My first child weaned himself abruptly at 15 months, and after that point, I seemed to be late for everything. Not because it suddenly took us longer to get out of the door, but because I had an urgent, nagging need to double back and check that the stove was off, even if we were already in the car, ignition on. I’d unbuckle us both, run back into the house, gripping my keys and my son’s hand, and prove to my worried mind that I didn’t leave a burner on. (I never did, but I also unplugged the toaster for good measure.) I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the way my post-weaning anxiety decided to rear up—ruminating that the kitchen would be on fire.
More than half of mothers (53%) experience anxiety after weaning, Aeroflow Breastpumps’ annual breastfeeding survey found, highlighting the impact weaning has on postpartum mental health—and the need for more mental health resources. The company surveyed 508 mothers who have had children within the past year, with 409 completed responses.
But if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, you’re not alone. Post-weaning anxiety is not often discussed. “As with many facets of breastfeeding and lactation, post-weaning anxiety is poorly researched and understood. Because of this, many lactating parents are not prepared for it when it happens,” says Jessica Madden, MD, FAAP, IBCLC, a breastfeeding medicine and infant feeding specialist and the medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, to Motherly. Here’s what to know about anxiety after weaning—and how to potentially prevent it in the first place.
What is post-weaning anxiety?
Post-weaning anxiety typically occurs within days to a few weeks of stopping breastfeeding. It can develop quickly, Dr. Madden shares.
The symptoms are similar to what you might experience with general anxiety, she notes, from emotional symptoms such as feeling more worried, stressed and panicked than usual, to physical symptoms, such as experiencing a racing heart, palpitations, dizziness, pale skin, shaking, and sweating. It tends to differ from post-weaning depression, in which you might feel tearful, sad and otherwise depressed.
In general, symptoms of post-weaning anxiety or depression tend to resolve in a few weeks, but for some mothers, symptoms may be more severe and require support in the form of medication or therapy. If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression after weaning that last for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to receive outside help.
What causes post-weaning anxiety?
As with many shifts in the postpartum period, you can probably blame your hormones. During weaning, the body goes from producing breast milk to ceasing, and though there’s little research on the phenomenon, it’s thought that this rapid drop in lactation-supporting hormones during weaning can trigger the onset of anxiety, says Dr. Madden.
The two main hormones involved in lactation are prolactin (the main milk-making hormone) and oxytocin (bonding hormone). Oxytocin is a “feel-good” hormone that helps us to feel calm and relaxed while nursing. “But when oxytocin dissipates, those worried and anxious feelings can quickly creep in,” she notes. In addition, fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone also occur while weaning, which can also precipitate depression, anxiety, or both, she adds.
The condition can set in no matter how long your breastfeeding journey was, or whether you weaned voluntarily or not. Because this shift in lactation hormones may also trigger the onset of your period, restarting your menstrual cycle could also be linked to the condition, given that anxiety can sometimes be a symptom of PMS.
How does post-weaning anxiety differ from postpartum anxiety?
Some of this may sound familiar to what many mothers experience as postpartum anxiety, and while there is some symptom overlap, the two conditions are distinct. Post-weaning anxiety symptoms set in after weaning from breastfeeding, whereas postpartum anxiety can set in anytime in the first year after giving birth.
But your symptoms in either case might be strong enough to affect your appetite, sleep, cognitive function, relationships, the parent-child bond and the ability to function and attend to daily tasks—it’s that impactful. Which is why we need expanded conversation and support around all instances of postpartum mental health disorders (PMHDs).
“If you experience anxiety after weaning from breastfeeding, you are not alone and there is nothing “wrong” with you!” stresses Dr. Madden. “This anxiety is a result of a flux in your body’s hormones that were needed to make milk to grow and nourish another human. Although these feelings of anxiety will not last forever, you do not have to go through this alone.”
When to seek treatment
If you’re struggling, reach out to your partner or a trusted friend, family member, mentor, or healthcare professional for help and guidance, especially if you or others close to you are noticing that your symptoms are interfering with your ability to function. A mental health professional can recommend whether lifestyle modifications or medication are needed.
“And for those who have loved ones who are weaning from breastfeeding, or have recently weaned, check in and make sure they are OK,” says Dr. Madden. Talking about the condition sheds light and erases stigma.
How to prevent post-weaning anxiety
If you’re currently breastfeeding and planning to wean soon and nervous about the mental health impacts of weaning, try not to panic. It’s important to be mindful of the potential for symptom onset, but try not to let it interfere with your own timetable for how long you’d like to breastfeed. Remember, extended breastfeeding carries big health benefits for both you and your child, but it only works if it’s still working for both of you.
Dr. Madden is a big advocate of taking a “slow and steady” approach to weaning from breastfeeding, when possible, to prevent large fluctuations in hormones.
“I hope that we someday have evidence-based recommendations to prevent post-weaning anxiety and depression,” she notes, but her typical recommendation is to drop one nursing or pumping session per day once a week.
“So if you’re breastfeeding seven times a day, drop to six times per day, do this for a week, and then drop to five times per day, wait a week, and so on,” she explains. This gradual decline in breastfeeding or pumping sessions will start to signal to your body to produce less milk, and help gently taper the lactation-promoting hormones in circulation.
And if you’re considering weaning soon? Reach out to a lactation consultant for help and to answer any questions you might come across along the way. You’re not alone in this journey–and support is out there.