Is there anything that looks as tranquil and picturesque as a mother nursing her tiny baby? It's basically the apex of peaceful images. But once you become a breastfeeding mother for the first time, you quickly realize how very complicated and physically uncomfortable it can be. There are few things in the world more natural, but that doesn't mean the mechanics of it come naturally. Breastfeeding has the potential to bring all sorts of challenges: Soreness, cracked nipples, clogged ducts, mastitis, and thrush are all ailments familiar to many nursing moms. But can breastfeeding make you nauseous too? I turned to some experts to find out.
Lactation Consultant Leigh Anne O'Connor tells Romper that some women do experience nausea when breastfeeding, although it almost always dissipates after the newborn period. According to O'Connor, it is most likely related to the release of oxytocin in the mother's brain. Oxytocin, sometimes called the "cuddle hormone," is the hormone that makes you feel happy and content when snuggling your little one. While it is ironic that the same hormone could make a woman feel ill, we would never want to live in a world without oxytocin. Newborn life is not for the faint of heart. We need all the warm and fuzzy feelings we can get.
"Some women feel nausea when they get that rush of oxytocin," Lactation Consultant Sara-Chana Silverstein agrees, adding, "It can also happen to them right before they have an orgasm."
Silverstein says she gives her clients who are experiencing breastfeeding nausea an herb to take right before they nurse. Eventually, she explains, it goes away as a woman's body gets used to the boost of oxytocin eight times a day.
While oxytocin is the most likely culprit of your breastfeeding nausea, there are other possibilities as well. Amanda Ogden, IBCLC and director of Lactation Services and Education at The Mama’hood, tells Romper that fatigue or hunger may cause a mama to feel nauseous while breastfeeding. When this is the case, Ogden says simply having a healthy snack on hand can alleviate your discomfort.
Silverstein explains sometimes women who have large cracks on their nipples can actually get nauseated from the pain. While it sounds awful, she swears it is easy to remedy: Fix the latch and the nipple heals, along with the nausea.
Most breastfeeding nausea does resolve itself after the first six to eight weeks. If your baby is well past the newborn stage and you suddenly begin feeling sick to your stomach while nursing, it might be time to take a pregnancy test. While breastfeeding does often delay the return of fertility, Ogden explains that contrary to popular myth, it is not fool-proof and should not be relied upon as birth control.
For a small percentage of women, simple explanations like oxytocin, hunger, or pregnancy are insufficient.
Ogden explains that there is a condition known as Dysphoric-Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER, that some women unfortunately suffer from. It's important to note that D-MER does not cause nausea directly; as D-MER.org explains, "D-MER is not nausea with letdown or any other isolated physical symptom or manifestation. D-MER has a negative emotional component above all else." However, D-MER can cause anxiety — though it's NOT a psychological condition, but a physiological response — and anxiety can cause nausea in some people. As Ogden explains, "Although nausea is not the hallmark symptom [of D-MER], it may come as a side effect of anxiety."
Another factor that Silverstein has observed in her work is that women who have been sexually abused can sometimes feel nausea when they breastfeed. A well-educated Lactation Consultant, therapist, or doctor can talk with the woman about what she is experiencing and decide together how to best support the mother in such a sensitive situation, so if you are struggling with breastfeeding (or know of someone who is), don't be shy to reach out for help.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to clarify the definition and symptoms of D-MER.