Is This Why You’re So Sad While You’re Nursing?

Even five years later, I still remember the moment very distinctly.

In his dark room, I nursed my two-week-old son. We glided back and forth on his chair, all alone, it felt, in more ways than one.

He had a good latch, I was making enough milk, and despite the pain, we were getting through it. By textbook standards, we were doing all right.

I stared out that night at nothing, enveloped in exhaustion and all the typical new-mom revelations — stunned at this new and punishing level of exhaustion; overwhelmed with love; frustrated with the utter lack of order and routine in this new life of mine — and yet the overarching sentiment I was experiencing was, for lack of a better term, melancholy.

I would call it numb — because that would almost describe it — but it was closer to numbness with a touch of sadness. Nostalgic, almost, but for what, I didn’t know. It was as if someone had broken me down into thousands of tiny puzzle pieces and put me back together, save for a few near my heart.

I just felt… off.

And I noticed this feeling was frequently happening when I nursed.

I stared out that night at nothing, really, enveloped by exhaustion and all the new-mom revelations … and the overarching sentiment I was experiencing was, for lack of a better term, melancholy.

I soldiered through this strange feeling time and time again. I’d get myself back “up” after an episode, figure my hormones were wacky (they most definitely were), then go back about our day.

I rode the typical postpartum roller coaster until we settled in to a new normal, and maybe seven or eight months later, these feelings stopped. We’d found our new normal–a state that still included exhaustion and bouts of intense emotion, but nothing like those first few months.

I got through that strange period without ever thinking twice about what it was that I was experiencing. Since I didn’t seek therapy until after my second child was born (for heightened anxiety, which I never before in my life had experienced), I was going through all of this blind. And it wasn’t until recently, now nursing my third baby, that I came across something that seemed to explain those feelings with strange accuracy.

Have you heard of D-MER?

It stands for “Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex,” and it seems to be characterized by a sudden, and often short-lived, wave of negative emotion just after a mother’s milk lets down during nursing.

At the risk of drawing forth a tsunami of Internet Eye-Rolls*, I am going to go ahead and say that its symptoms sound strikingly familiar to what I was dealing with while nursing my son, and I’m hopeful that putting this information out there might make some other mamas feel a little less alone during those late-night nursing sessions.

For clarification on its symptoms, I reached out to certified professional and licensed midwife Maggie McCarthy.

“According to the National Institute of Health, D-MER is only recently recognized, so there is not much literature written about it. It seems to be linked to a decrease in dopamine due to an increase in the hormone oxytocin, which is needed to eject the milk from the milk ducts,” says McCarthy.

And what’s behind that “drop-off” feeling that so many nursing mothers perceive as a drop into sadness, or anxiety? It’s all tied to dopamine, a chemical in the brain linked to happiness.

“Dopamine needs to decrease for the hormone prolactin to produce milk, but in the case of D-MER, dopamine does not drop properly (too great a drop) causing the waves of negative emotions and feelings.”

It’s important to note that D-MER is not postpartum depression; the two are distinct diagnoses, each of which should be addressed differently.*

McCarthy says some simple lifestyle changes can help to treat D-MER symptoms, including increasing hydration, resting as much as possible (HA), and decreasing stress (double HA). Herbal supplements like evening primrose oil can also be helpful; McCarthy says this supplement in particular can increase levodopa, which converts to dopamine.

“Dopamine needs to decrease for the hormone prolactin to produce milk, but in the case of D-MER, dopamine does not drop properly (too great a drop) causing the waves of negative emotions and feelings.”

“Evening Primrose Oil is known to increase levodopa which converts to dopamine; Rhodiola Rosea (golden root) has properties of a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which also allow more dopamine to be released; [and] B-complex promotes dopamine activity.”

McCarthy also suggests eating dopamine-rich foods like chicken, turkey, almonds, oats and yogurt, which can help the body maintain an adequate amount of the chemical.

So pass on the good word, fellow moms. What you’re dealing with–whether it’s D-MER or something else–is likely a path trod by other brave, strong mamas. The massive changes that pregnancy and childbirth bring about are not small things, but rather–when taken together–an event that has ripple effects on your physical and mental health for months, if not years, to come.

With the right knowledge and help, know that you can get through this. And even on the loneliest of nights, you are most certainly not alone.

(*As always, of course, consult your doctor or trusted medical professional for advice and diagnosis.)
(**It should go without saying that no, I’m not a doctor. No, I’m not qualified by a medical board to diagnose myself. But I am one hell of a self-aware mother of three whose body has been through some serious shit and who really knows her mind and her physicality. So there.)

Sonni Abatta is a full-time wife and mother of three, and part-time referee for her kids’ fights. She retired from television news to start this Orlando lifestyle and mom blog. If you’d like to reach out to chat, collaborate, or if you have any ideas on how to adequately store large quantities of Legos, please reach out here!


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