I’m going to begin this article by going out on a limb, as I often do. I’m going to guess that you haven’t been feeling quite like yourself lately. I’m also going to guess that you’ve either recently (or maybe not so recently) weaned a child from breastfeeding, you’re considering it in the near future, or you want to equip yourself for the not-so-near future, and so, the internet powers that be have directed you this way. I’m going to guess that for many of you, you’re wondering if what you’re feeling is normal, or whether it’s just you and there’s something seriously wrong with you.
If I’m getting warmer, then welcome. I hope you find some comfort and reassurance here, because heaven knows that just a few months ago, I was looking for something like this, too. If I’ve totally missed the mark, do me a favor and read this anyway, because you might be surprised at how this information might come in handy when someone else who is going through it reaches out to you.
You know, the further I get into this motherhood thing, the more I believe that we, as mothers, have to step forward and talk about the things that make us uncomfortable—the things we think no one else can relate to, and the things that make us feel alone.
Earlier this year, I made a relatively sudden decision to wean my second daughter. It had been on the horizon for a few months, but we had long-haul travel planned and I had decided to wait and do it once we were back at home base. However, with life being life, on one summer’s day, I went completely against my instinct, and my plan (how very unlike me!) and bid our nursing relationship farewell. I was visiting my parents at the time, and I remember messaging my husband triumphant slogans, professing my newfound freedom and liberation after having been either pregnant, or breastfeeding, (or both) for over three years.
Those feelings, I expected.
Some other feelings, however, I did not expect.
Literally overnight, I turned into a completely unrecognizable version of myself. I was angry. That was the strongest symptom in my case. I was plain old, white-hot, angry. The smallest things would set me off, and I would find myself unable to control my anger at those around me, especially my children. I remember telling my mother that I felt out of control. It scared me, to my core.
I also experienced sudden mood swings. One moment, I was having a lovely, Mary Poppins-esque moment, frolicking on the beach with my daughters, and the next minute, I was overcome with extreme sadness, irritability and anger. I reacted to simple situations with uncharacteristic (well, depends who you talk to, I guess) emotionally exaggerated responses. The scariest part, for me, was that I felt completely alone, even though I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about me.
It was a text message sent across the globe that saved me. It was one of those typical, ranty, ragey messages you send to your best friend, but I added that I felt so unlike myself and that I couldn’t understand why I was acting so crazy. To her credit, she remembered that I had told her a couple of days beforehand that I had weaned my daughter, and sent me a link to an article on weaning depression.
I read the article and burst into tears. I couldn’t believe the flood of relief that ran through me. I wasn’t alone, and there was an explanation. I became hungry for as much information as I could get my hands on, and felt a strong push to do my part to raise awareness of weaning depression and anxiety.
So I reached out to Jani Combrink, an international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), nurse, midwife, mother of three, and all-round rock star. Jani is the founder of a number of online support groups, including the well-known Stork’s Nest Singapore, as part of fueling her passion for supporting and encouraging parents. Originally from South Africa, Jani has lived in a number of countries, including South Africa, Russia, Singapore, and now the United Kingdom. She will never admit to this, due to her humble nature, but she is a source of inspiration for many, not only because of her wisdom and expertise, but particularly because of her sincerity, compassion, and genuine desire to be of service to others. I was thrilled when she agreed to collaborate with me on this article.
One of the first hurdles I faced when I was researching weaning depression and anxiety online was the scarcity of information on the topic. Jani agrees that there simply aren’t enough studies published on it. In fact, in her experience, this type of depression and anxiety comes up frequently, but is dismissed by mothers as a result of being tired, sleep-deprived, or simply part and parcel of the motherhood experience. Some mothers chalk up the feelings of emotional upheaval to a new pregnancy, which is not an uncommon reason for weaning a child in the first place.
Perhaps the most important thing you need to take away from this article is that yes, weaning depression and anxiety is a thing. It’s a thing. It’s real. You haven’t imagined it. And, as Jani aptly put it, “It can sometimes be enough to quite take your breath away.”
Many mothers find they are able to overcome weaning depression and anxiety without any external intervention, but in many cases, it is difficult to cope on your own, and necessary to ask for help. “Help is available,” Jani reassures us, “and sometimes [help is] very necessary to move on and feel some normality again.”
Weaning depression and anxiety manifests in many forms. For some of us, we feel a strong sense of grief or loss after weaning. You might find you are having more intense feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety or irritability. In more severe cases, some mothers experience phobias and psychosis, although these symptoms are less frequent.
In my case, weaning depression set in pretty much straight away. But Jani advises that this is not always the case, and that for some mothers, it is more gradual and can take weeks to exhibit symptoms. She suggests that women who have a history of psychiatric illnesses may be predisposed to weaning depression, but this is not always the case. In fact, many women do not experience any symptoms of weaning depression at all. It can last for just a few days, but if undiagnosed (or in some cases, untreated), can linger for years.
Causes of Weaning Depression and Anxiety
Those hormones are at it again. When you wean a child from breastfeeding, your hormones go through a process of intensive readjustment. “When you’re lactating, you have high levels of prolactin and oxytocin, and lower levels of progesterone,” Jani explains. “When you stop breastfeeding and lactating, your hormone levels shift and can cause surprisingly severe emotional upsets – much like baby blues after birth.” Incidences of weaning depression and anxiety are more common amongst mothers who wean their children quickly, or suddenly.
The end of the nursing relationship. Many mothers report feelings of guilt, grief and loss after weaning a child from breastfeeding. Perhaps they feel guilty that they’re no longer providing their child the same nourishment, or that they have lost the opportunity to experience that special closeness that is brought about by the breastfeeding relationship. In a sense, many mothers feel it is the end of a phase; it is the end of a child’s “littleness”. It involves accepting our child’s growing independence, and letting go of one way in which we are needed by our babies.
Surprise, surprise: you can blame sleep deprivation for this one, too. In some families, weaning leads to disrupted sleep patterns as the child wakes more at night, and this, in turn, often means less sleep for mothers, too. Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation can also contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety after weaning.
Let’s get physical. Particularly if weaning happens quickly or abruptly, many mothers experience physical pain and discomfort. They may face issues of engorgement and even mastitis, which exacerbates an already difficult period of adjustment.
So, what should I do?
If you’re still breastfeeding your child
Jani believes that, like with many things, knowledge is power. If you are currently breastfeeding, even if you have no plans to wean anytime soon, simply being aware that weaning depression and/or anxiety may occur allows you to be prepared, which will help you cope in the event you do experience some emotional turmoil when the time comes.
If weaning your child is on the horizon
If you are planning to wean your child in the near future, Jani recommends weaning gradually, if at all possible. She explains, “It eases baby into a new way of feeding, and it gives your body time to adjust more gently to new levels and a new state of being. You can avoid the obvious pitfalls of weaning (like engorgement and painful blocked ducts) while taking time to gently grieve the end of your breastfeeding relationship.”
If you are in, or have completed, the process of weaning your child
Take care of yourself. Be mindful of your needs. Eat regular, balanced meals, and take time to move and get in some exercise and fresh air, as this is important for helping your body cope with the shift in hormones. Jani explains that these simple acts of self-care will “all help elevate serotonin levels to help you feel good.”
She also emphasises the importance of cuddles, and reminds us that “this helps raise oxytocin levels, which in turn helps lift your mood. You can cuddle everyone in your family—it will make everyone feel happy!”
This is also one of those countless times when you will really appreciate the value of your “tribe”—or even just one close friend. Jani agrees that reaching out to others “can help you guide you through the swamp of emotions and guilt, all the while supporting and applauding your efforts.” For me, it was the text message to my best friend, which prompted her to send me an article about weaning depression, and that turned out to be precisely the lifeline I needed
What if that isn’t enough?
And you know what? It might not be enough. And that’s OK.
While some women are able to overcome weaning depression and anxiety with minimal intervention, some mothers feel like trying to manage it on their own just isn’t working. If this sounds like you, you might find joining a support group, reaching out to a counselor, lactation consultant, or a doctor will help. In some cases, medication may be necessary in order for you to start feeling like yourself again.
“There is very little risk in having a consultation with a professional,” Jani tells us, encouraging mothers to seek professional help if they feel overwhelmed. “Know your options, because you do have options. They may just be difficult to see when you’re in the throes of depression.”
Jani puts it beautifully when she says, “Moms are usually the nucleus of their families, and they feel responsible for everyone’s happiness. Their own happiness can be a secondary priority for them, which often leads to a late diagnosis or recognition that they do, in fact, have a problem.”
Ain’t that the truth? And so, here is Jani’s lovingly titled, “Just-In-Case-You-Need-It” List, which I recommend you keep in your depository of parenting bookmarks:
- Know that weaning depression and anxiety can happen to anyone. You are not alone.
- It helps to wean slowly, if possible. The slower, the better.
- Try to rest, exercise and eat a healthy diet.
- Cuddle your baby and your partner as often as possible.
- Call on your tribe, even if that is just one close friend, for support.
- Take a moment. Be kind to yourself. Slow down.
- Embrace this phase. It is a natural phase of a mother-child relationship.
- Call in professional help if you are struggling to cope and/or need help managing any physical symptoms (like pain or mastitis).
See? I told you it wasn’t just you. I hope this article has given you some answers, helped you feel less alone, and maybe even given you some steps to take moving forward. If you know a mama who you think might be experiencing weaning depression and anxiety, or a mama who you think would simply like to increase her knowledge arsenal for the future, please share this with her. You never know the difference you might make in helping even just one person feel less overwhelmed and alone.
If you’d like to connect with Jani, please visit her Facebook page and follow her for more support, knowledge and inspiration.