I like to think I’d prepared fairly well for breastfeeding. I was prepared for it to hurt, partly due to lactation helping the womb to contract back to it’s normal size after pregnancy, but also from the issues commonly spoken about: sore nipples, poor latch, tongue tie. Go on any mum-orientated Facebook group and you’ll find a heap of discussions about all sorts of issues that come with breastfeeding.
But my experience was pretty smooth when it came to physical pain. Yes I had contractions but the aftermath of having a c-section involves pain (and painkillers) anyway so on the whole it wasn’t that bad. I was also incredibly lucky to be seen by a lactation specialist midwife while I was on the ward recovering (another unexpected positive of the c-section) and she helped me to get R’s latch right. I even ended up throwing away some nipple balm because I simply didn’t need it.
But once I started to physically recover and returned home I started to experience something I was totally unprepared for, something that isn’t often mentioned in breastfeeding discussions at all: D-MER.
Every time I latched R I would experience intense feelings of self-loathing. I’m talking about real pit of the stomach feelings of shame and disgust about myself and my body. The idea of eating anything other than salad disgusted me (and if I had recently eaten before a feed I’d hate myself for having eaten whatever it was) and I’d desperately want to drink water, as if drinking water could somehow cleanse my body.
Despite these negative feelings I knew I wasn’t depressed. For the most part I was loving motherhood. I loved my baby. I even loved breastfeeding, at least, when I wasn’t physically doing it. The logical part of my brain knew that breastfeeding was the best thing I could be doing for R, so why did it make me feel so sick to do it? It didn’t even think to mention it to the doctor during my post-partum check-up. I just tried to ignore it (while drinking a lot of water).
And then one day, at about three months post-partum, I was scrolling Instagram and came across a post by @milkmakingmama that mentioned D-MER and suddenly everything made sense.
D-MER stands for Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. In simple terms it is a hormonal imbalance that coincides with milk let-down resulting in intense negative emotions. From what I have read, it is surprisingly common, though not often spoken about. The link to milk let-down means that the emotions are only felt briefly. This makes D-MER very different to post-natal depression. Importantly, it is not a response to breastfeeding but to milk-let down, which means that the negative emotions can be experienced any time your breasts release milk, whether or not your baby is feeding (so expressing and leaks have the same effect).
For me, discovering that this thing I was experiencing had a name was a game-changer. I knew I wasn’t going mad, that I wasn’t depressed and most importantly, that I wasn’t a bad mother for experiencing these emotions when breastfeeding. And by knowing what it was and that it was specifically linked to milk let-down made it easier to deal with. I could essentially grit my teeth, ride the wave and let it pass.
Over time the emotions that I experience when breastfeeding have lessened to the point where I hardly notice it now. Perhaps I’ve just become a bit better at dealing with it. But I’m still shocked how infrequently D-MER is referred to or spoken about. I’ve yet to find any information about it through the NHS but I’ve linked to a couple really helpful resources below.
Perhaps it’s fear of judgement keeping us all so quiet about this commonly experienced sadness when breastfeeding. Or maybe like me, most women who experience D-MER assume it’s just all part of the crazy postpartum emotional roller-coaster. But if we don’t speak up there’s a real risk that some women stop breastfeeding earlier than they would otherwise because they aren’t receiving the support they need.