Post-Weaning Depression Is Real—And This Is What It’s Like

I was sitting on the bathroom floor, crying with a glass of wine big enough for two, watching my baby sleep through the baby monitor because it made me feel like I was spending more time with him. At the time, I got about 45 minutes with him in the morning that I didn’t really get to enjoy because I was rushing around to get everyone out the door. I got about an hour of awake time with him in the evening that I spent bathing him, feeding him, and putting him to bed. It wasn’t enough time.

I’d gone back to work the previous week, and I’d finished breastfeeding the week before that. Everything was changing too fast. My baby was going to grow up too fast, and even though I only got about an hour with him after work, why did I sometimes feel relieved to put him to bed? What was wrong with me?

I rocked him, I smelled him, and I prayed that I’d never forget how his little head felt against my heartbeat, his chubby hands around my neck. But I knew as the years passed, that feeling would get harder to recall, and the thought made me cry … again. Everything made me cry.

I posted a picture to Instagram from daycare drop off with the fakest smile I’ve ever smiled on my face, with a pithy caption about putting on real pants all week. No one would know I cried all the way to and from work every day. That’s the thing about depression (and social media, for that matter): it’s tricky, and you can’t always tell what’s really going on from the outside.

 

It was just the stress and the adjustment of going back to work, everyone told me. I even believed it, too, because why, four months postpartum, would any sort of depression just now be hitting me?

 

I went to bed crying, I woke up crying, and most days, I tried to convince myself that I felt OK. I could almost believe it until something would happen—big or small, it didn’t really matter—that would set me off. A happy picture of my son at daycare? I should be the one with him. A fussy baby before bedtime? We both ended the night in tears. Couldn’t find the shirt I wanted to wear? A crisis.

It was just the stress and the adjustment of going back to work, everyone told me. I even believed it, too, because why, four months postpartum, would any sort of depression just now be hitting me? Neither my support system nor I ever thought of post-weaning depression because none of us had heard of post-weaning depression. I wish we had because I would have been more prepared for the crash I experienced after I stopped breastfeeding.

 

 

What Is Post-Weaning Depression?

In the simplest terms, it’s depression that occurs after you stop breastfeeding, and it’s typically the result of hormonal changes and all the other stressors that come with bringing a new human into this world.

Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, something people call the “love hormone” or the “feel-good hormone,” into your brain. Oxytocin helps you feel calm, and it reduces stress. When you stop breastfeeding, your oxytocin levels plummet, and some people even experience a form of withdrawal. Prolactin, the hormone that helps you produce milk, also promotes relaxation, and its levels significantly drop after weaning. The hormonal fluctuation can cause increased anxiety, stress, and in more severe cases like mine, depression.

 

In the simplest terms, it’s depression that occurs after you stop breastfeeding, and it’s typically the result of hormonal changes and all the other stressors that come with bringing a new human into this world.

 

“Post-weaning depression is a real thing, but it just hasn’t been studied much,” said Dr. Lauren Demosthenes, board-certified OB-GYN and senior medical director at Babyscripts. Along with the hormonal changes, “it’s all wrapped together with fatigue, returning to work, guilt, and adjusting to a new family dynamic. There’s really nothing else on post-weaning depression except a few things in the lay press mentioning hormonal fluctuations and that it needs more study,” Dr. Demosthenes said.

Anxiety and depression were not new to me, but I had never experienced the depth of this sadness that hurt as much physically as it did emotionally. My stomach always ached. My chest always felt like it was being crushed. Tears were always just behind my eyes.

I felt hopeless, like I was sinking farther and farther below the surface, looking up at the disappearing faces of my family and friends—smiling and waving and telling me everything would be OK, I’d be able to come up for air soon—when they couldn’t see the cinderblocks tied around my ankles pulling me down.

 

Why Haven’t Many People Heard of Post-Weaning Depression?

It’s not just that it hasn’t been studied much—though of course, that contributes to the problem. It’s also that, while contact with your maternity team is fairly intense in the weeks leading up to childbirth, the follow-up—at least for mom—is lacking, Dr. Demosthenes explained. Before the baby is born, you’re going to prenatal appointments, childbirth classes, parenting classes, and your health is monitored very closely.

“Then, it stops,” Dr. Demosthenes said. “You go home, and the traditional next visit is six weeks later with little further plan for postpartum support. With many women breastfeeding far longer than six weeks, part of the problem with identifying depression with breastfeeding discontinuation is that we just don’t know that it’s happening.”

 

While contact with your maternity team is fairly intense in the weeks leading up to childbirth, the follow-up—at least for mom—is lacking.

 

Combine that with the fact that in the U.S., 40 percent of women miss their six-week postpartum follow up, and it’s a problem, Dr. Demosthenes told me.

The good news is that postpartum care is changing. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has made new recommendations for postpartum care “to reinforce the importance of the fourth trimester.” ACOG now recommends making postpartum care an “ongoing process, rather than a single encounter,” with moms having contact with their OB-GYN team within the first three weeks after birth, continued follow-up as needed, and a comprehensive postpartum visit within 12 weeks of childbirth.

“A good conversation between a provider and a woman may reveal that weaning was the trigger for her depression and uncover that in addition to the hormonal changes, there can be guilt, sadness, and regret,” Dr. Demosthenes said. “Postpartum depression and post-weaning depression are components that need ongoing attention.”

Not having heard anything about post-weaning depression, I was blindsided by it. Those “feel-good hormones” had me feeling better than I ever had before. And then the crash came. Postpartum depression, or in my case, post-weaning depression, is like being stuck at the bottom of a well. You’re alone in a deep, dark place, and there’s no easy way out.

One day, my husband sent flowers to me to show his support and try to cheer me up, but instead of feeling happy, I was irrationally mad. Did he really think a bouquet of flowers was going to fix what I was feeling? At the time, I saw the flowers as useless and grossly insignificant compared to the problem.

 

Source: Shutterstock

 

What Are Symptoms of Post-Weaning Depression?

Since there’s not a lot of research on post-weaning depression, there’s not an official source that lists symptoms. But my experience was very similar to symptoms of postpartum depression: crying more than usual, feeling angry, withdrawing from loved ones, worrying or feeling overly anxious. Other common symptoms of postpartum depression can include feeling distant from your baby, thinking about hurting yourself or your baby, or doubting your ability to care for your baby.

Editor’s Note: If you, or someone you know, are experiencing postpartum depression, please seek help from your healthcare provider or reach out to a close friend or loved one. If you are having suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of hurting your baby, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-TALK.

I felt hopeless, though I had no outward reason to feel that way, and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why or what is causing it. For a second, the answer seemed like it was to quit my job, but the thought didn’t bring with it the immediate relief I expected it to. I loved my job and having something that continued to define who I was outside of motherhood.

I shared how I was feeling with my family and a few close friends, all of whom were incredibly supportive. I’m lucky in that sense. But no one knew how to help me or how to fix it, and it wasn’t because they weren’t trying. It was just that nothing seemed to help.

 

I felt hopeless, though I had no outward reason to feel that way, and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why or what is causing it.

 

All I knew was that I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. It finally dawned on me that maybe this was postpartum depression (what I now know to be post-weaning depression). The epiphany was truly like flipping a switch, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to realize it—though it was probably because postpartum depression usually develops 4-6 weeks after giving birth. Having dealt with anxiety my whole life, I was fortunate that my family had been looking out for my mental health throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period. I just thought that after a few months, I was in the clear.

Postpartum and post-weaning depression is different than the “baby blues,” and not everyone experiences the same type or intensity of symptoms, so experts recommend contacting your healthcare provider if you have any concerns or think you might be experiencing depression.

“As with depression and sadness in general, a good first place to start is with talking about it and getting some counseling if necessary,” Dr. Demosthenes said. “And antidepressants can also be a good solution if that doesn’t work.”

“Most of all, new moms need to be kind to themselves and turn to their village for support,” Dr. Demosthenes said. “And know that we are working nationally on policies to support women more completely in the first year postpartum through organizations like ACOG.”

I cannot say enough how important it is to tell people how you are feeling. Postpartum depression is common, and there is nothing wrong with you as a mother or a person for experiencing it. You don’t get to control it. You didn’t decide to go through it, and you can’t just snap out of it. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t love your baby with everything you have and then some.

I called my doctor that day and went in for a visit. We made a plan, which included medication. It was like cutting the cinderblocks around my ankles free so I could swim back to the surface where my family and friends had been waiting for me.

It wasn’t immediate; first, I got my head above water, but my legs and arms were still treading furiously to keep me afloat. But pretty soon, I didn’t have to work so hard to keep from sinking down, and eventually, I didn’t have to work at all.

 

Read More: 4 Reasons I Chose to Take Medication for My Postpartum Depression

 

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