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Can Weaning from Breastfeeding Cause Depression?

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Some women may suffer depression after weaning their babies.

Mothers can experience bouts of depression and anxiety for all sorts of reasons either during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. In fact, postpartum depression is the most common complication of childbirth according to the World Health Organization. But did you know that depression also can occur after weaning your baby from breastfeeding?

Joanna Goddard, who writes the blog A Cup of Jo, recently disclosed her own struggle through a deep depression after she stopped breastfeeding her son Toby at eight months. After what she calls an abrupt weaning, which she accomplished in one week, she started experiencing symptoms of deep sadness, disconnection and exhaustion, and it took her a long time to figure out the two things were related.

Goddard is not alone in her struggle. Just search the pregnancy and new mom community boards and you’ll find lots of moms talking about depression after they stopped breastfeeding. It’s also something I hear about often from readers of my blog Postpartum Progress. I get emails from women who didn’t have postpartum depression, and felt things were going along swimmingly up until they quit breastfeeding and started to experience the symptoms of depression. Others say they had mild PPD from the start, but it became much worse after they stopped lactating. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for them as they try to find answers.

Unfortunately no one yet knows why post-weaning depression occurs. There’s not a whole lot of research on this phenomenon. Look hard enough and you can find one study from 1988 on four women who became depressed after weaning.  That study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, came to the conclusion that the cause was either, “… hormonal readjustments following weaning and feelings of sadness or guilt caused by the loss of the early symbiotic bond between mother and infant.” Furthermore, the La Leche League’s page on how to wean has no mention of the possibility of experiencing depression after weaning, and how to avoid it if possible.

I can only imagine how frustrating it is for women going through this. The only material currently available are studies related to breastfeeding and depression as a roadblock. (I personally stopped breastfeeding because I had severe postpartum anxiety and OCD, and breastfeeding only made me more anxious.) There’s also research on whether breastfeeding can help prevent postpartum depression. Yet, there’s nothing about depression caused by stopping breastfeeding after having done it successfully for a mother’s preferred amount of time.

Still, we know it’s happening. I recently wrote about and linked to Joanne’s story and heard from several other mothers with similar experiences. One can only hope that the more women who’ve been through this speak openly about it, the more likely it is the research community will step up to the plate.

Meantime, I have heard from lactation specialists that weaning slowly and deliberately can help prevent the type of abrupt hormonal change that can lead to depression.  If you are considering weaning and are worried, talk to your doctor about the best approach to take for a smoother transition.

If you do experience depression after cessation of breastfeeding, it’s not your fault and you don’t have to suffer through it. Give your doctor a call and let him or her know what your symptoms are, whether they are mild, moderate or severe, and how long you’ve had them. Depression or anxiety due to any cause is fully treatable, whether via therapy, medication or other alternative methods.

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