Be Aware Of A Second Chance For PPD

When you were discharged from the hospital, wee baby in your arms, the warnings and symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety were plentiful. A similar hormonal shift comes after weaning, but unfortunately most women are not prepared. Read on to learn what to expect when you wean.

Weaning featured

Photo credit: Maja/Flickr

We all know about the baby blues, but what about the weaning woes? If not for word of mouth, I never would have known to expect the hopeless, self-destructive feelings I experienced in the weeks following my last breastfeeding session.

Very little research exists in explanation of this phenomenon. I found a single study conducted by the Cornell University Department of Psychiatry from 1988 examining the relationship between weaning and its various psychiatric effects. Their research indicates the problem, much like postpartum depression, results from an abrupt change in hormones. The body requires prolactin and oxytocin to produce milk, both associated with feelings of love, calmness, and relaxation. You take that out of the equation — especially suddenly — and mood swings are all but guaranteed.

What to expect

Weaning marks the end to a significant relationship between mother and baby. Hormones aside, the decision to stop breastfeeding can be fraught. Even in the most ideal circumstances, when mother and baby both feel ready to be done, that hormone drop might cause feelings of doubt. I spoke with Anne, a Chicago mother who recently weaned her son after 29 months of nursing. She spent days crying over all sorts of things. "The hardest part was the urge to back up, to undo weaning. I would sit on my hands after he went to bed, willing myself not to run and wake him up to nurse."

Amy, a mother of three, had a slightly different experience which she describes as "Olympic competition-level PMS." She felt some sadness, but mostly she found herself angry and short on patience. "What would normally have annoyed me slightly sent me straight to 11."

Fortunately, the worst of it passes quickly. First-time mother Kathleen recently weaned her 1-year-old son, and she felt Hulk-level rage unlike any she had felt before. "I wanted to crawl out of my own brain. I remember brushing my teeth and thinking 'I wish I could drive a car into a wall.'" After a week, the switch flipped and she's felt more like herself ever since. Other women I spoke to got over the initial hurdles within a few weeks, though residual effects and sadness stuck around up to three months post-weaning.

Who is at risk

Any weaning mother can find herself amid these dark thoughts, but some evidence suggests sudden weaning might have a more dramatic effect. Women with a history of anxiety and depression are more prone to experiencing the same in the wake of weaning. Some women wean without any change in mood, as evidenced by Jen, a Florida mother who has gone through it twice with zero effects. Be aware of your own history and go slowly with weaning if you think you might be at risk.

Is there anything I can do?

It's impossible to know ahead of time if you'll feel the weaning woes — each woman above experienced it in her own way, on her own timetable. Most importantly, be aware that it might be coming. I felt great immediately after weaning my youngest, but it crept up on me a week or two later. Keep your guard up for a month or so, at which point you are likely out of the woods. Take care of yourself, and line up as much emotional support as you can. Reach out to other mothers who can assure you the feelings pass with time. Clue in your partner that you might be more fragile or prone to snap than usual. Just like the baby blues vs. full blown postpartum depression, symptoms exist on a spectrum. If you find yourself with severe, prolonged depression or thoughts of self-harm, please alert a support person and seek medical care.

More on weaning

What to do when your baby stops nursing
How to do baby-led weaning
How long does it take to fully wean?

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