Adoptive Breastfeeding

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There is an increasing trend today of mothers who are interested in breastfeeding their adopted children.  Breastfeeding, in general, is on the rise in western cultures and many adoptive parents don’t want their infants to miss out on either the nutrition or bonding that nursing provides.  Whether the child is a newborn or toddler, many adoptive parents are researching what it takes to be able to breastfeed when it’s not a mother’s biological child.

Important questions to consider

There many factors that must be considered:

  • Has the mother ever breastfed a child?
  • If so, how long has it been since she nursed a child?
  • How long did she nurse the child and why did she wean?
  • How much time does the mother have until she will receive her baby?  ie does she need to begin lactating immediately or does she have time to prepare her body hormonally?
  • How old is the baby to be adopted?
  • Has the baby ever nursed before? What is the likelihood of baby latching to breast?
  • What are the mother’s goals – full breastfeeding, partial breastfeeding, comfort at the breast, nursing at the breast with at-breast tube feeding device, etc.?
  • Does the mother have a supportive network around her?

Frequent breast stimulation and milk removal are critical

Even when an adoptive mother has never had her own biological children, it is possible to induce lactation and breastfeed a child. There are many things that are important for success with adoptive breastfeeding, but, if a mother wants to nurture her child at her breast with milk (rather than just comfort nursing and snuggles) then frequent breast stimulation and milk removal are critical.

It doesn’t matter what else a mother does – hormones to mimic pregnancy, being surrounded by a supportive network of friends and family, skin-to-skin contact with baby, galactagogues to increase milk production, etc. – if the breasts are not stimulated at regular intervals throughout the day and night and milk effectively removed once production begins, then a mother’s body will not build a milk supply.  Frequent and effective milk stimulation and removal are essential!

How can a mother who hasn’t given birth make milk?

Hormones in pregnancy prepare a mother’s body for breastfeeding.  Breast milk is kept in check by progesterone.  When a mother delivers the placenta her progesterone levels dramatically decrease and the body begins to rapidly make milk – which a mother notices as her milk “coming in” between days 2-5.

However, the mammary glands can also be stimulated by suckling – with a baby, breast pump, or hand expression – which facilitates the growth of mammary tissue and release of hormones essential for lactation. Frequent suckling is what allows this process to continue.

Keys to successful lactation

  • Maternal motivation
  • Support system surrounding mother including supportive partner and mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group
  • Excellent breastfeeding counsel from a qualified lactation consultant
  • Baby who can effectively suckle at breast or pump/hand expression system
  • Frequent and effective milk stimulation/removal…remember, an empty breast makes more milk.

Things to be aware of:

  • Oxytocin, one of the hormones essential to lactation, can be inhibited by stress.  Make sure to have a tribe of support surrounding and encouraging you!
  • If you have breastfed before, the longer the gap since this experience, the longer the time it will take for milk stimulation1 But, even if you have never breastfed, inducing lactation is completely possible!
  • Babies younger than 2 months are more likely to suckle on the breast naturally2
  • Babies and toddlers of any age can learn to breastfeed.  In fact, many infants who have never breastfed may initially refuse the breast.  This doesn’t mean they always will though.
  • Children who were breastfed before adoption may naturally seek the adoptive mother’s breast as well.
  • Some mothers will achieve a full milk supply while others will not.  Even if a mother doesn’t make enough milk for exclusive breastfeeding, she can exclusively feed her adopted baby at the breast through an at-breast tube feeding device.
  • It can take weeks to begin to see the first drops of milk once frequent, effective breast stimulation occurs.
  • Milk typically creeps in – as opposed to a mother’s milk “coming in” following birth where she may experience engorgement
  • Having a support system around you cannot be overestimated!  Having family and friends that can support and encourage you as well as getting involved in a local mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group are critical to your success.  There will be moments when you wonder why you are doing all of this and having others to encourage you and share their experiences will help you tremendously.

You may also be interested in reading 5 Challenges Adoptive Mothers Face with Breastfeeding as well as How to Encourage your Adopted Child to Breastfeed.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Agarwal, S. & Jain, A. (2010) Early successful relactation in a case of prolonged lactation failure. Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 77(2), 214.
  2. Auerbach, K.G. & Avery, J. (1981) Induced lactation:  A study of adoptive nursing and counseling in 240 women.  American Journal of Diseases of Children, 135, 340-334.
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