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November 3, 2020
By Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC
Ending breastfeeding before you planned to can happen for a variety of reasons. You may have experienced insurmountable breastfeeding difficulties. Babies sometimes self wean before a mother intended to. Whatever the reason for early weaning, the result is that some women experience feelings of disappointment, sadness, or even depression after they wean earlier than they planned.
Historically, between ten and twenty percent of women experience some degree of postpartum depression. Since the onset of the pandemic that rate has risen to as high as 40%.
Studies show that mothers who breastfeed experience lower depression rates than mothers who are formula feeding. The exact reason for this is unknown. It may be the hormones that are involved with breastfeeding help protect against depression. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for making milk and it is associated with feelings of well-being, calmness, and relaxation. Another hormone involved with breastfeeding is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that causes a woman’s milk to let down. Oxytocin also creates feelings of well-being and is nicknamed the love hormone. A possible explanation for feelings of sadness or depression are the decreased levels of these hormones after weaning.
Breastfeeding mothers report reduced levels of stress compared to mothers who formula feed. Stress is associated with increased rates of depression. This could be another reason early weaning can lead to sadness and depression.
It is also human nature to feel disappointed or even sad when a person plans to do something and then is unable to meet their goals. Women have also spoken of feeling a great deal of societal pressure to breastfeed. They may feel they are being judged because they are not breastfeeding.
Mothers who were breastfeeding and receiving treatment for depression have reported that breastfeeding helped them feel connected to their baby. If a woman feels less connected to her baby, feelings of sadness would be understandable.
Because of the nature of ethical research practices, it can be difficult in many instances to determine if depression results in premature weaning or premature weaning leads to depression.
The faster a woman weans, the more abrupt the shift in hormones will be. If it is possible, she should wean gradually. If her baby abruptly self-weans, she can start pumping to make up for the missed breastfeeding sessions and then gradually wean from pumping.
To maintain the feelings of connectedness after weaning, you can engage in activities with your baby like having dedicated cuddle times, doing infant massage or taking walks with your baby in a front carrier.
Feelings of sadness can be normal and may pass after a few days.
You should reach out to her health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms of depression:
Symptoms like difficulty sleeping or feeling fatigued can be a normal part of being a new mother. Your health care provider can help you determine if that is the case or if you are clinically depressed or there is another underlying medical issue. each out for help if you are wondering if you are depressed. Support is available, and it is not an experience you have to go through alone.
Hahn-Holbrook, J., Haselton, M. G., Schetter, C. D., & Glynn, L. M. (2013). Does breastfeeding offer protection against maternal depressive symptomatology?. Archives of women's mental health, 16(5), 411-422.
Zauderer, C., & Galea, E. (2010). Breastfeeding and depression: Empowering the new mother. British Journal of Midwifery, 18(2), 88-91.
Vieira, E. D. S., Caldeira, N. T., Eugênio, D. S., Lucca, M. M. D., & Silva, I. A. (2018). Breastfeeding self-efficacy and postpartum depression: a cohort study. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem, 26.
BIOC, M., & IMP, T. The Psychological Effects of Breastfeeding.
Davenport, M., Meyer, S., Meah, V., Strynadka, M., & Khurana, R. (2020). Moms are not ok: COVID-19 and maternal mental health. Frontiers in Global Women’s Health. 19 June 2020. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgwh.2020.00001
Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC is a freelance writer who has been helping moms and babies breastfeed for over twenty-five years. She is married and the mother of three adult children.
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