The early days with a new child are a whirlwind. Positive, negative, or neutral, birth is always an experience. Then there’s sleep – will I ever do it again? (Yes. I promise). There are changes in a partnership that come with adding a new child to the home, whether it’s the first child or the fifth. Then, there’s feeding.
Eating, something that should be so natural, seems to be so very complicated! Will the baby be breastfed or bottle-fed? Formula or pumped milk? Is the baby eating enough? How often do newborns need to eat? Do newborns literally ever stop eating? The Google search history of a new parent is a wild place.
One thing that might come up on that Google search is an interesting phenomenon that isn’t often discussed – most people haven’t even heard of it. It’s called DMER, which stands for Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. There is very little research on DMER, but essentially it’s a flood of negative emotions or an emotional “drop,” that occurs just before milk release in a lactating person, and typically lasts just a few minutes (although sometimes longer).
DMER can feel like sadness (dysphoria), irritation, anxiety, and even anger. It can come with an overwhelming urge to push the nursing infant off, or immediately stop the feeding session. Occasionally nursing parents may even have thoughts of self-harm. In every case I was able to research, the feelings don’t last any longer than the duration of a feeding/pumping session, and for most people, they only last a few minutes – like having a dark cloud dramatically descend that gradually dissipates.
DMER is physiological, not psychological – it’s distinct from postpartum depression and anxiety, although it could potentially be a contributing factor in either diagnosis, as the feelings might be embarrassing or shameful. In general, there are a lot of feelings tied up in feeding a baby, and often times an idea of what it “should” be can be so very different from reality. DMER is not permanent – for many people, it gets better after a few months, and universally gets better after weaning.
Some people find just knowing that there’s a name for their experience helps them get through it. If you know what’s coming, and you know it’ll end, it can be easier to wait it out, especially with some therapeutic coping tools. While again, this is a physiological response and not a psychological one, therapeutic support can still be helpful and can help continue the breastfeeding relationship if mutually desired by the infant and parent. Some people find that the reflex happens less with pumping than with direct nursing, perhaps because pumping can be more easily scheduled and anticipated, and can be timed more precisely. Some people might find that breastfeeding or pumping just isn’t the right choice for their family, and that’s a valid choice too – trust and empower yourself to make whatever feeding choice you need, with help from your pediatrician. Know that even though DMER isn’t terribly well understood yet, it is real and there is support. Chin up, new parents. You’re doing great.