How to Encourage an Adopted Child to Breastfeed

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated October 23, 2013.

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Many parents who adopt do not get their child as a newborn.  Once a baby is several months old, especially if he has never breastfed before, latching to the breast for nourishment may not be something he initially accepts.  However, a child of any age, even if he has never nursed at the breast in his life, may later latch to the breast and nurse.  The following are 10 strategies to encourage an adopted child to breastfeed:

  1. Skin-to-skin
    Lots of skin-to-skin time together!  Skin-to-skin is wonderful for bonding as well as a mother’s hormones that help her breast milk supply.  It’s not just for newborns either.  If you are adopting an older child it may take time to build trust to be able to spend time skin-to-skin. Sometimes carrying them this way in a sling or wrap can help.
  2. Express milk on nipple
    Stimulating a milk let-down or even dribbling supplemental milk on the nipple can encourage a baby to latch and suckle.  If a mother has not yet built a milk supply, feeding with an at-breast tube feeding device can encourage a baby to suckle and associate mealtime with breastfeeding.
  3. Offer breast when calm
    When your baby is very hungry or upset is not the time to try to teach her how to latch onto the breast.  Work on breastfeeding when your baby is calm, perhaps sleepy even, when she is more willing to try to suckle at the breast.  Also, nurse when it is calm and the lights are dim.  Lots of noise and activity can be a distraction.
  4. Start slowly
    When your adopted infant does latch, don’t force her to stay on the breast for a full feed.  Of course, allow her to nurse as long as she wants but if she only nurses a few minutes and then is ready for a bottle or other activity, praise her for nursing for the time she did!  This is a huge milestone.  You can build up the amount of time on the breast over the coming days/weeks.
  5.  Remove all artificial nipples
    Infants enjoy sucking on something.  Nipples aren’t just good for breastfeeding; they are also the original pacifier.  If your child is reluctant to latch on the breast, make sure you are not giving her a pacifier to satisfy her need to suck and preferably not a bottle either.  Give any supplements in a cup, syringe, or by finger feeding.  Continue to offer the breast and help her see there is milk there (by dribbling some on the nipple); praise her if she does attempt to suckle.  If you do continue to feed her with a bottle, pace the feed so that the bottle can more closely mimic breastfeeding.
  6. Make the breast a happy place
    Never force your child to nurse; this is completely counterproductive.  Spend lots of time skin-to-skin and have your breasts readily available, but never make your child breastfeed.  Offer them often and praise any interest your baby has.  Make sure she is developing happy thoughts while at your breasts.
  7. Try bait and switch technique
    Hold your baby across your chest with your breast available while giving a bottle (or whatever feeding method you are using – cup, spoon, finger feeding, etc.).  After she has had some milk through the bottle, gently try to switch her to nursing at your breast (the bottle and her mouth should have been touching your breast already).  If you don’t have a strong milk supply currently, make sure to have the at-breast tube feeding device set up so it can be a simple transition from bottle feeding to suckling on the breast.
  8. Ensure good positioning and attachment
    You do not want to have to re-teach your baby how to nurse effectively once you’ve crossed the hurdle of helping your baby latch.  Ensure she is positioned well, supported across your body, and that she has a wide, deep latch on your breast.  A shallow latch can not only cause nipple damage but also fail to stimulate a strong milk supply.
  9. Breastfeed at night and for comfort
    Prolactin, a hormone necessary for lactation, is higher at night and breastfeeding at night helps to increase your milk supply.  It could be an opportunity for your baby to nurse without additional supplementation.  It is also a time she may be more calm and willing to latch onto the breast.  Bed sharing or co-sleeping can help you both get rest while allowing your baby the chance to nurse frequently. In fact, nurse your baby anytime she is willing.Even if you are using an at-breast tube feeding device but don’t have it ready and she shows interest, let her attempt to latch and suckle.  Breastfeeding is about more than the nutrition; it is also a relationship.  All breastfed babies have times of “non-nutritive sucking” where they are nursing for comfort more than hunger.  These times will help to further increase your supply and her trust in you, her mother.
  10. Try nursing in different positions/places
    If your baby is uninterested in nursing one way, try another.  She may prefer nursing on one side (perhaps the side she is used to taking a bottle on).  She may prefer nursing lying down, standing up, or walking around.  Some babies prefer to nurse while in a sling.  Try lots of different things, never forcing them, but offering to see what your baby will prefer.