Nursing has become repulsive. Not all the time — just during episodes of aversion, otherwise known as breastfeeding agitation, which come sporadically. And it’s intense enough at those times to make me want (need) to force weaning.
Seriously? Me, The Nursaholic? Wanting to wean? Well, this aversion stuff SUCKS. And it’s curiously confusing because, as everyone already knows, I LOVE breastfeeding so much that sometimes I suspect my heart is powered by breast milk.
With all past breastfeeding difficulties, my son and I went through them together. We were a team, as such is the nature of the breastfeeding dyad. When I had thrush, I made sure to treat him as well as myself so he wouldn’t catch the yeast. When I got mastitis, I had him nursing around the clock, tirelessly working those jaws to keep my breasts emptied for a quicker recovery. With my recurrent blebs, he learned to tolerate the strange and annoying Band-Aid that partially covered one areola.
With this nursing aversion, however, the main thing is my son seems oblivious (at this point). He’s not aware of my aversion. When the aversion strikes, I feel disconnected from him and isolated in my own bubble of overwhelming creepy-crawly feelings where it’s just me against my hormones.
Thankfully, the aversion hasn’t happened frequently enough to send me and my boobs running for good. My body’s all, “Are we done yet?” My heart’s all, “I’m going with you to college, right?” And my mind’s like, “You’re clearly not done, kiddo. And we’ll worry about college later. For now, here we are.” But, at the end of the day, what’s important is that last part: Here we still are.
What Is Nursing Aversion? Is It The Same As Feeling “All Touched Out” or the condition “D-MER”?
So what’s the difference between feeling “all touched out” and nursing aversion/breastfeeding agitation and Maternal Depression Upon Let-Down (D-MER)?
Being All Touched Out can feel:
Annoying, frustrating, tiring, maddening. A mother who is all touched out tends to get upset at everyone at home for exhausting her with constant demands and no wiggle room for personal space.
Read my post about feeling “all touched out” here.
Suffering from D-MER can feel:
…like a dysphoria (the opposite of euphoria), a “yucky” feeling of hopelessly needing to get away that accompanies let-down and typically disappears once the milk is flowing, but can recur with subsequent let-downs. Sometimes, it can even feel strangely similar to the feeling of homesickness. Many women insist it feels like there’s something bad in the pit of her stomach. According to a nursing aversion support group on Facebook, one woman described her D-MER experience as such:
“If you have read Harry Potter they talk about the creatures that suck the soul out of you and when they are around it makes you cold and you start to focus on negative things and fall into this abyss of negative thoughts — that is how D-MER was for me at times.”
It’s a physiological response to nursing caused by shifts in hormone levels, specifically dopamine at the beginning of a feeding. It’s not the nausea some get with strong let-downs, or the pain that many experience with postpartum uterine involution. It’s not a psychological response, which would actually be postpartum depression.
Severity of D-MER typically decreases as a baby gets older (the opposite case with nursing aversion, incidentally).
Women can get relief from D-MER by keeping distracted while nursing, trying nutritional supplements or herbs as suggested in the links below, placenta encapsulation, acupuncture, exercise, consuming small amounts of caffeine, and getting more sleep (I know, good luck with that, right?). In the event of severe D-MER or any case unresponsive to lifestyle changes, a mother should seek medical help.
- “D-MER” – Nichole’s story
- D-MER.ORG – “Because breastfeeding shouldn’t make you feel this way.” The link to the organization’s blog is here.
- “D-MER (No, You Are Not Crazy)” – Mama Bice
- “Dysphoric milk ejection reflex: A case report” – Alia M. Heise and Diane Wiessinger
Having Nursing Aversion can feel:
A level beyond. It’s grating. Creepy-crawly. It causes unshakeable repulsion and disgust, can trigger phobias or psychological unrest. A mother suffering through nursing aversion tends to feel upset at herself rather than her child or anyone else.
Imagine a giant Pleco fish sucking on your eyeballs, and you have no eyelids. The sucker fish is slow, deliberate, and relentless — never giving your eyeball the mercy of just sucking the whole thing out of its socket to end the godless, seemingly endless torture. You genuinely crave the pain, the shock, of getting bitten (or worse), because the grossness of soft fluttery suckling makes you want to literally gouge out your own eyeballs.
Except in this case, the lidless eyeballs are your nipples, and the giant Pleco fish is your sweet and beloved child.
The following is adapted from Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond, a publication by La Leche League International:
The biggest issue I faced was very unexpected. I was prepared for negative feelings toward my toddler’s nursing when my baby was born but it didn’t happen. The three of us had a wonderful nursing relationship. Then when my son was about a year old and my daughter was three my feelings changed. Nursing my daughter became an awful experience. She still had a strong need to nurse and I just couldn’t take it. I felt uncomfortable, anxious, and angry when she was at the breast. My emotions and reactions were primal and very strong. —Elisa, New York
It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling; it’s kind of like if you could take the sound of nails on a chalkboard and turn it into a physical sensation. Sometimes the sensation made me feel like screaming at the top of my lungs while running around and around in a really tight circle. —Lisa, California
The best I can do is to say it felt like bugs were crawling all over my body, and I couldn’t brush them off. It started out difficult and annoying, and soon became intolerable. People used to ask me, “Does it hurt?” And I’d think, “I wish!” Pain, I could deal with. This was so beyond pain. It was just icky. Really icky.—Barbara, Minnesota
I felt an overpowering urge to stop nursing, immediately. It was a visceral, gut reaction like an itch, making me tense, anxious, cranky, and agitated. It was so confusing because I wasn’t in pain, and I was committed to nursing my son as long as he needed to nurse. The feeling only came when Jake was nursing, and quickly passed when he was finished.—Sarah, Texas
I felt like my old childhood dog who weaned her puppies by just getting up and walking off every time they tried to nurse. The feelings I had during pregnant nursing could only be described as “primal”—it was so instinctive to recoil from nursing that I really almost couldn’t help myself. I had a strong urge to pick her up and throw her off of me and run away from her. I was in no way prepared for it and I felt like the worst mother on the planet. Since my experience, I’ve done an informal survey of all my co-Leaders and other LLL moms around who nursed while pregnant and a majority of the ones I’ve talked to also experienced powerful negative emotions when nursing while pregnant—Kelly, Georgia
Who Gets Nursing Aversion? Why Does It Happen?
No one really knows what causes or triggers nursing aversion, but there are plenty of theories. Pregnancy is often the culprit: Nursing aversion affects an estimated one-third of mothers who are pregnant and breastfeeding, typically around mid-pregnancy but the timing can differ with each woman and each pregnancy.
NA affects women who are tandem nursing, too. Interestingly, the agitation tends to only strike when the older child nurses but not when the younger child does.
Prior sexual abuse or trauma can also well up at this time (especially as a child grows older) and result in unprecedented nursing aversion.
Now, I’m not pregnant, I’m not tandem nursing, and I’m not reliving abuse traumas via muscle memory spurred by nursing — so what the heck is going on here? It turns out that ovulation and menstruation can make a mother’s body get super sensitive to toddler nursing, too.
For me, I can blame the onset of ovulation at 18 months postpartum followed by, half a year later, first postpartum menstruation. Ah hormones, aren’t they glorious? And I thought postpartum depression was bad… well, now my nipples are depressed, how about that!
Let’s also consider that mammals in the wild have been observed to exhibit aggression toward their young around the time of final weaning. The process of weaning naturally takes place over the course of some years for humans (as well as other mammals), and some experts have theorized that nursing aversion is actually an instinctual protective measure to keep mothers from acting aggressively toward their growing nurslings. An affected mother’s body screams for physical separation, albeit temporarily, but most certainly strictly defined as a minimum arm’s length.
Helping Yourself Get Through N.A.
I’ve been warned that nursing aversion before a pregnancy or tandeming in no way comes close to the discomfort experienced with aversion at those times. As I’ve only experienced true nursing aversion around ovulation and cycles, I’ve been able to get by with the old “grin and bear it” trick for now. Days or weeks have passed without tasting the torture.
But when it boomerangs back, I become consumed with the thought — nay, overwhelming physical incitement — that I need to wean NOW. Then a bad nursing session ends, the repulsed feelings are adopted by amnesia, and I can’t wait to nurse again because it’s “our thing” and we love it so.
More than anything else, it helps me to remember why I’m still nursing. I want my son to be able to wean at his own behest. I mean, we’ve come this far — why snatch the rug out from under him now? He really, truly NEEDS to nurse at two years old for many of the same reasons he’s always needed to nurse.
I know that many mothers who experience severe nursing aversion choose to wean gently, and that’s a wonderful option when a compromise is necessary. We haven’t reached that point so I’ve explored other ways to cope when nursing gets maddeningly icky. Distracting myself from the emotions tends to help, but I’ve found that trying to ignore the feelings of repulsion only seem to intensify them — seriously, no amount of “just pretend you’re romping in a field of fresh flowers” will make the feelings disappear. The key is first and foremost, distraction; and secondly, if that doesn’t work, then I do my best to embrace and roll with the often confusing and sometimes angering emotions.
1). Distraction. Social media. Brain teasers/puzzles. Google image search your passions and hobbies. Join drama-based “hot button” groups on Facebook, get your Michael Jackson popcorn memes ready, and treat the event like a night at a Shakespearean theater. The idea is to get the time passing as quickly as possible.
2). Noise. Call a loved one. Turn on the radio and listen to political debates. How about books-on-tape?
3). Pinch yourself; walk around. If this will be a quick nursing session and have little time to prepare your distractions, you might be able to neutralize some of the nasty feelings by briefly pinching your arm or getting up to walk off the bodily discord.
4). Get more sleep. Okay, try? (I know, not helpful). Take more breaks from nursing. Moms who are exhausted tend to experience worse aversion.
5). Eat and hydrate well. Moms who are especially dehydrated or lacking in some vitamins are more likely to get struck by aversion. Drink lots and lots of water! And consider adding more dietary protein (or as a supplement in dairy-free sources, if vegan), calcium/magnesium, EPA/DHA, iron, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin C.
6). Time nursing sessions. By Mel Borns on NA Facebook support group: “Timing nursing sessions – this sounds like baby training so I refused to try this for about 2 months but it’s actually been a huge relief to know when each nursing session is going to end and be able to look at the timer and think ‘OK only 2 more minutes’. You can choose to feed for 2,5 or 10 minutes on each side. Let your toddler choose the alarm sound if you are using your phone (like a duck quack). After using this technique for about 2 weeks my toddler will now pop off when she hears the chime, 9 out of 10 times without any fuss, even during the night. This also makes [on-] demand feeding the toddler during the day and the night (3-5 times, when the newborn is only feeding once or twice) more bearable.”
7). Limit caffeine intake. I need my daily caffeine fix so I can’t personally vouch for this bit of advice’s affect on NA, but I’ve read that nixing caffeine can greatly improve NA symptoms.
8). If tandem nursing, don’t nurse the children together. Does your body seem confused? The solution may be more simple than you think. Try having separate nursing sessions only and see how that feels.
9). Consider gentle mother-led weaning. I know, it’s probably not what you wanted to do, but NA can get unbearable and sometimes gently weaning a toddler is the right thing to do for certain families. Check out the resources below for more information.
Experiences & Resources
Adventures in Tandem Nursing book by Hilary Flower
Nursies When the Sun Shines book for night weaning by Katherine Havener
“Breastfeeding Agitation” – Hilary Flower for LLLI
“Overcoming Nursing Aversion” – Seaside Belle
Gentle Mother-Led Weaning
“12 Tips for Gentle Weaning” – Aha! Parenting
“Weaning Techniques” – Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC, Becky Flora, IBCLC and Paula Yount
Mother-led weaning happens in nature. Behold a mother cat weaning her kittens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQECpwB8IqY