Weaning Can get Complicated

One of my amazing clients has agreed to share her experience with weaning depression. This is something that is not often mentioned so catches women off guard. Thank you Rachel for sharing your difficult weaning journey. We both hope this helps others who might have a similar experience. Please seek support and help.  I am always willing to talk and offer resources. Virginia

I clearly remember… My son must’ve been about 10 months old and one late June morning he was crawling on the floor around me, trying to look at my face and make me laugh as I lay face-down on my bedroom floor.  I felt like I couldn’t anymore, that it didn’t matter if he was a good baby, a happy baby, if I had a million dollars, if name-that-good-thing happened, nothing mattered. I could not, I needed help, and I needed it right then and there.  I felt nothing and everything and even now, I don’t have the words to describe what I felt. It was beyond depressed, it was a state of being sucked dry, chewed up and then thrown up and left to rot.

My son was difficult.  Until he was 3 months old, he would take a bottle with the only objection of casting longing looks in my direction.  At 3 months, he flipped a switch and stopped drinking my milk from a bottle, or really anything from a bottle. I discovered, after tasting it and researching, that I had high lipase milk, a harmless fact that just made my milk taste like a dirty penny within hours of being expressed, whether refrigerated, frozen or room temperature.  I figured my son just associated that dirty nasty taste with a bottle and was done.

He never drank from any bottle ever again.  After he was able to drink whole milk from a sippy cup and was eating more solid foods, I started to slowly and methodically cut out feedings.  We had a very defined schedule since he was a pretty difficult baby and if I didn’t hold all the lines, he destroyed my confidence and sanity like a manipulative lawyer.  I had to wean him so slowly and deliberately that there would be no regret, no recourse, and no stopping. I started in May, and we finished a week before his first birthday in August.

Bloomsburg doula services
A month before his first birthday

By mid June, I had such difficulty sleeping that I would often lie awake until about 2 am, until my body had to shut down, and then I would sleep only until my body could recover from the crash.  I ran on 4-5 hours of sleep a night, when typically I need a good 7 or 8. This went on for weeks before I realized it couldn’t be stress, it wasn’t me thinking too much, or eating the wrong foods, that it had to do something with weaning.  I knew that weaning could mess with hormones (I mean, what doesn’t mess with hormones from pregnancy through weaning?? The answer is always hormones!!) but I hadn’t connected it with my sleep.

That was only the first of my problems.  I started to become incredibly negative and hopeless.  I hated everything and everyone, and everyone was against me.  It wasn’t hard to convince myself of these facts since I had lost many key relationships and trusts in the months following my son’s birth, and none of those relationships had been replaced or healed.  But this was different… this was a hollow-chested tearless agony of life that left me wanting to just die from wasting away.

Once I realized the sleep-hormone connection, deep into my other problems, I went to the doctor and said I did NOT care if this problem was temporary, I was unable to function and needed help.  I was prescribed an antidepressant, something about serotonin. I went home thinking, if I can only sleep again, that would at least be something.  

The antidepressant did help with sleep, and I think it did help with the feelings of extreme hopelessness.  And now as I sit here writing this, 6 months pregnant with another boy, I wonder how I’m going to handle things this time around.  I don’t want to assume that the same thing will happen, and I hate being on medication. I almost dread having to take something again.

I mostly just wish I could do that part all over again.  I wish I had known that weaning can bring on major hormonal upheaval that will seem out of place a year after giving birth.  I didn’t know that my sleep would be so majorly impacted that I would go out of my mind. And I definitely didn’t know that major depression could be the result of weaning.  The most anyone ever said to me about emotions/hormones/thoughts about weaning was from women that looked back on breastfeeding with fondness and talked about how sad it was to cut that final tie with their baby and encouraged me to breastfeed longer.

Do you know how sad I was to wean?  There never was and still is not a single part of me that regrets weaning, nor is sad that it is over!  I have zero nostalgia for that incredibly difficult, painful and horribly isolating part of my life. My son was too distracted to nurse in public, so I was always in my car or at home. I had so many problems (that could not be solved by lactation consultants or the internet, thanks, we did it all) with nursing in general that I do not miss it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly proud to have nursed my son for an entire year (minus a week, but I’m allowed to round up). But my depression and all that went with it had nothing to do with nostalgia, mixed feelings, or anything of the sort.  

I didn’t know that I should have prepared myself socially and personally for weaning.  Not because I would be sad, but because I would be unable to function in my right mind and needed friends or confidants to tell me what was going on and help me through it.  I needed to know it was ok to take sleeping pills or melatonin or whatever worked for as long as I needed to and not feel that I was giving myself a crutch. I needed to know that I was cared for and that I wasn’t going crazy, that it was a phase, no matter how long or horrible.  But nobody mentioned any of this, so who was to not only know about it, but help me through it?

The whole hormonal upheaval for me lasted longer than the actual weaning did.  I don’t think I felt sane again for another 2-3 months after our last feeding. It was only a few short weeks after that when I called county early intervention to have an evaluation of my son, who ended up needing occupational and speech therapy due to a developmental disorder.  Did his neediness, his difficulty with everything in life, make that hormonal upheaval worse? Stress can have an aggravating effect on hormonal changes, but I have no idea. So I wonder if nursing and weaning this next baby will be hormonally easier. Maybe I’ll let you know in another year or two.

Here’s what I do know.  I will be informing all my mom friends and anyone else I trust about any plans to wean, and telling them how difficult it was with my first son.  I’ll be asking them to check up on me and demand that I be honest with them about how I’m doing. I’ll probably also arrange with my husband and anyone else willing to give me time to get to the gym regularly so that my brain and body can reconnect with themselves as only time exercising does for me.  And I’ll try not to care when a nostalgic woman waxes poetic about the joy of nursing and what a beautiful thing it is.

I think breastfeeding is great.  I really do. Hey, it’s the only time that kid is going to eat free every day of the week!  It’s an interesting, special and truly beneficial (for mom and baby) activity that is very humbling, heart-warming and again, special.  It’s special, gosh darn it! But let’s not kid ourselves; it can be brutal, painful, sad, and when it comes to weaning, downright mercenary.  But knowing that ahead of time can be pretty helpful.

If you’re planning on weaning anytime soon, I have a few suggestions.  

  • Be prepared!  Know that besides the inevitable stubbornness that most kids (toddlers, babies, whatever age they are) exhibit, there might be other difficulties in weaning.  Some of those difficulties might be in the hormonal fog, weirdness or outright depression that might ensue.  
  • Don’t automatically assume that any weirdness you feel is because you are disconnected or nostalgic.  Take a good look at what you’re feeling and see if it matches with who you are as a person. Is this you?  Does it make sense?  
  • Read up!  Have a plan for weaning, including what you’ll do if you have problems like I did.  I’ve come across a few articles that were helpful with this sort of thing. Many just explain that depression and weaning are definitely linked, but there haven’t been any studies done to show what exactly is going on.   

Kelly Mom

Breastfeeding-depression link

I do hope that if you’re weaning soon, or currently are, that it is a transition that just changes how your child is fed.  It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that! Breastfeeding versus anything else doesn’t need to be. There’s enough baggage out there (especially on the internet) about what is good, bad and evil that we don’t need to muddle it up.  And by the way, congratulations on doing whatever breastfeeding you’ve done. It can be hard work. But keep in mind to keep tabs on yourself, take care of yourself, and be honest with yourself. Your child needs you just as much now as they did when you were their meal ticket too.

Virginia Rivenbark

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