I first noticed it in the early days of Dayton’s life, shortly after we came home from the hospital. We were only there for one night (his birth was so fast and I just wanted to get home!), so he must have been only 3 or 4 days old when I felt an intense sadness while I was breastfeeding.
But just as quickly as it appeared, the sadness went away. I truly don’t remember putting much thought behind it. The first few days after childbirth are a haze. Happy, sad, high, low. Overall, I felt such bliss and excitement and joy in life, and so these quick moments of sad emotions while breastfeeding didn’t seem important.
But after a week or so, I noticed a pattern. Every single time I breastfeed Dayton, I would feel an intense surge of sadness. It only lasted for about 45-60 seconds, and the sadness would be gone. It was so strange!
And so, like every parent does when a weird thing happens with their newborn, I consulted google. “Sadness while breastfeeding” very quickly introduced me to a condition called DMER, or Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. It checked every box: a quick 60-second feeling of extreme sadness every time my milk let down, no other symptoms of postpartum depression. I was only experiencing this when my milk came in, but not during the entire breastfeeding session. And I felt happy and normal for the rest of the day.
The science-y reasoning for DMER is this:
In order for a breastmilk letdown, prolactin goes up and dopamine goes down. That’s all normal. But if you have DMER, your dopamine goes way down…too far. It feels horrible, like a wave of anxiety or depression, a sadness like I had rarely experienced…and then it rebalances (after about 45 seconds, in my case) and it’s all over.
45 seconds isn’t very long to feel any emotion, so in one sense it was no big deal. But for the first few weeks of Dayton’s life I was breastfeeding him 16 or 18 times a day. So it felt like a lot of times for a random wave of this awful feeling to wash over me, especially compared to the joy that I felt for the majority of my day. It happened over a thousand times during the first few months of my baby’s life.
I mentioned my symptoms to my OB at a 3-week followup. She asked the standard questions to double check it wasn’t postpartum depression but I confirmed that I really did feel SO happy, excited about life, joyful in my regular day-to-day activities…it was just this 45-second window at the start of breastfeeding that made me sad, and it didn’t make sense.
She confirmed that it was DMER. It’s still a new concept in the medical world (the first study on it was only about 10 years ago) and doctors still don’t know a bunch about it. No one knows for sure what causes it or how to avoid it. She mentioned that antidepressants that are available if I got to the point where I was feeling like I needed them, but I told her that I’d just ride it out and see if it got better on its own.
I wrote the following snippet in my journal when Dayton was 2 weeks old:
It just feels like something is wrong. I feel anxiety and dread that spreads down to my fingertips and my toes. I suddenly feel nervous about everything, like publishing a blog post or responding to an email. It all feels too hard and uncomfortable and like I just can’t do it and I want to cry.
It’s like the feeling when you wake in the morning with dread in the pit of your stomach and you lie there trying to remember what it is that’s making you feel so horrible, knowing it will hit you soon (oh yeah, I had that awful argument with my friend, or I found out my car will cost $3,000 to repair, or whatever.) Except the explanation never comes, but the pit just stays there.
Thankfully for me, after about 4 months it more or less disappeared. I’m 5 months postpartum now, and I rarely feel any sadness while I’m breastfeeding. It seems like the hormones have rebalanced themselves, thankfully. Every so often I’ll experience it (mostly during Dayton’s evening feeding, for some reason) but I know that it’s just going to be a quick wave. I ride it out, and it’s over.
DMER has been a very strange thing to experience, because each wave of sadness is so quick! When Dayton was a wee little baby and I was feeding him 18 times each day, there were also 18 times a day that I wanted to quit breastfeeding. I would think, “that’s it, I’m done with it. This isn’t worth it.” And then for the rest of the day, other than those 18 little minutes, that thought was completely gone from my mind. I was blissfully in love with my baby.
The other weird thing is that breastfeeding, other than that, has gone beautifully. No pain, plenty of milk production, and a wonderful bonding experience with my baby. I love feeding him, and once that quick sadness was over during the letdown, I would feel a fantastic connection to him and an intense happiness.
I learned that it was just a feeling, and I was capable of riding the wave. DMER is physiological (not psychological), which means it’s literally a thing that’s happening in my body, not in my mind. That was helpful for me to know.
I also learned a few tricks that helped me ride the wave more easily: I don’t check email or social accounts while it’s happening (that just exaggerates the anxiety.) And I remember that nothing is actually wrong. It’s just a feeling. (<- I said that to myself hundreds of times during the first few months of breastfeeding.)
It’s been hard, but it hasn’t been unbearable. I’m happy that I stuck with it, because I was lucky that my hormones rebalanced after a few months. I have (hopefully) 7 more months of breastfeeding my sweet baby boy.
I also think that there would have been nothing wrong with choosing to stop breastfeeding earlier, if that’s what I needed to do.
Just a reminder: if you’re dealing with DMER, talk to your doctor. Also, here’s a support group.