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Nursing Your Adopted Baby

Published on: August 26, 2010

We’ve all gotten the memo: “Breast is best.” Medical experts agree that breastfeeding provides superior nutrition and enhanced bonding. Breastfeeding adopted babiesYet most assume that adoptive mothers have no choice but to bottle-feed their babies. Think again! Adoptive mothers can nurse their babies.

Dolly Smith, M.S.N., I.B.C.L.C., is a lactation consultant at Birth and Beyond in Seattle. An adoptive mom herself, she teaches classes in adoptive parenting. She says there’s more to adoptive breastfeeding than inducing lactation. “It’s not about adoptive breastfeeding so much as adoptive nursing,” says Smith. She encourages women to stop thinking about adoptive nursing in terms of calories and exclusivity, and to start thinking about it in terms of connecting, nurturing and facilitating a healthy bond.

How does it work?
Adoptive mothers can induce lactation in a variety of ways, including using hormones, pumping, medication, manual breast stimulation, herbs, acupuncture, nutrition and the simple act of nursing a baby. A doctor or lactation consultant can help sort out the risks and benefits of the various options. Regardless of the method used, mothers should anticipate the need to supplement their milk supply in some way.

Sara Cole is a mother on the path to lactation once again. The Columbia City mom nursed her adopted child, Rosie, for more than three years, and her family is in the process of being matched with another baby through adoption. Cole definitely anticipates the need to supplement, as she did with Rosie. “The trick of successful adoptive breastfeeding is not to expect to provide all of a baby’s nutritional need with breastfeeding,” she says. When nursing Rosie, Cole supplemented her breastmilk with a high-quality formula recommended by her naturopathic doctor.

Wedgwood mom Amy Prestia also supplemented when nursing her adopted baby, Maren. Knowing that she would likely not produce sufficient milk — especially in the early weeks — Prestia arranged with Maren’s birth mother to provide milk for several months. She also received donated milk from other mothers who had extra to share, and in this way kept Maren on breast milk until she was 15 months old.

It all took extra effort, sure, but Prestia nursed Maren’s older brother, her biological child, for three years, and wanted Maren to experience the same level of loving commitment as her big brother. And while Prestia has been successful in accomplishing this goal, she admits adoptive nursing was not easy. “At times, it was a struggle,” she says. Juggling a newborn baby and a supplemental feeding system is challenging at best. Add to the mix concern about whether baby is receiving adequate nutrition, and it can seem nearly overwhelming. Prestia attributes her very supportive community as a big factor in her perseverance. “I am glad I stuck with it,” she says, “but it was sometimes hard to decide whether it was a positive or a negative thing for us to be doing.”

Why do it?
Why go to all of the trouble of inducing lactation and wrestling with a supplemental feeding system? Cole offers one reason: “For the bonding. I nursed my biological child for the nutritional superiority, and also because attachment and bonding are important. As important as it was with my biological child, it was much more important to me with my adopted child, because she had already lost her first attachment, to her birth mother. Nursing provided the ultimate in proximity and closeness, which was an important way for us to forge that bond between us as mother and child.”

Prestia agrees that the nursing relationship is an important way to facilitate attachment to an adopted child. And she has an additional perspective on this issue — she was adopted herself. “I sometimes project my experience as an adoptee into Maren’s future,” Prestia says. “One of her potentially biggest problems as an adoptee may be that she is perceived as different, maybe that she doesn’t have a ‘real’ family or that she is not loved as much as a biological child. Breastfeeding is one more way in which she can be like her peers. It is a tangible way of showing the parent-child connection and giving her a sense of belonging in our family.”

Small goals
Smith advises adoptive moms who want to breastfeed to keep their goals realistic — and to reach out for support. “Adoptive nursing is doable,” she says. “It’s an incredible gift to the mother, the baby and their family.”

It’s worth noting that, while this article focuses on adoption, much of this same information applies to surrogacy situations. There is no question that surrogacy and adoption are very different paths to motherhood, yet many of the same biological and physical issues that relate to the nursing relationship between mother and baby are the same.

Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer who has personal experience with some of the tools that adoptive mothers can use to induce lactation, and as a result, she admires their perseverance and dedication.

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