Biology Might Be Why Breastfeeding Is Hard

 In Health, MOM

Every. Single. Thing my husband did drove me out of my mind. The way his feet slap-slapped across the floor. The way he looked at me. The noise he made while opening the cupboards. Here I was, trying to nurse our first child and all I wanted to do was make like the mantis and off with his head. I was angry and restless and could hardly stand to feed my daughter. Talk about guilt.

At the same time, every feeding, my stomach turned with nausea and my underarms itched like a hundred mosquito bites. Yikes. The supposed natural bonding of a newborn and her mother. It was driving me batty.

So I did what any self-respecting woman bent on nursing no matter the discomfort would do. Yes, please, Google, rain wisdom upon me.

I hadn’t linked the anger and restlessness to nursing yet, so I asked the wizard in my computer to tell me why my stomach churned and my armpits itched when I was feeding my babe.

I wasn’t alone. You can find forums filled with the question of itching armits and nursing from the most popular communities: What to Expect, Babycenter, La Leche League.

It turns out, there are loads of chemical fluctuations occurring each time your body preps to feed your kids and not everyone’s body is awash in feel-good hormones. They can also make you feel really uncomfortable.

One of those is the hormone oxytocin, which triggers let down, or the milk ejection reflex (MER)., a tremendous, non-judgy resource for nursing moms, writes: oxytocin “also helps make digestion more efficient and is associated with other gut hormones that can cause nausea.” And hooray, it may also cause the armpit scratch fest.

So what can a mom do?

It’s actually fairly easy.

Drink water and munch on some carbs. Do it as you’re sitting down for a nursing session.

From that moment on, I never sat down to a nursing session without a massive glass of water and something to eat. Granola bars were my favorite. Latch the baby then chug, and I mean chug, the entire glass. Then the polish off the granola bar. And in a couple of sessions I felt a million times better.

Interestingly, I noticed that my mood upon nursing (the urge to destroy my husband) also changed. So I asked my google friend about that, too.

Anger during breastfeeding?

Enter a woman named Alia Macrina Heise, a lactation consultant and mother of three, who began researching her own experience with these feelings. She created

Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, as she dubbed it, is a physical agitation and it appears to be linked to the drop in dopamine preceding the increase of prolactin before milk let down. Dopamine stabilizes after a few minutes and the feelings of anger, anxiety or depression fade. D-MER may last several months, so informing yourself about what it is and what it is not is to your benefit.

As suggested on the D-MER website, just learning that this was a physical response to my body’s milk production and not a newly tapped disdain for the father of my child helped to ease the angst. And maybe, as stated as a natural remedy on the D-MER website, my increased water intake to relieve the nausea and itchies, helped quell some of the most intense feelings of anger and frustration.

Readers of the blog may know that I struggled with mood issues, but I knew what was happening during nursing was something completely different. The feelings came on intensely with each let down and faded after a handful of minutes.

I was one of the bewildered moms who stared, mouth agape, when other mothers reveled in breastfeeding. I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable in my own skin. But with a little information, and a couple of easy steps, I was able to at least relax in my own skin. I nursed both girls for a year and my husband survived.

If  you have feelings of anxiety, depression or anger during let down, do check out to see if there are some minor changes you can initiate that may relieve the difficulties during breastfeeding. Management can range from simple lifestyle changes, like my water intake, to SSRI’s on the more intense end of the scale.

Have you had bizarre symptoms during breastfeeding? Did you feel like you had all of the information you needed to work through them? Did you wean because of them? 

Woman breastfeeding via Shutterstock 


Biology Might Be Why Breastfeeding Is Hard
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  • Heather Palumbo

    I tossed in the towel after a friend of mine said not all animals in the animal kingdom can naturally feed. It did conjure up images of dogs feeding kittens. It was true and gave me the freedom to stop torturing myself. I wish I heard more people say it isn’t child abuse to quit. It just doesn’t work for some people. So I am saying it. It just doesn’t work for some people and I was one of them! Good encouragement all the way around!!!!!!!

    • Tara McLaughlin

      It really is important for women to not feel pressure in ANY aspect of feeding their babes. When researching D-MER I found articles skeptical of the condition at all simply because they didn’t want to “give excuses to mothers to give up breastfeeding.” As if it matters to them somehow that a mother feeling these awful symptoms are somehow beholden to society in general to sacrifice themselves. I didn’t write in the article, but I also felt the pressure constantly — my right breast just didn’t work. Milk was in there, but nothing was coming out. I was given teas, foods, other drinks, compresses of various substances, including quark, drops of this and that, acupuncture. I felt like a failure. I finally went lopsided and could only nurse from the left. Nevertheless, we do the best we can and we make the choices we need to make and block out the noise of anyone who is not there to offer support!!!

  • Brikena

    Very informative article.. Thank you for sharing. I am still breastifeeding my girl nearly going to be 2yrs. In Geneva since 2011, being a stay at home mom since but enjoying being sorrunded by my girl’s arm most of the time otherwise wiuld have gone nuts ;).

    • Tara McLaughlin

      We’ve been in Switzerland about the same length of time! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  • Stacy S.

    Hi Tara, with both my babies I experienced a condition called Reynaud’s and nipple vapospasm. It was incredibly painful to breastfeed for the first 2-3 months and required a lot of work to warm my breasts and cover them after and with the second baby I developed mastitis and had to take antibiotics because I wasn’t pumping like I did with my first one (I was pumping because it was so painful to feed that I could only do it a few times a day and needed to take breaks). So yeah, that wasn’t super fun. But after 3 months the symptoms went away and we were able to normally feed after that. However I can certainly imagine that if I hadn’t had unlimited and free access to lactation consultants at the hospital where I gave birth, I would not have continued. They discovered my problem and supported me and helped me manage my symptoms.

    • Tara McLaughlin

      Stacy, wow, that sounds very difficult! So glad you had support from your LCs. That really does mean the world. I think when there are difficulties a lot of women blame themselves or feel like failures and really pile on the guilt and emotional pain, support can mean the world.

  • Tammy Furey

    Wow! I was so lucky breastfeeding. I had no idea this happened! Which makes me think that we should be talking about this a lot more as how many mothers gave up breastfeeding as they didn’t understand what was going on? This is important!!! (rant over now 😉

    • Tara McLaughlin

      I agree Tammy! Education really is key. And with D-MER one of the key pieces of support is just the knowledge that it’s a physical response and many women, once they understand this, seem to be able to go on nursing and feeling better. Spread the word! Share it with your momma groups and friends!

  • Barb Buckner Suarez

    Wow – I loved this post and will be sharing it with my colleagues. I had no idea that these feelings were possible (or that one’s armpits might itch! Annoying I would guess, but also cool as I never had to deal with this personally!) Thanks so much for posting and I look forward to sharing this with a lot of people whom I’m sure will be happy to hear that what they’re feeling during letdown is completely normal.

    • Tara McLaughlin

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share. I had no idea these things could happen either. I’d never read anything about it while I was busily consuming pregnancy books. I was so glad to find the resources I did online and really wanted to help spread the word. Thanks again!