Breastfeeding Hormones and Depression

22nd February 2012

Hey, team. I’ve recently had two girlfriends suffer chemical depression that they feel is related to breast feeding — either feeding or weaning. For the record, I’m pro breastfeeding, but con debilitating sadness. I just wanted to link to these posts in case any of you are suffering from something similar and trying to figure out what’s up.

Joanna Goddard from A Cup of Jo on Depression and Weaning

Helen Jane of on Depression and Breastfeeding Hormones

I’m also hoping to bump the info up on search engines so it’s easier to unearth for other women who may be trying to figure out why they’re crying all the time even though they’re technically past the post-partum depression window.

Have you had a similar experience? If so, you’re welcome to leave stories and links to posts on the subject in comments.

Again! I am pro breastfeeding, and boobs in general. Thanks to Joanna and HJ for speaking up, breastfeeding is a scary issue to address online. Brave. Low fives, ladies.

38 thoughts on “Breastfeeding Hormones and Depression

  1. Justine

    You know, I never put the two together. I always said I had prolonged ppd, but come to think of it, it didn’t hit till after I had weaned.

  2. Elaine Lowe

    I’m pregnant now, but with my first, I actually found the reverse. My chronic depression was much better during breastfeeding and I didn’t need to go back on meds until a good 6 months after weaning. Every woman is different, but hormones can have a profound impact on depression and anxiety.

  3. Kari

    I am currently weaning my son after 13 months of nursing and it is making me crazy. Joanna’s post was a gift. I thought the hormones were messing with me a bit, but after reading what she said I realized that all of my recent crying jags and thoughts about being a terrible mom were probably related to weaning. I feel better equipped to deal with it.

  4. Kim

    Maggie, thanks for posting these. I had my own oxytocin drop when I weaned my daughter – I was so used to going to sleep breastfeeding, I couldn’t actually drop off without it! Nothing as serious as the ladies here, but everyone is different. One thing they don’t mention that is worth realising is that if you think you are suffering from a mental condition while breastfeeding, there are some medications that are still ok to take, and it’s worth working with your doctor to see if this helps you if you are keen to continue breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is good, but a happy and managing mama is just as important.

  5. Suzanne

    I’m about 2 weeks away from fully weaning my daughter & 2 weeks into my bottle of Zoloft. After I shared that I had seen my doctor about it, a friend told me she had heard of this link but I didn’t do any further reading. Thank you so much for the extremely timely information.

  6. Lauren

    It happened to me too. I weaned slowly and was suddenly a weepy teenager again. I had low milk, my son was a year old and I had had my period for 9 or 10 months already so I was quite shocked that weaning had such an effect. I wasn’t expecting it at all. It was summer and it didn’t last long thankfully.

    Great post and great idea to bump this up on search engines! Go women helping women!

  7. sarahb

    Though I have not (yet) had trouble with depression, I had so many other problems with breastfeeding that I started a Tumblr site to collect stories from women about their own experiences of feeding their babies. I can’t fully relate how amazing it is to read these narratives. Part of why I started the site is to help do exactly what you say: bump up the info on search engines. I spent far too many lonely, late-night hours in those early post-partum days, fruitlessly searching online for stories, stories, ANY STORIES that would help me make sense of what felt like a nightmare. When an Ob-Gyn friend of mine sent me a note to say that she was sharing the Tumblr site with her patients that were struggling and confused about their (always very individual, always somehow universal) struggles with breastfeeding….I realize that this is good work to do.

  8. Acj

    Thank you for posting this. I had ppd & anxiety and whenever I was breastfeeding I would start to feel a panic attack coming on. Until this moment I thought it was exclusively due to the ppd and my own history of anxiety. Now I have a new perspective. Thank you.

  9. Jennifer Gandin Le

    What Helen Jane describes sounds a lot like dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER), because of the timing of the depression coming on during actual nursing sessions. I’m currently breastfeeding and have not experienced this, but I know women who have, and it’s not something that many medical professionals know about.

    Thought I would chime in with that website for reference as well:

  10. Susan

    Happened to me too, but it passed quickly. I’m not discounting the seriousness of it, though. It was startling, and I felt like I was going crazy. That’s not cool even for a short time.

  11. Kate F

    It was only after coming out of the darkest prolonged mood of my life–a couple months of summer, no less–that I realized I’d been at least a bit depressed. I was emailing w a couple mom friends and one asked if I had been weaning–sure enough, my son dropped his feedings down quite a bit in the months before his first birthday, and weaned completely right after it. About a month later I started feeling like myself again. No one had ever mentioned the shifting hormones around weaning impacting mood like that! I’m glad to know for next time and I’m glad you’re spreading the word; I just felt crazy/hated myself all summer.

  12. Adrienne

    Thank you for the tumblr link, SarahB. I have read through like 10 of the stories and am sitting here sobbing.

    The emotions attached to breast feeding are so strong, it’s amazing we don’t ALL go batty. This is why the Internet is so great. We can all make each other feel less alone. Someone understands.

  13. Amanda W

    No one ever tells you that breastfeeding is hard. They tell you it’s natural, and essential, and the only way you could possibly have a perfect healthy baby, and that your child won’t go to college without it. They don’t tell you it hurts, and is sometimes hard, and sometimes impossible. I was so depressed when my newborn son hated breastfeeding…hated it…did not want the boob. Maybe this is linked to being gay..tune in a few years from now (kidding). I really appreciate this post and everyone’s comments. I felt like a failure and was depressed for a long time. After the second baby came and breastfeeding was so simple, so easy (she would still be nursing at age 5), I realized, hey maybe it isn’t me! So I think it’s important to tell others, and have this out there. THANKS!

  14. Emily

    I had somehow believed that since I was a women’s health nurse, breastfeeding would be easier for me. Cue to September when I actually had a baby and subsequently found out that attempting to breastfeed said baby was enough to make me a lunatic. I wholly believe that I didn’t experience actual ppd insomuch as I was dealing with some serious frustration and hormonal issues that were entirely tied to breastfeeding. Also, as an FYI, traditional breastfeeding support groups ( a la the LLL) aren’t real keen on being supportive when it comes to admitting that breastfeeding can be treacherous from a chemical standpoint for a woman when it isn’t going perfectly. We’re 6 months into things, I’m in a better place, but I wish I’d known HALF of what I know now, and what those links provide information wise when I set out to be an exclusive breastfeeder.

  15. Fatemeh

    This, sweet Maggeh, is the kind of stuff that gets lost when we don’t have awesome little communities of mothers and aunties.

    Add to that a whole generation of women before us who wasn’t encouraged to breastfeed, and so can’t pass on that collective knowledge.

    So sad. So much unnecessary fear and powerlessness.

  16. Katrina

    Thanks for posting Maggie. I read the Cup of Jo post early this week and made a mental note of it. I’m not weaning yet but my 11-month-old is starting to nurse less, and I am starting to feel lethargic lately, so I don’t know if that’s connected or anything. I am a bit alarmed though because I’ve always been susceptible to hormone changes. And to paraphrase the commenter above me, Fetemeh, “A whole generation of women before us wasn’t encouraged to breastfeed, and so can’t pass on that collective knowledge,” IA SO HARD.

  17. Amy B.

    I hated breastfeeding. I had bad ppd with my first child, and it didn’t start easing up until I weaned. With my second child, I breastfed for only a short period of time, and the depression was much less severe. Breastfeeding is an excellent choice, but it’s not for everyone.

  18. Nicole T

    Thanks for this… I wonder if how long you nurse has an effect on the severity of the change in mood (for better or worse)? Hmmm…

    My experience was this:
    Before I got pregnant, I had been long ago diagnosed with depression/OCD/anxiety. I was on medication, and the conditions were well controlled, except for some issues in the winter (SAD).

    When I got pregnant, I was terrified about PPD. I saw my psychiatrist fairly often to help monitor things. She’s a mom of 3 herself, so she GOT everything I was dealing with. We thought we might have to adjust meds as my blood volume increased… but during pregnancy, I felt high as a kite. Yay hormones!

    After birth, I crashed. Not PPD, but definitely could have gone there. Again, my psych got it (she was a BF mom too, of TWINS no less). She advised my husband and I to make my well being a priority, so that we wouldn’t get to PPD.

    Then, when I weaned off pumping at work, it was REALLY HARD to convince myself it was the right decision. I love nursing my son, but I HATED pumping. I pumped because I needed to keep my supply up for him, and I wanted to go back to work.

    I’m sure the hormone shifts didn’t help with the crazy I felt surrounding that decision. I had been educated about weaning-related depression (via La Leche), but I wasn’t sure how chemical vs. emotional it would be. Glad we are doing the baby-led weaning thing for the nursing outside of work hours – hopefully the subtle changes will have less impact on my (already controlled with medication) depression.

  19. greta

    Man, breastfeeding is HARD. Why doesn’t anyone tell us this? Why do we only hear the golden rainbow stories of glorious breastfeeding and how awesomely close it makes you feel to your baby? Even aside from the hormonal issue, there are so many issues of self-worth tied up in breastfeeding nowadays that it’s hard to know why you’re depressed when it’s not going as planned. I’m very very grateful to say that things have gone much more easily for me the second time around (kid 2 is now 3 months old) but not without some professional help at the beginning. I’m thankful that I knew enough this time to get professional help (lactation consultant) at the first sign of difficulty, rather than waiting until it was too late like I did with my first. Whether a chemical depression or a depression based on a sense of failure/frustration/whatever, these issues are serious and I’m glad people are talking more about it. Thank you for bringing the issue more attention.

  20. Kate @ Savour Fare

    I was an extended breastfeeder, and craziness (irritability, mood swings and depression) went with not just total weaning but each step down in BFing (starting solids, stopping pumping at work, dropping a session). Luckily, I have a pretty large group of BFing girlfriends and we were able to compare notes. It’s a lot more widespread than you would think, given that NOTHING EVER TALKS ABOUT IT. All those books talk about PPD, but it’s like the mother’s needs go out the window at 6 weeks postpartum.

  21. Helen Jane

    The funny thing is that I had TOTALLY forgotten about this part of my life until you linked to it.

    (Our brains really are amazing – with what they protect us from and what they deal with.)

    Thanks so much for bringing this to light, you light-shiner, you.

  22. jive turkey

    I hit some depression when I weaned my daughter, and I had no idea what was happening to me. I really had to scour the Internet for evidence that this was normal and I wasn’t losing my damn mind. Hooray for making this a more talked-about issue.

  23. Holly

    Something’s in the water–I just wrote about my own depressing experience with breastfeeding! I am grateful for a community that advocates kindness and healthy families over breastmilk-at-all-costs (costs like moms literally losing their sanity and babies not being delighted in they way they should be).

    Thanks for helping to educate people, Maggie!

  24. laurel

    Wow. I am currently weaning my 20-month-old and had no idea about this. But it helps explain a number of things, possibly including why I broke down in tears while having lunch with my boss today. Thank you for posting this.

  25. a.

    It’s so good for people to be talking about this. I’ve experienced a different kind of hormone-related depression throughout the past year, but what Jo wrote about how she felt rang so true to me: you really do think it’s your life, it’s clearly your fault, and you just need to fix everything. (and I also never thought the days my period arrived would be so magically restorative and sun-drenched, but oh, they can be!) thanks to modern chemistry, I’m regaining a balance, and am finding my old self, who is still in here somewhere.

    hormones can be real bastardpeople! thanks to everyone for sharing and shedding light.

  26. kristi mcintyre

    My baby is 5 months old & we had a really hard time breastfeeding. We had to eventually stop when he was a little over 2 months old because I kept getting mastitis & scary high fevers (5 times in a 4 week period). I was extremely emotional & stressed the entire time we breastfed/pumped, and became very depressed after I weaned him. I don’t know which was worse, the fear, anxiety, pain, & stress I felt while attempting to give my son exclusive breast milk or the depression & guilt I experienced after we stopped. I am finally getting to a place where I feel ok about my decisions, because I know that ultimately stopping nursing was better for my health & both of our mental states, but I still get very emotional when I read certain things or think about it for a while.

    Mostly, I’m really angry at everyone (my midwife, child birth educator, other mothers, baby books, etc.) for not telling me how hard it might be to breastfeed, for not warning me it might hurt & i might bleed (a lot), for not giving me any warning signs to look for, for not preparing me for anything other than total success. I feel like many people are so pro-breastfeeding (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally pro-boob, just not so much that I would encourage women to continue if it’s negatively affecting your health or well being) that they don’t want to tell you about any of the bad parts for fear that you won’t try at all. It just makes me sad because if I would of had any information other than “breast is always best!” I feel like I would have known there were problems before it was too late (like before my nipples were half chewed off) & would have been able to be proactive & correct my issues. We need to be looking out for each other instead of just promoting something because it’s “the best” because it’s not always “the best” for everyone.

  27. Yes yes yes!

    Thank you for posting this Maggie! It’s been almost four years since I had my first child, and the anxiety I initially attributed to postpartum hormones has never gone away. It’s not PPD, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. For me it’s a sort of low-level anxiety that oozes into the empty space in my day. A few minutes here or there filled with anxious despair, like a well-worn worry stone. I wouldn’t have known how to Google it even if I tried. Malaise? Anxiety? That sinking feeling? Let’s give it a better name!

    I’ve only shared it with a few people. It’s not that I’m ashamed, it’s just that acknowledging makes it real and requires adjectives. Sharing has been worth it, though – I have been astounded to find so many other friends echo my description.

    Re breastfeeding: I nursed my older child for a year – it was dreamy and claustrophobic, all at the same time. I accidentally weaned her when an international trip threw off our feeding schedule. Hooray for beach snuggles, but upon returning to work after the vacation I morphed into a crazy stressbot. At the time I chalked it up to my insane work schedule, but hindsight is 20/20 – Jo’s post was dead on. Currently nursing #2 and it’s just as dreamy and claustrophobic as I remembered. Better start battening the hatches for the return of stressbot 2.0.

  28. Amy

    My daughter weaned on her third birthday and the hormone crash KICKED MY ASS. Three days into it, I showed up at my best friend’s baby shower in hysterics. I spent the whole drive there trying to not cry and telling myself that I was a selfish jerk for even allowing the possibility of people turning their attention away from her and to me to happen. I walked in and a friend just said, “Hi! How are you?” and I totally lost it. Sobbing, heaving, hysterical cries. And then an amazing thing happened. All of my wonderful friends who had been through the experience of weaning hugged me and told me they totally understood. And that it will get better.

    For about a year after that I had debilitatingly bad PMS, which I had never really experienced before (at least nothing like that). It was terrifying to feel totally out of control of my emotions for a day or two every 4 weeks. I tried to make light of it, knowing it must be temporary (right?!), and referred to it at having “The Crazies.” But there was nothing light about it. I changed my diet and researched hormone-regulating herbs and vitamins and had bloodwork done (which was fine), and eventually everything settled down.

  29. steph

    Thank you for bringing this to light. These issues need to be brought out in the open and discussed more. Your mind and body go through SO MUCH with pregnancy, birth, and lactation that nobody really knows all about. Really, the monthly cycle is a bit of a mystery too – but the more we talk about the side effects the more we might begin to see the patterns and help us fix ourselves. And women (and men) going into child-rearing need to know about the emotional roller-coaster! Prepare thyself! Sometimes it is going to SUCK.

  30. Amy

    Thank you for sharing these stories and encouraging others to get the word out. My friend is experiencing depression from weaning and I forwarded your post to her and it really helped her to know she’s not alone. Meanwhile, now I’m a little terrified of weaning, so might just keep BFing a while longer, which I secretly love anyway…great to have an excuse to give my sig other!

  31. Melissa

    Thanks for posting this and thanks for having such smart, savvy commenters. I’ve always had moderate-severe PMS, but the past 5-6 months it’s been INTENSE. I’m nursing a 21 month old and generally enjoy it, but the hormones are not fun.

    Gotta wonder if this is biology’s way of saying, “hey, get pregnant–it’s better than this.”

  32. Megan

    Can I tell you something else no one ever talks about? The link between breastfeeding and sex drive/sexual satisfaction.

    After having my kid, I couldn’t orgasm for the life of me. I finally asked about it on an anonymous Internet message board. Four or five women said, “Oh, yeah. That’s the breastfeeding. It should go away when you wean.”

    I weaned at six months — mostly for the reasons Nicole mentioned above: I couldn’t stand pumping — and I was like a cat in heat.
    It was awful and somewhat debilitating. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and it lasted weeks.

    Mothers don’t talk about depression.
    Mothers especially don’t talk about sex drive.

  33. Joanna

    As someone who takes medication for chronic depression, my heart goes out to anyone who suffers before learning that there are ways to ameliorate the symptoms. For some, a hormone shift is the culprit and an equilibrium will return naturally. For others, some form of treatment may be helpful, or necessary (as in my case).

    Two other factors folks might also want to have checked, because depression can be one of the symptoms: iron deficiency and vitamin D deficiency. I’ve had both, and been treated successfully for both, and it can make a huge difference in your life. A simple blood test can help rule out these and other issues (thyroid, etc) that might have an impact on mood, so even though hormones may be a major factor, I recommend seeing a doctor if possible to make sure there are not other organic factors involved.

  34. Nikki

    I went through this too, and had no idea that it was related to weaning. I was in therapy at the time, just feeling desperate because my life felt like such a mess. I felt like such a mess. Two beautiful children and still miserable. I mentioned off-hand that I had stopped nursing a few weeks prior, and my sweet therapist just hugged me and explained how the change in hormones can dramatically effect our moods and mental health.

    I never had any idea until I was pregnant/nursing/weaning just how hormones could rock my world (not in a good way). It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Thanks for posting Maggie. I wish I had read your post and Cup of Joe a couple of years ago!

  35. Emily

    Thanks for posting. I’m in the process of weaning my 17 month old and hadn’t made the connection until the past week or so that my bouts of anxiety and depression came on when he started weaning at 9 months. It’s been a slow process, but a month ago when we went down to once a day, my depression worsened. I cry every day now, and have been calling it Post-Post-PPD. Now it all makes sense. Thank you.

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