Weaning and Depression

Here’s a conversation I have not infrequently with former clients who contact me when their child is a bit older:

Me:  Wow, so nice to hear from you!  Your baby must be <several months or more older> now — how is everything going? 

Her: “I was doing fine, really, everything was settling down … but suddenly I’m just feeling … <sniff> … really … down <sniff, sniff>.  I don’t know what it is; things are totally OK with the baby, it should be good … but I’m just feeling, now … <sniff, sounds of tears> … . “

Now, look.  Parenting is never a cakewalk, and sometimes what’s happening in a call like this is that the mom is just having a hard week — that happens to all of us. And talking about it really helps.

But more often, when I get this phone call, I have two followup questions for that mom — (1) did the baby just start sleeping through the night and/or (2) have you just weaned.  And more often than not, the answer to one or both of them is “yes.”  

Usually it’s:

"Yes!  And I thought I’d feel so much better, but here I am feeling even worse … "

I’ve thought about writing about this for a long time, but I’ve resisted because I haven’t been able to find good research backing up my speculations about why this happens.  But last week an article on Huffington Post talked about the very thing I’ve observed for years.  In “Weaning and Depression Linked In Many Women”, Catherine Pearson bemoans the lack of empirical data on this, and calls for more research on the issue. 

Here’s the gist of the situation:  When a woman is nursing, her brain almost constantly is secreting a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin does a number of interesting things in addition to letting the milk down.  It acts almost like a drug that makes you feel good.  It takes the edge off pain; it makes you a little high, a little trusting, a little floaty feeling.  During lactation, a mom’s body is flooded with oxytocin and another hormone called prolactin, and together, they activate the same receptors as the drug Ecstasy; actually, a better way to describe that might be to say that Ecstasy is popular because it makes people feel like they’re having an oxytocin high.

Even before you give birth, you’re familiar with oxytocin from other life moments it’s helped you — oxytocin floods the body when you’re falling in love and that’s what makes you feel that sparkly feeling that all is right in the world.  And it floods the body when you have an orgasm, which is what makes *that* sparkly feeling.  You get a hit of oxytocin from massage, and from hugs, and from situations where you feel safe, loved, loving, intimate.  It’s the hormone we’re all, basically, addicted to; it makes us like being with people who take care of us and keeps us coming back for more.

We all have our usual dose.  And that dose goes way up while you’re nursing and then back down when you wean, and that transition back down seems to be particularly hard on some women.  

(Wait a sec, maybe you’re nursing a baby but you’re not finding nursing and new motherhood to be like taking E?  I think most people don’t.  But underneath all the chaos of your day, there’s that baseline of oxytocin, helping you to get through it, while it’s hard, tiring and confusing.  Oxytocin takes the edge off.)  

Some folks think that oxytocin is what makes you “bond” with the baby; I find it a little silly to reduce something complex like love to a simple chemical reaction, but perhaps the oxytocin helps us get started, so that we manage to find the baby compelling and cute even though she screams and shits all the time and won’t let you sleep.  In fact, when you think about it?  The fact that we manage to love our kids is a little irrational.  You’d have to be a little high to keep coming back for more.  High on oxytocin.  I think it’s supposed to be that when the baby is first born, it’s all chaotic and hard, but you have this hormone that makes you feel OK enough to get through it.  And then gradually your life calms down and is easier and then you’re ready to cope with it without a mega-dose of a feel-good hormone. 

Oxytocin doesn’t leave you forever when you’ve weaned, of course, you still get it from touch and security and trust and love.  But that regular hit of it, many times a day, at regular intervals, triggered by breastfeeding, the baseline — that’s gone once the nursing is over.  And while lots of moms don’t love breastfeeding, and many are happy for the freedom of having an older child who doesn’t need the breast, there are some women who seem to go into a kind of withdrawal after the oxytocin isn’t there.  I’ve seen it happen at weaning, and I’ve seen it happen when the baby sleeps a long stretch at night, or during a nursing strike.  In these cases, the mom herself is weaning off the oxytocin she’s used to getting all day long.  

I don’t mean to suggest that every mom who feels sad or wistful after weaning is experiencing only a chemical withdrawal.  There are also cognitive reasons a mom might be sad or down, or just feel the poignancy of life, around any major milestone.  And many moms find that weaning is a non-event for their mood.  But it seems to me that some women are particularly sensitive to this hormonal change.  

And yet it’s totally under-discussed.  

In my observation, women who feel a real dip in mood around weaning often find that they “even out” after a few days or weeks, as their hormones rebalance.  There’s a great description in Joanna Goddard’s blog post about her post-weaning depression at Cup of Jo — her depression starts when she abruptly weans, and ends, spontaneously, six weeks later, when her period resumed.

Still, it can be a shock, and a serious downer, and for some moms, it’s the beginning of a slide into clinical depression that they won’t spontaneously snap out of in a few weeks.  Yet I never hear of OBs or midwives mentioning any mood changes around weaning.  Even for moms who see counsellors or therapists, these transitional hormonal changes are often unexplored.  Most moms are utterly surprised by it, and that surprise can delay getting help.

Here’s what does help, though.

  • Understanding the way oxytocin works, and the way the body responds, perhaps, helps you anticipate that this might happen, and prepare.  If ever there were an argument for weaning slowly and gently and only when mom and baby are both ready, this is it.  (If you’re having a weaning-mood-dip because the baby is on a nursing strike, pumping may do the trick).
  • Exercise, Fresh Air, Sunlight, Rest, Good food, Doing a little less work for a few weeks.  In short:  take it easy on yourself.  We are talking about a short-term transition; you can do some extra resting and pampering for a few weeks.  This doesn’t make you lazy.  As I’ve blogged about before I think it’s helpful to have a handy list of things that might help, in case your mind gets really fuzzy and you’re lying in bed moaning and devoid of ideas.
  • talk to a friend.  OMG, please tell people!  You have friends in your life exactly for these moments, where you can rely on them to love you and keep you company and remind you that your entire life is not, in fact, pointless.  
  • See your doctor.  Any sudden change for the worse is probably worth a check-up over.  Some new moms experience transient low thyroid function or anemia, both of which can make you feel seriously rotten.
  • some moms find it helpful to take evening primrose oil to even out mood during the weaning process. 
  • Think about other sources of oxytocin that you can use to replace what you’re missing :-).  I think that what topples moms’ moods is the quick drop in oxytocin.  In the meantime, it’s worth thinking about pampering things that smooth the transition — a massage, perhaps?  Or … uh … sex?  It might be the last thing you’re thinking of if you’re depressed, but it could be just what you need.  In fact, when you look worldwide, sex may be the real answer.  In many parts of the world where folks have what we call “natural child spacing,” mothers nurse for a couple years, and are then  pregnant again a few months. (here’s a great example of this from another blogger’s description of post-weaning depression followed by conception) 

(Keep an eye on this, though.  You probably don’t want a decades-long cycle of pregnancy and nursing!  At some point you have to ramp down off the Fertile Goddess Dose of Oxytocin.  And I’ve seen some pretty irrational behavior by more than a few moms at the end of their reproductive cycle who seemed desperate and a little manic to replace the new-mom feeling of “abundantly needed and physically in-demand but rewarded by the powerful feel-good hit of oxytocin” — including everything from adopting half a dozen new pets to having an affair to using some pretty serious recreational drugs.  The problem is, obviously, you just create a bigger mess for yourself to clean up that way. How about one cat and a massage.  And some chocolate.  And a bunch of date nights :-)  Keep an eye on yourself.)

  • I think for most folks, a mood shift around weaning is going to be something small, like a few bumpy blue days.  And even if it lasts longer, it will probably resolve itself as the body gets used to the new baseline.  But if you’re finding that your declined mood is changing your behavior, making you feel irrational or desperate or out of control, that’s a clinical issue.  In Ms Pearson’s article, she quotes one mom who says, 

"I never sought out professional help … I never felt like I was a danger to myself or children. The extent of my mood swings were sadness and irritation, and they seemed to vanish as quickly as they appeared."

and another who says:

"I wish I had committed to seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist, since that might have helped me feel more supported and comforted …  But during my depression, I didn’t feel confident that they would be able to help — I didn’t think anything would help."

It makes me so sad.  Because I think we all know that the major symptom of depression is “hopelessness,” but when you’re saying:  ”I didn’t think anything would help” — darlings, THAT IS WHAT HOPELESSNESS MEANS.  All too often folks think that if they’re not “a danger to themselves or their kids” it’s not bad enough to get help.  

No!  It’s bad enough if you’re feeling like crap.  

It’s bad enough if you’re sad and confused and irritable with mood swings that are currently f*cking up your life.

As someone wise once said to me (because I’m certainly no stranger to depression myself), “You don’t have to be lying on a stretcher in order to get help.”  It’s hard to do, but you really gotta do it, because as hard as it is to believe, when you feel better, you will actually feel better.  :-)

Company helps.  And honesty.  And treating yourself right.  And patience and time and breathing and sunshine and chocolate.  But when you need more, you need to reach out and get clinical help in the form of talk therapy or medication or both.  If you’re finding that impossible to do, ask your partner to help you take the first step.  Or please contact me and I’ll see whether I can help you find the help you need.

What about you?  Did you have a bumpy ride with weaning?