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When Breastfeeding Makes You Feel Sad

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

The phenomenon of Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (otherwise known as D-mer) is what a few women experience, yet there is so little known about it, or spoken about it, that these new mothers in their vulnerable state might consider themselves not a ‘born breast feeder’ as if something is amiss. These mothers do not experience breastfeeding in the same way most do. Just before a feed, when the trigger of oxytocin is released, instead of a flood of wonderful, happy, love hormones swimming around (which sometimes is the only thing keeping a sleep-deprived, struggling mother sane), these mothers instead experience the opposite – a drop in mood that may manifest itself as a feeling of sadness, longing, homesickness, and sometimes even rage. Thankfully, this feeling occurs just before milk is released, and only lasts for seconds or a minute or two before passing. Of the numerous women I’ve supported, I’ve only known of one that experienced this, and recognised this as D-mer.

Louisa had her first baby six years ago in 2014. Thankfully, for her, she did not worry about what she was experiencing, but was more just curious about it. She describes it like this: “I remember trying to explain it to people (other new mums, even a lactation consultant) and they looked at me like I was mad or said something about baby blues being normal. I knew it wasn’t baby blues or any mood disorder. It was linked directly and specifically to my letdown. Even before I could feel the physical letdown in my breasts, I would be filled with a raging thirst and an overwhelming feeling of what can only be described as homesickness or longing – it was NOT a nice feeling and, in those moments, I was inwardly distraught. It was so intense it took my breath away, and I would down a pint of water trying to satisfy the ‘thirst’ and stave it off. Only it wasn’t the thirsty feeling of a new breastfeeding mum (I know that one too!) but something deeper, almost a thirst for a need that can’t be met”. Louisa scoured the internet at the time but found nothing. Three years ago, Louisa had another baby and experienced the same mood shift just before breastfeeding her newborn, only this time she found a single article about D-mer and had a ta-da magic moment where it all made sense, and relief that she wasn’t alone in the phenomenon of D-mer. Now thankfully there is a D-mer website, and a book as well as breastfeeding charities that have a word about it on their websites. Louisa adds: “the term ‘dysphoria’ the opposite of euphoria sums it up perfectly. It’s as intense and all-consuming but in a negative way. It’s hard to describe but homesick, desperately sad, restless and needing something you can’t name is a good description.”

It’s important that D-mer not be confused with baby blues, PTSD, or postnatal depression. The Australian Breastfeeding Association website claims that research is being carried out to determine the specific mechanisms of D-mer, which is an inappropriate activity of the hormone dopamine. It also mentions anecdotally that stress, dehydration and caffeine might worsen symptoms and that lifestyle changes might help relieve the intensity of the experience. However, women report that the feeling gets milder over time, and less intense with each baby. So possibly we can conclude that even the human body itself balances the hormones out with time. Louisa concludes by saying that, apart from her experience of D-mer, she enjoyed breastfeeding both her children, who have fed for three years each and possibly even longer the way her second is going…

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