Breastfeeding makes me sad


It is a perfect spring day. My toddler just went down for a nap, and my baby is hungry. I settle unto the sofa next to a steaming cup of herbal tea and a good book. A vague feeling of uneasiness briefly brushes my consciousness, but I ignore it. I snuggle in with my son, cover him with a soft blanket, and begin to nurse. I look at his perfect face and his long baby eyelashes. As I marvel at this wondrous little person in my arms, I feel like the most blessed woman alive. I giggle out loud as he smiles in his sleep, I – WHAM. I am hit by a sudden wave of sadness. It’s a physical feeling; my heart plunges to my toes, my stomach churns. I continue gazing into my precious son’s face, but my thoughts change. Now I am preoccupied by tragedy. How sad that he was hungry, that he was cold, that he was lonely… What if he felt abandoned while I was reading to his sister? What if he feels unloved? What if he’s picked last for the neighborhood soccer team? How will I ever tell him about slavery? The holocaust? I mentally shake myself, trying to break free of this feeling, when another wall of grief crashes on me. This one takes me down, sucks me into a black hole of sadness. I am falling, falling….

And then, it’s over. I’m back in my living room again, cozy and comfortable, in love with my family, in love with my life. My son is happily nursing, eyeing me sideways and making contented little baby sighs.

What on earth just happened?

When I first experienced this strange phenomenon, it was rather mild, and I attributed it to my changing postpartum hormones. But as time passed, it only became more frequent and intense. I knew I wasn’t depressed, so what was going on? Why did I feel like I was losing my mind every time I nursed? Where were all the warm fuzzy feelings I’d had nursing my first child?

So, like any good millennial, I started Googling, and I came across the term dysphoric milk ejection reflex, or D-MER. According
“Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex is a condition affecting lactating women that is characterized by an abrupt dysphoria, or negative emotions, that occur just before milk release and continuing not more than a few minutes.” According to the website, D-MER appears to be caused by a sudden drop of dopamine levels triggered by the milk ejection (let down) reflex of the mother.

When I read that, I felt instant relief. So I wasn’t crazy! This is actually a thing!

So I took to my breastfeeding Facebook group, excited to share and find others like me. No one answered my post.
I talked to my midwife, who had heard of it but had never met anyone who had it.

In my internet research, I found that the phenomenon has only been described in a handful of places in the last ten years, and besides a case study, little if any serious research has been done into the matter. I hope this changes. I hope more women come forward and share their experiences, and that the scientific community takes notice.

I’m two months postpartum now. And while I love nursing and I relish the connection with my son, D-MER continues to be a struggle. It doesn’t happen every time I nurse, and sometimes I hardly notice it. Sometimes it happens when I’m not nursing, like when I get a random let down while doing the dishes. I’m doing my best to take care of myself, to keep sharing with my husband and my family, and to do more research on my own. I find I’m better when I distract myself or do things to keep my baseline dopamine levels higher, such as when I exercise and take my vitamins. But I will likely deal with this as long as I’m nursing.

This experience has been a wonderful reminder for me that while motherhood is a joy and a privilege, it can also be a challenge. And most importantly, that it is a task that was never meant to be undertaken alone. So whether you deal with D-MER, postpartum depression, milk supply or nursing issues, exhaustion, a strong willed child, too much to do and too little time, or you simply feel overwhelmed by the task of raising a human being, you are not alone. Never be ashamed to reach out, engage in your community, and ask for help. We’re all in this together.

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