Oxytocin, as you probably know, is the feel good hormone that gets you all loved up to bond with your baby at birth. What many people don’t realise is that although it peaks at birth (between the birth of the baby and the birth of the placenta) oxytocin levels are high in a woman’s body for as long as she is breastfeeding.
If you have been to my workshop you’ll know that oxytocin makes mothers more tolerant of monotony and boredom, enjoy living in the moment, gives them the desire to spend more time with their baby and lowers their blood pressure.
Emotions like fear, anxiety, cravings, addictions, and boredom are all associated with stress hormones, which are inversely related to oxytocin. For example, the more oxytocin you have the less adrenaline, and vice versa, so for as long as you are breastfeeding you have some natural protection from many of these unpleasant feelings.
Regardless of when and why you stop breastfeeding it will affect your hormones and it’s something we rarely talk about. When I stopped breastfeeding my own toddler a few months ago I expected to feel relieved. Instead, I felt awful! I called my husband in tears saying “I want to start feeding her again!” I thought my daughter would resist weaning, but it actually seemed to affect me much more than her.
Interestingly I didn’t write about it at the time, maybe because I was too emotional. But I am writing about it now as a friend goes through the same thing and I realise we need to share these stories, and normalise the emotional experience of motherhood.
I feel that grief and depression after weaning is another important reason we need to be preparing women for a longer postpartum window. Mothers are frequently given the impression that after 6 weeks they’ll be on top of things, but recent research in the UK is finding that one year after birth is a more realistic timeframe for maternal adjustment.
Even as a postnatal doula I had never come across women experiencing grief and depression after choosing to wean. Maybe it was because I previously only worked with mothers for a few months postpartum (now I have expanded my services to support women for one year after birth). Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. Since my own experience, I have talked to a number of mothers who found the same thing.
Much of the research on depression associated with weaning focuses on mothers who cannot breastfeed, or whose babies self-wean before the mother is ready. But this does not acknowledge the hormonal changes a woman experiences after weaning even if she chose to stop breastfeeding herself. Some women who breastfeed for as long as they enjoy it and wean by choice still find themselves spiralling into one or two months of depression after weaning.
I personally feel like the end of breastfeeding symbolises the end of a journey in which mother and baby have shared a physical body. It is normal to grieve the end of this connection, to feel a loss when your baby no longer takes nutrition for your body. And it is especially common for mothers to grieve after they wean their last child, knowing they will never experience breastfeeding again.
Only 14% of Australian mothers are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months, we talk a lot about the effect of early weaning on newborns, but how about its effect on mothers? I wonder how many cases of postnatal depression are associated with inability or decision not to breastfeed, and the subsequent effect on a mothers hormones?
The good news is there are many other ways to boost oxytocin levels, even if you can't or don't breastfeed.