We have all heard or read about those fairytale stories on the bonding that comes with breast-feeding your newborn. While I was pregnant, I wondered if that would be my experience. It was exciting to look forward to all of the unknowns that having a baby would bring. Little did I know the act of feeding my son would become what I dreaded the most every day as a new mom.
When I was wheeled in to meet my new baby ( I had him via C-section), I could not wait to snuggle and take in everything about the first moments. The nurse lifted him and placed him on my chest and helped to get him into position as most new mothers appreciate. I waited for something to happen. Not much did. The first latch was not comfortable and much to my baby’s dismay nothing was happening. I tried and tried to get the milk to flow, but my efforts were fruitless and I started to feel anxious.
A few hours later, I felt like Pamela Anderson. I became engorged. I’ll save all of the unpleasant details of this since it was not pretty. In a nutshell, two nurses tried willfully to assist me while my husband shared some terse words with them. Things were getting pretty tense in the room. The nurses were rushing around the room and running down the list of things they could try to get the milk to come out. Hot compresses and pushing down on them did nothing. Eventually they had to have me pump and give my baby some formula since my milk seemed forever stuck. My husband and I felt really stressed during this time because our baby was crying so hard and was clearly very hungry. The pain was searing. Thankfully, the pump worked wonders and I had some relief. I also began using a shield (which I think is one of the best inventions) since the latch was also so painful.
I attended one of the hospital’s new mom gatherings to learn how to bathe my baby and ask questions about any issues I was having. It seemed my breastfeeding troubles were quite common, and they assured me that soon I would be well on my way to smooth feedings.
A few days after returning home with my newborn, once again, I was in a lot of pain in my chest. A fever showed up and I felt as though moving my body and even carrying the baby was really difficult. I called a lactation consultant. She told me I had mastitis. This is when a milk duct becomes clogged and infected. You pretty much have flu-like symptoms- chills, fever, and a sharp, cutting, shooting razor blade feeling all throughout your chest. The internet will tell you it may last for 48 hours but every time I had it, it lasted for 4 days at a minimum.
After the storm of engorgement and mastitis cleared, I thought I was through the woods and that I might be onto having those blissful nursing moments with my child that I had heard so much about. I would come to find out I was being overly optimistic.
Something was actually very off when I would nurse.
Each time the milk would let down, there be an avalanche of anxiety that would come with it. I began to dread when each feeding was approaching because of symptoms that followed.
I started to pay close attention to what was happening to me each time the let down began. First came the extreme thirst, then the hollow homesick feeling, then the feeling of wanting to close my eyes or drop my head, then a blanket of sadness so thick that the need to cry out in complete despair would overtake me. It was like I had taken a pill that made me feel concentrated grief. Then the worst part of the roller coaster would come- the self loathing. The feeling that there was nothing to live for. The feeling that I did not deserve this child let alone deserve to be a mother. And then just like that, as soon as these negative emotions would come over me, they would vanish. I would snap back to life; content and calm while holding my baby and nursing him.
After a growth spurt night of marathon feedings every hour and feeling these wretched emotions 5 or 6 times throughout the night, I decided it was time to go in and see my midwife. Something was certainly not right.
My midwife thought it sounded like post partum, but she did agree it was strange that it was only surrounding the times I would nurse.
I went home feeling depressed and wondering how I would ever get through this. At the good advice of a friend, I called the lactation consultant and she said she’d be right over.
She came right over and within 2 minutes of talking to me, she said, “You have D-MER. Otherwise known as Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex”.
What in the world was D-MER?
She explained it as a misfire in the brain. Hormones have a job when you breastfeed: oxytocin pushes the milk out to begin let down while prolactin (the milk-making hormone) goes up. Prolactin cannot go up unless dopamine comes down. People with D-MER have a different chemical reaction with those hormones- specifically dopamine. Instead of the dopamine slowly going down, it drastically plummets during let down. In someone with D-MER, because the dopamine is dropping so rapidly, it causes a despondent or anxiety laced reaction.
According to D-MER.org, “D-MER follows the same pattern as any other reflex. You can tell yourself your knee isn’t going to jerk when you hit it… but it does, just as much the hundredth time as it does the first, and it stops as soon as the stimulus stops. D-MER is physiological, not psychological. It is hormones, not past experience or repressed memories, that cause it.”
The lactation consultant explained to me that this was a very new discovery and most people in the medical profession had not heard of it, did not know much about it, and there wasn’t much of a treatment for it.
As I allowed myself to take in the information, I became acutely aware that what I had feared most surrounding breastfeeding actually had come true. Instead of feeling euphoria or bliss, I would feel as though I were in eternal sadness during the very act.
I tried to find the silver lining in the situation. I was grateful for having an answer. To know that what you’ve been experiencing has a name and is a real thing is comforting. I honestly thought I was going crazy prior to her telling me this.
My lactation consultant explained that there was no specific way to make it stop. With little info from the medical field, all I could do was try to manage it with herbal supplements or by talking myself off the ledge each time it would occur.
My goal had been to make it to 6 months of breast-feeding back when I was pregnant and unaware of what lay before me. How could I meet my goal of nursing for 6 months if I had to swim in this mental sewage for up to a minute multiple times a day?
I pushed on. It felt like a marathon without a finish line, but I did end up crossing it.
I was sure to share the info the lactation consultant had given me with my midwife so she could be aware of it and advise her other patients should they have it as well.
I’m thrilled to say that there is now an organization called D-MER.org. Hopefully medical professionals out there in the OB/GYN field will study this condition and more info will become attainable. I remember trying to run a search on Google for it and there was little to no info on the internet about the topic.
I’m sharing this very personal story because it may help a fellow mom that is going through this madness. It’s not your fault and it’s not controllable. Call a lactation consultant, pep talk yourself while it’s happening, ask your husband or partner to sit with you and say uplifting things during let down or just sit and hold your hand so that you can make it past that awful first part. Be sure to share with your doctor that you’re not depressed consistently – it’s specific to nursing. That’s a big indicator that it’s D-MER.
Thank goodness for my smart as a whip lactation consultant. She ended up on speed dial – not only for the D-MER but because I ended up with mastitis 3 more times! Man, sometimes life is punishing.
In the end, I got through it. We moms are strong. Our bodies are truly amazing. We give birth and go through quite an intense healing process all while learning to navigate sleeplessness, breast-feeding, and the biggest role we’ll ever play in life: Mommy. There are so many unexpected things that can show up on our doorstep as moms. Incredibly, we persevere because in the end we have to show up for our babies each day.
I’m happy to say I made it to my 6 month goal of nursing with my first son. It was and still is the hardest feat I have ever conquered. I threw a little private party for myself when it was over.
When my second son was born I was hopeful that it would be easier since I had been around this block once before. I had made a personal pact not to be so hard on myself and to throw in the towel if needed. Turns out I made it to 5 months- and guess what? It was equally as hard and unforgiving; I had mastitis the same amount of times as I had with my first son and the D-MER was a regular visitor with every feeding. That’s enough to make someone pretty bitter about breastfeeding.
The positive here is that I felt like I had sacrificed something for the betterment of my child. It seems the most selfless things we do feel the most rewarding-as hard as they might be and as impossible as it feels while going through it.While I was often frustrated that I would never have that blissful experience with breastfeeding, it did seem to get easier to manage the longer I nursed. It’s so true that oftentimes no one else knows just how hard you’ve worked at something more than YOU do. When I was finished with breast-feeding my second son, I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest.
Women sometimes discuss their stretch marks and such, showing the traces of pregnancy and no longer walking in their youthful scar-free bodies. And while we all have one mark or another on the outside that reminds us we’re in the “mom club”, there’s a pocket of pride within that holds the secrets of motherhood’s other battle scars. The kind of scars that aren’t visible on the outside.