It's Not Just You: Weaning Your Baby Wreaks Absolute Havoc On Your Hormones
You're not alone if cutting back on feedings has you feeling extra-emotional or even depressed.
When my baby was about 9 months old, I went through a period of just straight-up crying. Like, all the time. Everything felt sad and icky, sometimes straight-up insurmountable. I’ve been lucky with three pregnancies to never experience postpartum depression, but this felt a lot like the baby blues. I chalked it up to my last baby growing so quickly and feeling sad, and I was at least partially right. Because she is growing, and at 9 months, one of the big ways she was growing was by eating more and more solid food and drinking less breast milk.
It turns out that when your baby starts weaning off of breast milk as their main sustenance, well, it can really throw a few things for a loop. A baby weaning can make you sad, emotional, and even cause you to feel depressed. Like most things in pregnancy and postpartum, we can thank our good old friends The Hormones.
The weaning your baby blues
While babies usually start eating solid foods around 6 months of age, so much of it is still them just trying out textures. But when they hit 9 months or so, it feels like they really take off with eating — and, of course, that can affect your milk production. Babies should still be taking in plenty of breast milk — it’s still their primary source of nutrition if they’re exclusively nursing — but even that gradual change can be felt by the breastfeeding parent.
“Your body will take the hint pretty quickly, think within a week of consistently lower intake,” Aubrey Phelps, MS, RDN, CLC, a certified lactation consultant and pediatric dietitian, tells Romper. “And the shift in hormones can definitely affect your overall mood. You might feel a bit like you did immediately after baby came, with some more mood swings or feelings of sadness. The change in hormones can also trigger your cycle to resume, if it hasn’t already.”
Licensed therapist Michelle Tangeman works with postpartum moms and tells me that these “blah” feelings are even called the “weaning blues” because of how similar they are to the baby blues.
How decreased breast milk production impacts your hormones
Milk production is run by your hormones, so of course it ties into your emotions — also run by hormones. Certified lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, tells Romper that the impact of hormonal changes after weaning can vary depending on the age of your baby, how frequently you’re still nursing and/or pumping, and how swiftly weaning occurs.
A full-out stop on breastfeeding without any gradual decline might send you into a tailspin, but if your baby has just been slowly taking in less milk, it can still give you the blues. “The process is meant to be gradual,” O’Connor says.
She says that prolactin and oxytocin are the two hormones mainly responsible for lactation, but they also have another big job: keeping you happy. Both prolactin and oxytocin contribute to feelings of “calm, love, relaxation, closeness, and contentment,” according to La Leche League, so as they dip down in your body, your mood can dip a bit, too. The organization describes the hormonal impact of weaning as feeling similar to your mood around your menstrual cycle. For me, yes that’s 100% accurate. It’s feeling “blah” about everything, maybe being a little weepier than usual, and just feeling sadder or more anxious overall. Maybe you’re quick to lose your temper or feel generally frustrated — all of it is valid and none of it is your fault. Blame those pesky hormones.
But don’t worry — every dropped nursing session won’t cause a plummet to your mood. Phelps says that the mood changes tend to vary by individual and even by each baby. Because weaning is usually gradual, “it won’t be quite as dramatic or a constant roller coaster,” she says. You may not even notice any mood changes after those first initial waves since “babies don’t tend to go from no solids to three square meals a day,” Phelps says.
She also suggests that these hormonal changes can vary depending on whether or not you’ve gotten your period back yet. “For example, I tend to not get my cycle back until I’m basically done nursing or down to maybe one or two small sessions a day. So not only do I get to deal with the hormone shifts of breastfeeding ending, but my hormones are also ramping back up to start ovulating and menstruating again,” Phelps says. “This type of scenario is more likely to produce a big hormone shift and subsequent mood impact than if your cycle was already regular again.”
When will I feel better after weaning?
“Breastfeeding is not just a way to provide nutrition to your baby, but it also has many emotional and psychological benefits for both mother and child,” Tangeman says. “When you wean your baby off breastfeeding, you may experience a sense of loss, sadness, or anxiety as you adjust to the change in your relationship with your baby.” She says she tells mothers that what they are experiencing is normal, and some may feel it more intensely than others.
She also emphasizes that these feelings are temporary and will subside as you and baby adapt to your new routine, which usually takes no more than two weeks. (Like those baby blues, remember?)
While your hormones decreasing after weaning can definitely cause feelings of sadness and malaise, there’s also just the absence of all that physical touch with your child. Even if you’re ready to be done nursing (hi, it’s me), your body can still physically miss that closeness with your child. OB-GYN Dr. Javier Saldana suggests snuggling your baby more and spending some extra time with them to replace that missed connection from nursing sessions. He encourages breastfeeding parents to focus on themselves too, get plenty of rest, and engage in activities they enjoy to take care of their own physical and mental health.
“Weaning is part of the natural process of growth and development, and that’s something to be celebrated rather than mourned,” Saldana says. “With the right kind of help and care, mothers can successfully adjust to weaning and experience positive feelings about this new stage in their motherhood journey.” He suggests reaching out to a mental health professional or your village of friends and family if you find yourself having a hard time during the weaning process.
“When I was weaning around the six-month mark — naturally, not by choice — I had a strong wave of depressive symptoms. Hopelessness, constant foggy feeling, terrible irritability, loss of appetite — I thought that was going to be my new normal,” Tangeman says. But it wasn’t her new normal, she says, and it won’t be yours either. Just focus on getting through those two weeks, and find new ways to bond with your baby to help you stay connected.
“They may not be breastfeeding, but they need you just as much as when you were breastfeeding,” she adds. Tangeman suggests writing about these feelings through a love letter to your child so you can process your thoughts and feelings. And if it feels right, try exercising or moving your body in a way that was different than yesterday, she says. It could help generate hormones that are released after exercise, making you feel good and strong.
Aubrey Phelps, MS, RDN, CLC
Michelle Tangeman, LMFT
Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE
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