Adoptive breastfeeding: benefits for bonding

Just like other babies, adopted babies benefit from the powerful nutrition and protection that only breastfeeding can offer. Adoptive breastfeeding, or breastfeeding an adopted child, is made possible by induced lactation. This practice initiates the production of breast milk in a woman who isn’t pregnant. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) considers adoptive breastfeeding safe and encourages health care providers to “provide counsel to adoptive mothers who decide to breastfeed through induced lactation.”

How does induced lactation work? 

Breast milk is typically produced by the interaction between estrogen, progesterone, and human placental lactogen during the final months of pregnancy. At delivery, levels of estrogen and progesterone fall, allowing the hormone prolactin to increase and initiate milk production. Induced lactation depends on successfully replicating this process. Various methods to do this include:

  • Prescription medications. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve a drug specifically for inducing or enhancing lactation but there are a few drugs, such as metoclopramide, that have been shown to stimulate milk production. These medications must be prescribed by a physician.
  • Herbal supplements. Mothers often use herbs like milk thistle or fenugreek in capsules or teas to increase milk production. Talk to your health care provider before trying any of these products.
  • Stimulation. Some mothers have induced lactation by regularly stimulating their breasts and nipples through hand expression, breast massage and pumping. This method is most effective when done at least 8 to 10 times a day in the weeks or months leading up to your baby’s arrival. At which time, you can encourage your baby to suckle at the breast, this will help stimulate milk production while also initiating your breastfeeding relationship.

Mothers often try a combination of these methods but be sure to consult your health care provider to find the best approach for you.

How much milk is produced in adoptive breastfeeding?

Inducing lactation for adoptive breastfeeding is possible, and for some women, achieving a full milk supply is attainable. Other women who induce lactation won’t make a full supply. But even in these cases, it’s possible to make a significant amount of milk.

What are the benefits of induced lactation? 

For many mothers who breastfeed adopted children, exclusive breastfeeding isn’t the main goal. Creating an emotional bond may be more meaningful than the milk itself. An American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) position paper notes that “In many cases, the opportunity to emotionally bond during nursing is the primary benefit of breastfeeding for adoptive mothers and babies.” 

Focusing on the entire experience of breastfeeding—not just how much milk you can make—is important to achieving success, especially if inducing lactation doesn’t go exactly as expected. Experts and mothers alike emphasize that the focus should be less on getting a full supply of breast milk and more on getting a full supply of emotional bonding with your baby.

If you're interested in induced lactation, contact a lactation consultant or talk with your health care provider. 

Last updated November 6, 2017

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