Friday, February 6, 2009

Breast Feeding the Adopted Child

I am asked on a fairly regular basis whether an adopted child can be breast fed. The short answer is "Yes". The long answer is more complex. If an adoptive mother has lactated before, then it's easier to bring in breast milk. If she has not previously lactated, it's a bit more complex. Mothers are encouraged by physicians to breast feed their infants for a number of reasons. Immunities and health are affected by breast feeding. A mother passes her immunities on to her child through the breast milk. Breast milk contains less fat and is healthier for a child than processed formulas or cows' milk. Babies have less allergies to breast milk than to milk-based formulas or cows' milk.

Breast feeding is a bonding experience and some adoptive mothers feel as if it will bring them closer to their infant. The whole process of holding an infant closely and gazing into their eyes while they are being fed simulates the breast experience. Even when bottle feeding, while the child is very young you can give them skin to skin contact and bond. If you do decide you'd like to try breast feeding, you may need some assistance. La Leche League ( is an organization which promotes and provides information and assistance with breast feeding. The nursery at the hospital where your child is born may have a lactation specialist who can also give you assistance. You will need patience and determination to get the process going, but once your milk comes in, it will become a much smoother process.

How is it possible to produce breast milk when you haven't given birth? The body is an amazing thing. If an infant is constantly suckling, a signal will be sent to the brain and the body will begin to produce milk for that infant. There are ways to get prepared. The first step is to toughen up the nipples a little...using a towel after showering, you briskly towel dry the nipples and work up to a more vigorous stimulation. Breast feeding can, at first, be a little painful and if you aren't lactating naturally, it can be more of a challenge. If you can work through it, you can breast feed an adopted infant.

How do you begin the breastfeeding process? Ideally, the process begins in the hospital. It's better not to even introduce a synthetic nipple if you are going to breast feed. It can still be done after an infant has taken a bottle, but then it becomes re-training. The hole in a synthetic nipple allows a child to get the milk without much effort. Even a weak suck will produce the desired result. Breast feeding requires more work and actually assists in developing the palate and there are studies that show it is better for linguistic development because the muscles of the mouth are being used and worked.

When milk production has to be stimulated (if you haven't given birth), how is that achieved? Suckling stimulates the milk glands, but if a baby gets no milk, they will stop suckling. So, the way this is achieved is to reward the baby with milk for suckling. This is done by taping a small feeding tube to the breast (over the shoulder and down) which is attached to a formula bottle. The baby is placed on the breast and suckles normally. He/she is sucking on the breast, with the small tube, enabling them to get nourishment. This is done every three hours at feedings and, while it is a production and can take some time, it stimulates the breasts to produce milk. Ideally, the breasts begin to produce and the tube and formula are discontinued.

Why doesn't everyone do this? It's not easy. Infants have a very strong sucking reflex. When the breasts are dry, this can be an uncomfortable process and some women can't tolerate it for long enough to get the process going and establish good milk flow. I have known several adoptive mothers who were successful at breast feeding their infants.

One word of caution. If you plan to do this in the hospital, the birth mother will need to know about it. Be sensitive when discussing this with her. In one case that I remember, an adoptive mother told the birth mother point blank that she was planning on breast feeding. The birth mother called me in tears to say that she didn't feel that was right and that if she couldn't breast feed her infant, it wasn't fair that the adoptive mother could. Of course, she was feeling hurt and left out and never expected to feel that way. It almost became a deal-breaker until the adoptive mom let her know that she never intended to usurp her position and that she wouldn't breast feed. If you intend to try breast feeding and you want to begin just after birth, ask the birth mother her opinion. You can bring it up by saying..."I've heard adoptive moms can breast feed. What do you think about that?"...and be as understanding as possible about her feelings. She may encourage you to go forward and she may say she's not comfortable with it. If she isn't, then either bottle feed or choose to begin the process away from the hospital after you get home. Then, she doesn't have to see that happening and confront her own feelings that she is being denied an opportunity that should have been hers. She is giving the ultimate gift, so this respect is a gift you can give her.


Aminah XiuPing said...

I was able to produce milk before I went to China to adopt my daughter. I have never been pregnant and it took months of preparation, but I was able to stock up about 12 bottles before I left for China. The first time I offered my 13 month old the breast she threw a fit and looked at me like I was crazy. What I learned was that she just didn't like the position that she was in (laying down) because she wasn't used to being held that way. I would really like to do this with my next child and hopefully if I'm able to adopt from birth it won't be such a difficult thing for us to accomplish.

alaboroflove said...

Congratulations -- what a great story! It would be much easier with a newborn because you could establish right from the start, but it's encouraging that you could produce milk even before a baby was put to the breast. I should have mentioned breast pumping!