The range of experience for new mothers is wide and differs from woman to woman. Some leave the hospital with their new bundle of joy as euphoric as the day they found out they were expecting, while others are struck with intense emotions produced by a concoction of hormonal reactions that they can’t quite understand or respond to appropriately, and everything in between. The commonality between them all is the fact that their bodies have been altered considerably by the process of developing and delivering a human life. One anomaly that is truly set apart from others is D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex), a short lived period of dysphoria just prior to the milk letting down during breast feeding.
The first days at the hospital were a little rough for both my son and I. He didn’t latch for the first 24 hours which sucked (a little mom humor), but the lactation specialists told me it was normal, to keep trying. It took my son and I about a week to fall in sync with the feeding process; I heard that special cry and we both knew what to do. I’ll never forget the day that I felt the first wave of what I later found out to be D-MER. I initially thought I was losing my mind or suffering from some form of postpartum depression.
We were sitting in our feeding chair lined with blankets and pillows when I started the normal routine. About ten seconds after he latched on this particular occasion, I felt my stomach drop and was overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness. My heart sunk, my eyes welled up, but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause of the emotional pain if I wanted to. It was intense. Less than a minute after it began, it was gone. I went back to normal as if someone had taken my pain away. There was no trace of it anymore. These episodes continued during every feeding until I switched to formula five months later.
The Australian Breastfeeding Society defines D-MER on their website: negative emotions that occur seconds before a mother’s milk ejection reflex when breastfeeding or expressing or with a spontaneous MER (ie milk releasing when not breastfeeding or expressing). The symptoms include hollow feelings in the stomach, sadness, and dread during milk let-down (the milk supply flowing to the nipple for expression).
A case study by Alia M. Heise and Diane Wiessinger dives deeper into the condition. They confirm that direct research into D-MER is almost non-existent, but that awareness has grown in recent years. During their observations, Heise and Wiessinger found that during an episode of D-MER subjects could not perform simple tasks like reading or solving a math problem due to the distraction of the emotional state. All available studies confirm that the feeling lasts only up to ninety seconds or so, and then dissipates.
The general consensus blames levels of dopamine interaction for D-MER, but the exact mechanisms behind this interaction have yet to be discovered. From what can be seen with the research available, it is physiological, not psychological, in nature: it only occurs during milk release, and does not depend on a woman’s birth or living experiences.
Due to the lack of in-depth research, D-MER is not as well-known as it should be. Given the very serious emotional byproducts of birth and the nature of motherhood, anomalies such as these deserve more attention, and extending awareness of it should be a goal for lactation consultants everywhere. Knowing all the emotional ins and outs of breastfeeding would have made my experience with D-MER much less mystifying.