.
I think I really noticed something was off when Anthony Bourdain died. The day I found out, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt bereft, in a way that, despite how much I admired the man, felt disproportionate. It was a bottomless kind of sadness, one of which it felt difficult to climb out.
Or maybe it was the fact that despite my son now regularly sleeping through the night, I felt exhausted, far more so than during those early months of fragmented sleep and frequent night feedings.
Or maybe it was the nausea and dizziness that has popped up the last few weeks. Or the insomnia. Or the anxiety, the irrational worries in the middle of the night that loomed as large as shadows.
Even as a nurse, and a second-time mom, it took me a long time to connect all of these things with the end of breastfeeding, but when I finally did, it was like a lightbulb going off.
Moms are told about postpartum depression. We’re screened for it, checked for it, asked about it by friends, family, and strangers But few people talk about the very real and common occurrence of post-weaning anxiety and depression.
It’s amazing to me now, after two children, that all those months of frequent pregnancy checkups, once mothers have children, we are more or less on our own in the wilderness. There is a 6-week checkup, but other than that, we are typically told to call only if we have problems and to check in for our annual OB appointment after a year. This would be fine if the changes and shifts of the post-partum experience ended at 6 weeks, but anyone who has had children will laugh at the idea that it takes a month and a half to return to “normal.”
If you’ve never heard of post-weaning depression and anxiety, you wouldn’t be alone. Which is why I imagine, many mothers, like myself, experience mood and physical symptoms with weaning and have little idea that the two are linked.
However, there are very concrete, science-backed reasons why any woman would feel “down” or “off” with weaning. When a woman is breastfeeding, the levels of two hormones, prolactin (the milk-stimulating hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone) are elevated. When breastfeeding stops, these levels drop precipitously, leading to a slew of symptoms including depression, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, etc. Unlike postpartum depression, post-weaning depression has not been studied extensively, but the few academic studies that do exist have shown a clear link between the cessation of breastfeeding and feelings of anxiety and depression.
While there may be little research on this issue, an anecdotal search of the internet world will reveal numerous stories from women who have experienced mood or emotional changes with weaning, sometimes severe ones.
Most of the time, the mood changes that come with weaning are brief, mild, and temporary. I have been fortunate that this is true of my experience. Personally, as soon as I was able to link my symptoms with weaning, I immediately felt better, mostly because I could recognize that what I was feeling related to the hormonal shifts in my body, and that I knew these shifts would settle.
This is why it’s so important that mothers are aware of this issue when it comes time to end their breastfeeding experience. Many women who have not had any feelings of depression or anxiety postpartum may have a surge of these feelings with weaning. And women who have experienced depression and anxiety during pregnancy or postpartum could see these symptoms worsen, sometimes dramatically.
Beyond simple preparation, it’s important that mothers be aware of post-weaning mood issues so that they can recognize when these feelings are severe or not improving and require a discussion with a healthcare provider. If you talk to a healthcare provider who brushes off weaning mood issues due to a lack of understanding or research (as is the experience with some women), find another one. Postpartum Support International is a great source for referrals.
I’m a planner. I like to know what to expect, particularly when it comes to my body and hormones. When I was pregnant, there were endless resources about what was happening in my body, down to the specific day. I could prepare for labor because there were also countless resources and guides, as well as frequent contact with a healthcare provider. For the immediate postpartum period, I could arm myself with books and websites and touch base with my pediatrician at my baby’s frequent checkups.
However, seven months in, when it came time for me to wean, I found myself in a situation for which I had zero preparation or warning. I felt lost in a sea of hormonal changes and shifts, at a time when I thought I was supposed to be back to my pre-baby self. At this point after having a baby, many women are expected to have “bounced back”, which is why many women may be afraid to speak up or ask for help.
As new moms, it’s easy to feel a little whiplash, after the careful scrutiny and monitoring of pregnancy, suddenly set adrift to deal with the continued physical and hormonal changes in our bodies, as well as the major shift in our lives that comes with welcoming a child. Which is why we have to be there for each other, talk about our experiences so no one feels alone, and know that there is no “normal” when it comes to navigating our post-baby lives.