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Relactation: Breastfeeding after Adoption is Possible

Blonde woman holding young infant.

Maybe you’re adopting a baby and you want to breastfeed. You’ve heard about relactation, but you’re skeptical. Here are a few questions you’ll want to get answers to before you try relactation.

What is relactation?

Relactation means that you have lactated at some time in the past, but then, you ceased lactating, for whatever reason. Relactation should not be confused with induced lactation.

Induced lactation means that you’ve never been pregnant and never lactated. Your body has never experienced the hormones associated with breast enlargement and milk-making. Hence, a word of caution: Getting a full supply of milk, while certainly possible with induced lactation, takes much more time and effort than relactating. For many mothers who induce lactation, the goal is to have some milk and bonding with a baby at the breast.

Who relactates?

Some mothers quit breastfeeding at 5 days postpartum. Their milk dries up. Then, they go to the WIC clinic at 10 days postpartum and get some help to re-establish the breastfeeding relationship with their baby. That definitely counts as relactating.

However, I can immediately think of one woman who had breastfed her biological child, and then adopted an infant 17 years later and initiated breast stimulation. That counts as relactating, too. And by the way, she was successful! 

So, whether it is for your biological child or your child through adoption, whether the gap is a few days or several years, relactation is possible.

How long does it take to relactate?

Well, that’s a complicated question. A nurse practitioner friend of mine says that for every day the woman was not lactating she’ll need a day to get a full supply. I think that’s true in some cases. And, for the woman who had a 5-day gap, yes. She will likely regain a full supply within 5 days.

But by that logic, the woman who adopted an infant 17 years after giving birth to her own child would need … let’s see … 17 years to gain a full supply! That just wasn’t the case.

What are the keys to successful relactation?

Some research shows that the length of the “gap” is a critical factor in re-establishing lactation. Other studies say that the gap is irrelevant.

There are a number of physical, as well as psychosocial factors, that influence the speed and extent to which a mother can produce a “new” supply of milk after an interruption. Here are the factors which are most predictive of success or failure:

  • Frequent stimulation. Some studies have shown that relactation is most likely to work if the woman has nipple stimulation every 2 hours around the clock for many days.
  • Robust suckling. A vigorously suckling baby gives the best stimulation.
  • Social support. Studies in India showed that mothers were more likely to be successful relactating if they had had positive peer support for an extended period of time.
  • Skin-to-skin contact. This is an often-overlooked strategy, and yet, I would venture to say that it is perhaps the most effective strategy. Why so? Because skin-to-skin contact stimulates the hormones that make the milk.

What about special equipment?

You noticed. I listed several factors that influenced successful relactation and I did not mention a high-quality, hospital grade pump. Nope.

In my interview with Chris Jepson, RN, RD, she said she didn’t use any kind of pump! (You must listen to this podcast!) Yet she breastfed the infant she adopted well past 6 months So although I do think that a pump can be helpful, I have no evidence that pumps are critical for relactating. And, no pump gives stimulation as effective as a vigorously suckling baby.

It’s likely that women have been relactating for thousands of years. We didn’t have hospital-grade pumps until brilliant engineer Einar Egnell invented his famous SMB electric pump in the 1950s. (In my opinion, this is the best pump ever invented, and yes, I own one!)

How about, nursing supplementers? Yes, they are a good idea. A nursing supplementer is a device that holds milk (in this case, formula milk or donor milk) in a container. Tubes are taped to the mother’s breast, and the baby gets the milk by sucking simultaneously on the tube and on the mother’s breast. This provides nutrition for the baby, but it also provides breast stimulation for the mother.

A word of warning, however. The nursing supplementers don’t work very well unless the baby sucks vigorously.

Last thoughts

I applaud you for wanting to relactate for your adopted baby. But just as there are factors that positively influence maternal milk production, there are factors that negatively affect infant feeding behaviors.

How an infant has been fed in the past, as well as age, may influence willingness to suckle the breast. Craniofacial defects and other factors affect how smoothly the whole interaction goes.

Follow your heart. Do your best and get professional help. Gather other resources. Listen to my interview with Dr. Alyssa Schnell author of “Breastfeeding Without Birthing: A Breastfeeding Guide for Mothers through Adoption, Surrogacy, and Other Special Circumstances.” Be patient. Try to focus on the moment, rather than the volume of milk you produce.

Have you relactated after an adoption or after stopping breastfeeding? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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