Not only is it possible to breastfeed an adopted baby — it is also increasingly common. More and more adoptive mothers are interested in the possibility of adoptive breastfeeding, and with some preparation and dedication, it can be a rewarding experience for new moms and their babies.
That was the case for Carlie, who adopted her daughter through American Adoptions in 2010. Carlie had breastfed her biological son and felt strongly about the benefits of breastfeeding. She knew she wanted to provide her daughter with the same experience, and when she learned about adoptive breastfeeding, she knew it was something she had to try.
Carlie’s story offers insight and encouragement for other moms who are interested in nursing their adopted babies. Read on to learn more about the adoptive breastfeeding process, its pros and cons, and Carlie’s firsthand account of what it’s like to breastfeed an adopted baby.
For adoptive mothers, the breastfeeding process actually begins weeks or months before the baby is even born. While it does require some advance planning, moms like Carlie agree that it is well worth it — and once the baby arrives, adoptive breastfeeding is not much different from nursing a non-adopted child.
The following five steps provide an overview of the breastfeeding process for adoptive mothers.
Carlie’s adoptive breastfeeding journey began long before she was matched to an adoption opportunity, when her sister-in-law invited her to a local La Leche League meeting. At the time, Carlie had heard about donated breastmilk, and was interested in the possibility of bottle-feeding her adopted child without having to use formula. However, the meeting introduced her to another option.
“Going to that meeting introduced me to donated breastmilk, but also to adoptive breastfeeding,” she says.
The La Leche League meeting coordinator was able to direct Carlie to additional adoptive breastfeeding resources, which Carlie then took to her doctor.
“He didn’t know much about it at first, but he was supportive and helped me get started,” Carlie says.
While most doctors, like Carlie’s, will likely be unfamiliar with adoptive breastfeeding, this is an important first step for any adoptive mother who is interested in inducing lactation. The process involves certain medications as well as changes to your body and hormones. If you want to try adoptive breastfeeding, you should talk to your doctor to further explore your options for inducing lactation.
The hormones in birth control pills mimic pregnancy and help prepare the body for milk production. Your doctor can prescribe the birth control that will work best with your body to help you reach your goals.
“My doctor started me on a specific birth control recommended by Ask Lenore’s protocol for inducing lactation,” Carlie says. “That gets your hormones and breast tissue ready for when the baby comes.”
Once the birth control has done its job and your body has had a chance to prepare for lactation, your doctor will direct you to stop taking the birth control pill. Instead, you will begin taking medications and herbal supplements recommended by lactation experts to increase milk production.
“As soon as we knew the baby was coming, I stopped the birth control,” Carlie says. “I started two different herbs and a medication that is safe to take for breastfeeding mothers — the only side effect is breastmilk production.”
As you take the medications and supplements, you will begin pumping a few times a day. You will gradually increase the duration and frequency of the pumping, and your body will slowly begin to produce milk.
“I started pumping while taking the medication. I got nothing at first, but slowly over time, I started to get milk,” Carlie says.
This process can be slow, and it takes some time to build up milk supply. In fact, most adoptive mothers will not have enough milk to sustain the baby on their own by the time he or she arrives. It is important to be patient and remember that any milk production is a success that will benefit your baby.
To ensure the baby is getting enough nourishment, many adoptive mothers supplement their breastmilk using a supplemental nursing system (SNS), a device which can be filled with formula, previously pumped milk or donated breastmilk. The SNS tubes are taped to your chest, and when you nurse your baby, he or she will get any milk you are producing along with what is in the SNS.
“The SNS helps get the baby to the breast and gets them used to nursing,” Carlie says. “If a mom’s committed to the SNS, she can breastfeed a baby and still be giving it formula, if she’s not open to donated breastmilk. The baby will still get a major bond, and it’s awesome.”
Carlie chose to use her SNS with donated breastmilk to help feed her daughter. Donated breastmilk can be obtained free of charge through donation banks or by locating a direct donor in your area.
“There are tons of mothers out there who are breastfeeding their children and have an abundant supply,” Carlie says. “They donate it out of the kindness of their hearts because they know how important breastmilk is and they want to provide for another baby.”
From there, it is up to each new mother to decide how long she would like to continue breastfeeding.
There are two commonly cited benefits of breastfeeding: health benefits and bonding experience.
Breastfeeding facilitates physical closeness and bonding between new moms and babies, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. These benefits may be especially important for adopted babies. Carlie says she and her daughter have always been very close, and she attributes that in part to her breastfeeding experience.
“I think it’s so important with adopted babies to facilitate that bond between the mother and the baby,” she says.
Experts also believe that breastfeeding may reduce babies’ risks of developing many health problems, from ear infections to childhood obesity. It may also protect mothers from certain types of breast and ovarian cancer.
Carlie also agrees that she has seen these health benefits for her daughter, who she says was never sick as a baby.
“By far, I would say the bond and the health reasons are the biggest benefits… She’s so healthy, and I know a big part of it is because she was fed breastmilk,” Carlie says. “My daughter never had a drop of formula. It’s just awesome.”
Despite the benefits, breastfeeding is not for everyone. Many new moms struggle in the beginning with pain and with learning proper breastfeeding techniques. It can be difficult to position the baby correctly and get him or her to latch, for example.
Adoptive mothers also face the additional challenges of inducing lactation months in advance, locating donated breastmilk and learning to use the SNS. The SNS can also make breastfeeding somewhat less convenient. Carlie says the device is not easy to use in public, and as a result, she ended up introducing a bottle to her daughter, which led to the end of her breastfeeding experience.
“I started giving her a bottle of breastmilk while out in public, but the flow rate in the bottle is much faster than the flow rate of breastfeeding, and she got what’s called nipple confusion,” Carlie says. “Babies who have bottles get confused when you try to nurse them, because it’s not coming out as fast as they would like.”
In order to successfully overcome these challenges, Carlie says an adoptive mother has to be committed to breastfeeding and trust in the process.
“You really have to be determined, and I think the same goes for any mom who wants to breastfeed,” she says. “It was definitely a learning process… but for me, the benefits way outweigh the challenges, and I believe that it was so worth it.”
With preparation, determination and professional consultation, adoptive breastfeeding can be a viable option for parents who feel strongly about the benefits of breastmilk.
For more information about adoptive breastfeeding or donated breastmilk, contact a lactation consultant or visit the following resources:
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