It’s not uncommon for mothers to feel sad, depressed or mournful after giving birth. Recent estimates suggest up to 19% of mothers in the U.S. report regular postpartum depression. But post-breastfeeding, depressive symptoms are far less studied and understood, even though they’re likely to be just as common.
Although there aren’t any real statistics to represent how many women suffer from post-weaning depression, the connection between lactation and mood is still incredibly important. As scientists conduct research and seek to understand this phenomenon, we are starting to gain a deeper understanding of what causes this depression and who it impacts.
What Causes Mood Changes?
One major cause of post-weaning mood changes may be actual physiological changes taking place in the body. Breastfeeding produces hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin. Oxytocin, which is necessary for milk ejection, increases feelings of affection and well-being while prolactin, a hormone required for milk production, also brings feelings of calm, relaxation and contentment. It makes sense that when a mother is either unable or forced to stop breastfeeding, they experience a sudden let-down. The body simply stops producing these happy hormones, which negatively affects the mother’s emotions.
Additionally, many women experience profound feelings of loss and grief when they wean. Rather than feeling liberated by weaning, they feel like a relationship has ended because their child is becoming less dependent on them. These feelings of separation and sadness are sometimes limited to short episodes, but can quickly spiral downward and last for weeks to months.
Who Is Prone to Post-Breastfeeding Depression?
All women weaning children can develop depressive symptoms. Even mothers who feel ready to wean and do so gradually may feel a sense of loss. Weaning often marks the end of a very special season in you and your child’s relationship as they become less dependent.
However, some mothers are more prone to experiencing post-breastfeeding depression than others. For example, those who are forced to wean because of work or milk production problems may have different psychological experiences than those who freely choose to stop breastfeeding. Generally, the faster the process, the more abrupt shift in hormone levels and the more likely you are to experience adverse effects.
How Do You Overcome It?
There are several things you can do to minimize your chances of experiencing post-breastfeeding depression. The most important is to wean your child gradually over time. Dropping no more than one feeding per week is gentler on both you and your baby. During this time, you might introduce your child to baby food or substitute formula in place of your breastmilk. This gradual weaning will make the entire process much less abrupt, allowing your hormones time to adjust.
You might also consider incorporating exercise into your daily routine to increase endorphins and decrease depressive feelings. Eating well will also give your mind and body the boost it needs to avoid and overcome symptoms of depression. Consuming brain foods such as fish and avocados may help your brain as it works to rewire itself and regulate hormonal signals. Nutritional supplements are a great alternative as well, especially when you don’t have as much time to cook as you used to.
Sometimes, you might not be able to overcome post-weaning depression on your own, no matter how hard you try — and you shouldn’t have to. As you recognize symptoms and learn about the condition, educate your partner, a close friend or family member so they can act as a support system.
Check in with your doctor or look for a depression treatment program near you to find a community that can relate to what you’re going through. Consider speaking with a therapist or psychiatrist to sort out your feelings or find relief. And, most importantly, remember that your symptoms won’t last forever. Focus on the fact that you have a brand new beautiful baby to love and care for, and you have a bright future to look forward to.