I always assumed that I would breastfeed my children. I had heard of the beauty, the closeness between mother and infant child, and the bonding that occurred during the nursing times. I believed, and still do, that the sweetest offering that a mother could give her child is to feed them directly from her own body just like the good Lord intended. He specifically designed the mother’s milk to contain all the nutrients that a baby should need for the first months of his or her life. After all, doesn’t the saying go “breast is best?” While all that may be true, I never once considered what would happen if a woman could not nurse, if the baby would not latch, or if the mother’s milk was not producing enough to sustain the baby. I certainly never considered what feeding times would look like if I never physically gave birth to my child.

When we turned to adoption to build our family, a new thought occurred to me: “How can I nurse a child I did not carry in my body? How do I breastfeed my adopted child?” Believe it or not, a woman who has never been pregnant CAN be made to lactate in order to breastfeed her adopted child. Breastfeeding is a personal decision and may not be right for every adoptive mom or every child. The most important thing is that the baby gets the proper nutrition that he needs to thrive and grow. Breastfeeding an adoptive child is not necessarily a cut and dry process. Adoptive mothers should not feel obligated to nurse, but it is nice to know that there may be an option to do it should she so desire.

BreastfeedingUSA.org assures that “there are several different methods used to induce lactation when you have not been pregnant. It may also be possible to breastfeed your adopted baby with no preparation at all. However, if you have advance notice that you will have a new baby joining your family, you may wish to explore methods that stimulate milk production before the baby arrives. The same methods can be used by traditional adoptive mothers, mothers whose babies were born to surrogates, and even the female partners of birth mothers.” Breastfeeding an adoptive child may not be easy, but with patience and dedication, it can be done.

Here are a few options that an adoptive mother may have when considering breastfeeding her adoptive child.

Produce Your Own Breast Milk for Your Adopted Baby

BabyCenter advises, “If you want to try producing your own breast milk for your baby, you’ll need the same hormonal nudge that all moms-to-be need to begin lactating. Breastfeeding an adopted baby will require some preparation and planning several weeks or even months before the baby arrives.”

Your doctor will know your health history and should be able to tell you if it is safe for you to attempt to nurse. He will most likely prescribe a series of vitamins, supplements, and birth control pills that will aid in tricking your body into thinking it is pregnant so it won’t produce an egg and will convince your body to produce breast milk.

“Under the guidance of your doctor, you’ll discontinue the birth control once your doctor feels that your body has had enough time to prepare for milk production. Then, you’ll start taking herbal supplements and medications at the recommendation of a lactation expert to help facilitate breast milk production without affecting the breast milk itself. You’ll start to pump a few times a day, slowly increasing the frequency and length of each pumping session. This will lead your body to begin producing milk, and if you stick to it, you’ll begin producing more and more gradually.”

Once you start to produce, you can store your milk in the freezer to supplement later on. Don’t become discouraged if your milk does not come in quickly. Inducing lactation is normally a very slow process. HealthyChildren.org encourages adoptive mothers who are interested to “talk to your doctor and start the process well before the arrival of the baby. Milk production can take weeks to begin—an average of four weeks—after you start pumping. The stress of the adoption process can also disrupt the production of milk.” They also remind adoptive mothers who desire to breastfeed that “there is no way to predict whether your milk production will reach sufficient levels to fully satisfy your baby’s needs, [so] many adoptive mothers happily breastfeed with the aid of a nursing supplementer that provides donor breast milk or formula.”

Boosting Your Milk Supply

To date, there are no specific Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs or herbal supplements specifically designed to induce or enhance lactation. However, there are a few medications (metoclopramide and domperidone) that are prescribed for other reasons that typically have some side effects that have proven to stimulate or enhance lactation in some women. These are called hormones and galactagogues.

“A galactagogue is an herb or prescription medication that increases milk production, likely by increasing prolactin (the “milk making” hormone) levels in the blood. One method is called the Goldfarb-Newman Protocol. It involves first taking birth control pills to simulate pregnancy hormone changes and then both expressing and taking medication that increases hormonal levels… Variations in treatment may be appropriate according to the needs of an individual woman… If you choose to use herbal or prescription galactagogues or hormones to facilitate lactation, it is important that you work with your healthcare provider. All of these substances have potential side effects and [should not be used] for persons with certain medical conditions. Your health care provider can help you weigh any risks and benefits and decide what will work best in your situation.” (Breastfeeding USA)

No matter which medication or herb your doctor prescribes for you to take, you must also accompany the regimen with regular nipple and breast stimulation. There are also many ways to boost one’s own milk supply. Herbs like Fenugreek, specially made teas, and certain foods like oats and brewer’s yeast can all stimulate milk production. Some mothers choose to boost supply using all or just a few of these options.

Using an At-Breast Supplemental Nursing System (SNS)

Whether you get a slow start or your milk comes in readily, it is likely you will need to supplement your breastmilk at some point. You can do this with a supplemental nursing system (SNS). La Leche League says that “a nursing supplementer lets a baby get any supplement he needs at the breast without using bottles. The supplementer container hangs around your neck and tubing delivers small amounts into your baby’s mouth while he breastfeeds. As he swallows, he continues sucking, stimulating your milk production,” saving you time by stimulating your milk so that you do not need to do extra stimulation pumping. Currently, there are two at-breast supplementation systems from which moms who want to nurse can choose: the Medela Supplemental Nursing System and the Lact-aid Nursing Trainer. Each system has its own sets of pros and cons including the number of parts, availability, initial cost, and ongoing costs.

When you choose to use an SNS, you must be sure that the baby or child is getting enough milk to satisfy. One adoptive mother shared that she was so determined to nurse her adoptive child that she was not aware that he was not getting enough to eat through the skinny little tube that ran from the device attached between her breasts. One day she turned to a bottle just so she could go to a church service. The baby sucked the milk down incredibly fast because he was so hungry. It was then that she decided to forgo the SNS in lieu of the bottle and never look back. While she loved the bonding that nursing afforded, it no longer suited the needs of her small son.

Locate Donated Breast Milk

If you do not want to personally nurse, you can still feed your adopted child at your breast by locating donated breastmilk and delivering it to the infant at your breast via a supplemental nursing system. There are many milk banks and private milk sharing options across the country. Private sharing through online groups is available, but the guidelines for milk preservation and the mother’s health are often generally limited to the common sense of the donors. However, there are places like the Human Breast Milk Association of North America (HMBANA) and local hospitals that have strict guidelines for breast milk donation and recipients. Donated breast milk comes from healthy, breastfeeding women who have an abundance of breast milk for the baby and want to donate the extra milk to other moms and NICU babies who have a need. These donations are pasteurized and carefully stored for the added health benefits for babies who may benefit from natural breast milk. The breastmilk is then delivered to the baby via a supplemental nursing system. Milk banks can serve as an option for adoptive mothers to be able to avoid hormones and personal lactation induction.

Things to Consider When Choosing to Breastfeed

Adoptive mothers have a variety of reasons for wanting to breastfeed their adopted child. According to Rachel Garlinghouse in her article about adoption breastfeeding, there are a few things to consider when determining if you want to nurse your adoptive child:

  • “Not all nursing moms make milk. … Though there are ways to boost one’s supply and to provide milk for a child beyond one personally producing, there are nursing moms who do not produce any milk and simply use nursing (sometimes called dry nursing or comfort nursing) as a means of bonding with their child, not as a means to provide breast milk.
  • “Toddler and preschoolers can nurse too. Though it can be challenging, it is possible for an older child, such as a toddler or preschooler, to learn to nurse. This can be beneficial and rewarding to a child who was nursed previously, struggles with attachment, or expresses a desire to nurse. Some children were adopted from countries where nursing after infancy is very common.
  • “Nursing helps with bonding. Whether or not a mom produces milk, nursing helps the child and mother bond. Nursing helps initiate skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, and learning and trusting in one another. Nursing can help calm an upset child and reduce anxiety. Additionally, there are numerous nutritional benefits provided to the baby if the mom is able to produce or utilizes donor milk, helping the child learn to rely on the mother to meet nutritional and emotional needs.”

While I may have decided that nursing my adoptive child was not something I personally wanted to pursue, many adoptive mothers long to experience the magic of breastfeeding just like women who have given birth. Neither choice is correct or incorrect. The adoptive mother needs to do what she feels is best for the adopted child. For some, that may include breastfeeding or supplemental feedings, or even dry nursing. For me, it included formula feedings from bottles and the ability to trade off feedings with my husband. If you can nurse, and really want to, GO FOR IT! But, if you cannot or you choose not to, don’t feel guilty or ashamed. Formula has come a long way over the years, and now it is virtually the same as breast milk. “Breast is best” is valid, but so is formula. What is best is actually what makes your child grow and thrive. It is important to put aside your personal desires and dreams and base your decision to nurse or not to nurse your adoptive child on the needs of the child.

More Resources for Adoptive Moms Who Want to Breastfeed Their Adopted Baby

Here are a few more articles for your consideration:

Should I Breastfeed my Adopted Baby? by Amy Harmon

19 Practical Tips for Breastfeeding an Adopted Baby by Amy Harmon

How to Breastfeed a Baby Who Was Adopted by Amy Harmon

Breastfeeding Your Adopted Baby by Teglene Ryan

Top Ten Tips for Breastfeeding Your Adopted Child from Creating a Family

Virginia Spence and her husband Eric are parents to two awesome little boys who joined their family via domestic infant adoption. When she is not playing referee or engaged in tickle wars, Virginia can be found cleaning, reading, or drinking giant mugs of coffee. Virginia is passionate about advocating for life at all ages/stages and educating about adoption.