It's pretty well-known among new moms that there's a chance of postpartum depression, but the emotional drop that can happen when breastfeeding mothers wean tends to get a lot less press. And like the postpartum roller coaster, the "weaning blues" can range from a simple feeling of being overwhelmed, to more potentially serious symptoms of postpartum depression.
In fact, weaning is listed as a common cause of what’s sometimes called late-onset postpartum depression, so there’s a reason the two can feel very similar. Since they are reactions to different hormonal events, though, they can also present differently, even in the same person. If that sounds frustratingly vague, that’s because it is - the majority of the information on post-weaning blues and depression is anecdotal, because little scientific research on it has been done on postpartum depression as it relates to weaning. Researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are mid-way through a 5-year study of several hundred women who went into the study planning to breastfeed, and the preliminary research on 52 pregnant women followed through birth and breastfeeding found a strong connection between changes in oxytocin, one of the feel-good hormones released during breastfeeding, and depression and anxiety levels.
According to the CDC, between 8 and 19% of American women report experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression. That statistic doesn’t differentiate between early and late-onset depression, and also doesn’t include the harder-to-pin-down post-weaning blues that may not be an exclusively chemical response.
If you haven’t yet started weaning, and you have the chance to do it gradually rather than all at once, taking a bit of extra time to let your body acclimate to the change in your hormones as they start to shift may help. More than that, getting the chance to feel in control, and like both you and your baby are ready to wean, can soften the emotional impact of the changing connection between you and your baby as you wean.
As you wean, making sure to keep a healthy diet rich in omega-3s, and to be regularly physically active can help your body to get back on track as it changes again. Women who haven’t gotten their periods back during breastfeeding often report that their depression lifts at or around the time their period comes back, though for others it doesn’t even start until that point. Many women report that post-weaning blues or depression goes away on its own after a few weeks or a few months, but many others turn to medical help to get past it.
If post-weaning depression lasts longer than a few weeks, or starts to feel like it’s hurting your ability to be the parent you want to be, it may be time to consult your healthcare provider. Depending on the degree of depression and personal medical history, your healthcare provider may prescribe some combination of talk therapy and antidepressants. More alternative providers may also recommend trying acupuncture or massage, herbal remedies, or vitamin supplements like B-complex.
If, for any reason, you're reluctant to go straight to your healthcare provider with feelings that you think might be related to postpartum depression at any time, it's still important to reach out to someone, whether that someone is your partner, a family member, or a friend. Support during this time can make a big difference for both you and your child.