Breastfeeding An Adopted Baby Is Totally Possible, If You Want to Do It
Can you breastfeed an adopted baby? In all likelihood, you’ll be told that it’s either inappropriate or simply impossible. But is it really? No.
There are three options: For those adoptive mothers* who have chosen to breastfeed, but who haven’t had a prior pregnancy/given birth, induced lactation is one option. Another option is relactation, for women who have given birth to a baby previously and want to lactate again in order to feed their adopted baby; relactation is possible weeks, months or even years after having your previous baby. Finally, nursing supplementers can simulate breastfeeding without inducing a milk supply.
But before we get into how this works, let’s talk step one: Keep your adoption agency in the loop about your interest in breastfeeding your baby. Not only should it let you know your child’s previous feeding pattern, but it may also provide you with options and assistance in the endeavor.
Preparing yourself mentally
Motivation to breastfeed an adopted baby can come from many places. Some women feel the act will enhance their bond with their baby through the skin-to-skin contact breastfeeding requires. Other women might simply want the experience of breastfeeding. Still others might make the choice because they feel breast milk is the best source of nutrition for babies. (Still others may not be interested in breastfeeding an adopted baby, and that’s fine, too.)
Whatever the motivation to breastfeed is, it’s not a decision taken lightly. There will be days when you won’t produce enough milk, because while induced lactation and re-lactation is possible, there’s no guarantee of steady milk production. Then, as with all breastfeeding mothers, there is a chance that the baby will refuse to latch on to the breast.
Partners will play an important role here. First, ensure that you and your partner are on board with the idea of breastfeeding your baby. If you are a single parent, don’t forget to seek support, reassurance that what you’re doing will work out great, and acceptance from family and friends. Prepare them ahead of time so that they know of your decision to breastfeed and are available to help if you need it.
If you have decided to breastfeed your adopted baby, the key is not to lose heart during the attempt. Ultimately, it’s your commitment towards your baby that will count, not whether or not you can breastfeed.
Inducing (or reinducing) lactation
In mothers who give birth biologically, hormonal shifts in their bodies cause their levels of prolactin — a protein that enables women to produce milk — to increase.
However, for adoptive mothers, this natural hormonal shift is absent, so the trick is to induce it, or re-induce it in the case of mothers who have given birth before. This is done through galactagogues — that is, foods, herbs, and hormonal medications that help the body simulate the same hormone levels of pregnancy; when stopped after taking them for a short while, the body is tricked into sensing a baby has been born — thus spiking prolactin levels and breast milk production.
To do this, you will need to be guided by a doctor or a lactation consultant. They may advise, in addition to galactagogues, nipple stimulation (via baby nursing, hand expression, pumping or a combination) and milk removal (once there is milk to remove) in order to develop a milk supply.
Nursing via a supplementer
An alternative feeding method for those who want to breastfeed their baby but have no milk supply to offer, is to simulate breastfeeding via nursing supplementers. With these supplementers, milk is delivered at the breast with the help of a small tube attached to a bottle of milk; your baby can suck on your nipple and the tube together, feeding at the breast if not fully from it. Medela’s Supplementary Nursing System (SNS) is the best example for this type of nursing device.
If you’re already interested in breastfeeding an adopted baby, but are uncertain about manipulating your hormone levels to produce milk, supplementary breastfeeding is a good option to consider; not only can it satisfy your desire to breastfeed, it also carries the same benefits for bonding and for a baby’s hand and eye coordination and reflexes, as actual breastfeeding.
Making sure your baby gets enough milk
If you choose to go the induced lactation, or relactation, route, know that your milk supply may not initially be enough to give your baby the full nourishment they need. Babies will require formula feeds, or ‘top feeds,’ to get sufficient nourishment initially. Slowly, that can be balanced if inducing (or reinducing) lactation is successful and the adoptive mother is able to produce milk. The number of top feeds a baby will need will also depend on a lot of other factors: your baby’s health, whether breast milk is causing allergies, if your baby is gaining weight appropriately, if they are refusing to top feed after the breastfeed, and more.
Ultimately, top feeding depends on your preferences, too, not only your milk supply. Ask yourself if you’re able to manage exclusive breastfeeding and if you have the capacity for it.
Getting the support you need
If breastfeeding an adopted baby on your own sounds stressful, you’re not alone. Breastfeeding can be a stressful experience without the right guidance for biological mothers, too. Breastfeeding support groups such as La Leche League and new-mother WhatsApp groups can give you invaluable support and encouragement.
*A mother does not necessarily mean a person born female. Transgender women as well as cis women can induce lactation and breastfeed a baby.