There has been a lot of attention put on postnatal depression (also known as postpartum depression) in the last few years, and quite rightly. Women are finally being recognised for the immense job they are doing in birthing and raising small children, and how draining and difficult it can be at times, although rewarding as well.
Postpartum depression or postnatal depression as its sometimes called can be draining and make the job of looking after a young baby many times more difficult than it needs to be.
In the past this disease was not really understood and was often pushed to the back burner by the woman because she didn’t know where to go to get help and because her family didn’t understand it. Thankfully, now most women who suffer from postnatal depression are informed where they can go to get help and it is not seen as something shameful which must be kept secret.
We are just beginning to understand the range of various events that women go through in their lives and how they are affected by their hormones at different stages. Many of us have been through pre-menstrual syndrome, early pregnancy weepies, emotional storms in labour, 3rd day baby blues, postnatal depression, lack of sex drive due to breastfeeding etc. Something that hasn’t been talked about as much is post weaning depression.
Any woman who has been able to develop a good breastfeeding relationship with her baby knows that its very pleasant to breastfeed. You can slip away into a blissful dreamland while your baby does the same. It’s addictive, like crack for your brain. While you are breastfeeding, your brain is releasing all of these yummy hormones to go swimming throughout your body which make you feel really good.
When your body had been used to feeling so good and bonding with the baby, plus you have been doing this for quite awhile stopping it can cause a major upheaval in your body. Triggering emotional ups and downs, the difference between producing milk and enjoying the hormonal blessings of feeding and not doing it anymore can seem like night and day.
I have six children and I had been either pregnant or breastfeeding from 1993-2005. As you can imagine, I was kept plenty busy, but even more than that, I had a feeling of definition to my life. I knew what I was supposed to be doing and why. The relationship between a mother and a baby is pretty well defined as care-giver and care-receiver. Of course I have other children, but a lot of my relationship with them was intertwined with the breastfeeding relationship between the baby and myself. I had to care for the baby and breastfeed and my older children just seemed to accept it. They got a lot of attention, I just always had the baby in my arms, so we often did activities or stories and other things in a big pile, like a pile of puppies.
I have always been a big believer in breastfeeding. My mum breastfeed my 7 younger siblings and I always knew that would be how I fed my babies. I weaned them as the next one was coming along, when I was close to giving birth. Fiona was different. She was our sixth child and we didn’t plan on having any more. Because I always knew it wouldn’t happen again I approached it differently. I really enjoyed every moment of her babyhood and the breastfeeding experience. I had also finally learned to relax and become zen about the experience of caring for a baby, waking at night and not feeling resentful, nappy changing, potty training, everything was just enjoyed and lived.
When, in 2005 when Fiona was 2.5 years old and still breastfeeding at night, I decided to take a trip from Australia to visit relatives around Canada and the USA, I knew, after being away for several weeks she would most likely be weaned by the time I came home. I knew I would have to start preparing my body by winding back the feeds at bedtime and learning more about how to relate to comforting her and helping her to go to sleep without breastfeeding. This was fine. My milk started to dry up, although I had a few bout of mastitis before it got to a manageable level.
I went away on my trip to Canada and the USA with my mum, and this seems to be where things went downhill in the little hormonal world of my body. I was more grouchy than usual and irritable. I had a toothache as well so that didn’t help much, and despite those things I still had a good trip with fun times and meeting my maternal grandma and some other uncles and aunts for the first time. There were a few “incidents” though, which were warnings that things weren’t quite right with my body. I became teary when seeing cousins nursing their babies, I felt like my arms were empty and nothing could fill them. It was a lot like grief. On top of that, hearing a baby crying started the milk let down again so I would have to go change shirts.
When I got back to Australia, my mood swings really started. I would be really happy and enthusiastic and then completely in the doldrums. It seemed to go in cycles and didn’t seem to have any triggers. I learned to make sure I had physical activity regularly and try to have a regular bedtime, as much as anyone with kids can have, or else I would be up all night with insomnia. I was alert to the slightest noise at night and would wake repeatedly though the night when I did get to sleep.
Full disclosure, I had gotten my menses from the time each of my babies started sleeping more than 5 hours at night or eating solid food which was usually around six months. My menstrual cycle was about 6 weeks so it was obviously being partially repressed by breastfeeding hormones. My PMS was really bad after weaning Fiona, I started getting ready for menstruation by noticing when I had a crying jag. It would usually start within a day or two. It felt like being a preteen all over again.
I started doing doula work around this time, which put me in contact with a lot of breastfeeding women. Every time I would be there with a woman as she welcomed her baby into the world I would get a milk let down feeling. The smells of birth would also trigger weepiness, which I tried to handle gracefully. After all it wasn’t about me, I was on the sidelines this time supporting someone else while they had a life changing experience.
These experiences actually helped me as well in some ways as I tried to come to grips at home with learning to handle my older kids rapidly growing into preteen hood. Dealing with my own mood swings helped me to be more understanding of what they were going through. Sometimes I felt a deep sense of loss, even though I knew with my logical brain that I still had my kids and they needed me just as much. It was like my body and brain needed me to find that balance.
I won’t say I woke up one morning and realised that I was better and everything was different, it was more like a slow change. I eventually realised that I felt good all of the time, and the moodiness I had lived with for quite awhile was mellowed out. I also noticed that my reactions to being at births had changed. I felt more happy for the new family and I didn’t have such an aching sense that I would never the birth of my own child again. I was able to be there in the moment and just be happy.
Its been several years now since I realised I had come out of the woods. It still feels good.
There were quite a few things that I tried to use to help myself during that time and I will list them here, but before I do, I just want to say that having a chat with a professional really helped my viewpoint as to what was happening with me. Depression can be insidious and the depressed person doesn’t always realise how bad they have gotten. If your loved ones are noticing behaviour changes in you and telling you that you need help, chances are high that talking to a psychologist can do more good than harm, even if you aren’t clinically depressed.
Tips For Coping With Post-Weaning Depression And Mood Swings
Post-Weaning Tip #1 – Get Regular Exercise
This seems obvious, we should exercise for our health anyway. What you might not know is that exercise releases pleasure hormones which give you a natural high, especially if you do something which causes you to break a sweat. That can be a different level of intensity for each person. I found yoga, Pilates and/or a good brisk walk outside works wonders. I recommend outside exercise, where possible, because fresh air contains more oxygen which improves the health of your brain and body.
Post-Weaning Tip #2 – Breathe
You know that tightness you get in your chest when you are stressed? It’s from breathing too fast and not filling your lungs to capacity. Take a few minutes when you are feeling the pressure to just slow down your breathing, drop your shoulders, close your eyes and breathe really deeply and slowly till you feel the stress drop away.
Post-Weaning Tip #3 – Regulate Your Sleep And Wake Times
Try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time when possible. Regular habits help regulate your hormones. Cultivate a habit of turning off electronics around your house 2 hours before bedtime as looking at bright screens tends to keep your adrenal system pumped up. Turn the lights low around the house mimicking the setting sun. It will help your children become ready for bed as well.
Post-Weaning Tip #4 – Watch What You’re Consuming
Don’t compensate for tiredness by overconsumption of caffeinated beverages and sugary and starchy foods. These things when taken in excess will break down your health which will delay getting your hormones in order. Instead make sure you are getting enough proteins and fats in your diet. Even if you need to lose weight, fat is not your enemy it’s your friend. Your brain is 60 per cent fat and that fat makes all of the cells membranes in your body. Regulating hormones require fat in your diet. Coconut oil, butter, saturated fat from meat, olive oil, nut oils, nuts, avocado oil, avocados, sesame oil, cod liver oil, oily cold water fish, and flaxseed oil are the best fats and oil sources to choose from as they require least processing to produce. With enough quality protein and fat in your diet you won’t feel the need for too much caffeine. Unless you are already in the habit, in which case it’s a good idea to wind back slowly to prevent caffeine withdrawal headaches.
Post-Weaning Tip #5 – Have Fun!
Spend some time having fun. Do fun stuff with your family and have regular date nights with your partner. Cultivate your relationships. Have girls weekend getaways to a spa or the beach. Cultivate hobbies which are just for fun and not to earn money from (although that’s a good side benefit), dance, sing, do things which bring you mood up naturally and give you something to look forward to.
Post-Weaning Tip #6 – Encourage The Production Of Love Hormones
Stimulate oxytocin in your body by hugging, kissing and cuddling on a regular basis.
Post-Weaning Tip #7 – Meditate And Use Positive Affirmations
I really recommend getting in touch with your inner self. Learn about you and learn to love yourself for who you are. A positive outlook can help produce positive feelings in your body. I found Louise Hay’s Power Thought Cards were a really good set of affirmations which you can use to bring yourself out of the doldrums, or write some yourself. Whatever works!