5 Challenges of Adoptive Breastfeeding

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

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Mothers who are inducing lactation, trying to relactate, or planning to breastfeed an adopted child will face many challenges.  These difficulties are not insurmountable by any means. Most mothers who have been through this are thankful for the opportunity and believe the challenges are well worth it.

In fact, breastfeeding will not only provide your baby with the best start in terms of nutrition and health but also to help forage a strong bond between mother and baby.  Breastfeeding is a normal part of development and will allow your adopted child to participate in this important stage of life.

Being aware of the challenges mothers face will help prepare and equip you for the potential difficulties as well as strengthen your chances for success.

These are five common challenges adoptive mothers face when breastfeeding:

  1. Not having enough preparation time before receiving baby
    Rarely do parents know exactly when they will receive their adopted child.  Many parents start the adoption process and it takes years to complete.  Other parents receive their babies with just a day’s notice.  Stimulating your milk supply years in advance is no more tenable than expecting to have a milk supply overnight.  Even when a mother begins to stimulate her supply thinking it will just be a few months away there could be a roadblock in the process that causes an unanticipated delay or a milestone that eliminates the waiting entirely.  So, not knowing when a mother needs to have milk can lead to a situation where, for one reason or another, she finds she is receiving her baby and she hasn’t stimulated her milk supply.If you find yourself in this situation, there are a couple routes you can take.  You can put your baby to the breast immediately using an at-breast tube feeding device so that you can begin to bond through breastfeeding while allowing your baby to stimulate your supply.In addition, you can talk with your health care provider about taking Domperidone – a medication that has been shown to increase breast milk supply.  You can also take herbal galactagogues such as fenugreek and blessed thistle, along with eating oatmeal, to further help your supply. Another option is to try the accelerated Newman Goldfarb induction protocol which requires waiting 30 days before beginning to stimulate supply.In most situations, if your baby is willing to latch on your breast, there are many advantages to stimulating your supply breastfeeding with an at-breast tube feeding device rather than waiting to have your baby suckle.
  2. Finding the time to stimulate your milk supply
    If you already have older children, work outside the home, or have other competing demands on your daily routine it can be challenging to find the time to add in regular pumping sessions throughout the day and night.  Women can begin to feel exhausted or overwhelmed and question whether their bodies will respond with a milk supply and if it is really worth it, especially when many adoptive mothers don’t even know if their baby will latch and take to breastfeeding.  Hang in there – with dedication, determination, and regular stimulation your breasts will begin to make milk!
  3. Stress and worry about milk supply
    It is common for mothers to worry if their bodies are producing enough milk, if their baby is getting enough milk, and how to maintain breast milk expression when a mother must travel (especially with international adoption) to pick up her baby.  When stimulating a milk supply for adoptive breastfeeding, it is important to have the counsel of a qualified lactation consultant to help you in your specific situation.  She can help you figure out how much milk your body needs to make, if your baby is getting enough, and give tips for how to express when traveling – including hand expression when electrical currents are different.
  4. Helping baby transition to the breast
    Building a milk supply takes dedication and work, and most adoptive mothers don’t know if their infant will ever take to nursing at their breast.  In general, the younger the baby (particularly within first three months), or if the baby has been breastfed before adoption, the higher the chances for the infant to latch and breastfeed from the adoptive mother.1  Mothers worry that all their hard work to build a supply might still not afford them the opportunity to nurse at the breast.  However, while there are no guarantees, many adoptive babies can transition to the breast with time and patience.  Expressing milk on the nipple before latching the baby on is one technique to encourage an adopted infant to breastfeed.  Lots of skin-to-skin contact and availability of the breast – but without pressure – are other great strategies.  It is important to give an older baby time to trust his adoptive mother and feel safe at the breast; always make the breasts a happy place!  (You may also enjoy reading Strategies to Encourage Your Adopted Baby to Breastfeed.)Ultimately, even if your child doesn’t take to nursing at the breast, you can give her your expressed milk and do so in a way that still promotes bonding – paced bottle feeding at the breast, skin-to-skin contact while feeding, etc. Your milk is a special gift of love no matter how your baby takes your milk!
  5. Pumping and equipment difficulties
    Adding a new little person to a family is a major transition.  Sometimes “small things” can present large amounts of stress in these times.  Learning to pump, ensuring the flanges fit properly, and setting up a routine can present worry and stress.  Other mothers use an at-breast tube feeding device which can present additional steps – filling the supplement in the bottle, running the tubing, working on proper latch, cleaning and sterilizing the equipment afterwards, knowing how much milk to supplement and when to decrease the amounts…you get the idea.  It cannot be overestimated how important it is to surround a mother with support – from family, friends, other breastfeeding mothers, as well as qualified lactation assistance.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Riordan, J. & Wambach, K. (2010) Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, p. 530.
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