There were a lot of things about becoming a mother that didn’t happen the way I had once believed they would.
If you had asked me as a teenager or young adult what becoming a mother would look like for me, I would have told you that I would be married and in love, with a supportive partner by my side as I yelled on a hospital bed and brought our first child into this world.
And I would have told you that of course I would be breast-feeding.
Instead, just shy of my 30th birthday, I found myself in a hospital room beside a woman I had known only a week as she worked to bring a little girl into this world — a little girl she had already chosen me to raise.
There was no partner for me, and I was more than a little unnerved by the level of helplessness I felt as this other woman writhed in pain to deliver the baby that would be mine.
I was also keenly aware of the fact that I would not be breast-feeding that baby.
What a lot of people may not realize is that mothers through adoption do actually have the option to breast-feed. There are ways to stimulate breast milk, and plenty of adoptive mothers do in fact wind up breast-feeding the babies who weren’t born from them. I’ve known two women who were able to make it work, both under very different circumstances.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a valid option for me. But in order to understand why, you first need to understand how.
Over the years, the topic of breast-feeding an adopted baby has come up in my presence a handful of times. And when I start to weigh in on this subject, I find that the reactions are often mixed.
There are those who are completely freaked out by the idea of anyone breast-feeding a baby who isn’t biologically theirs, and then there are those so in support of breast-feeding that they immediately praise the choice and demand to know why every mother through adoption wouldn’t want to embrace that same opportunity.
For me, the desire to breast-feed was strong. We have the “breast is best” mantra so deeply embedded in our society, that of course the idea of giving my baby anything other than the best made my stomach turn.
But even more than that, I wanted the full experience of motherhood. I wanted to be on that hospital bed writhing in pain as I fought to bring my baby into this world, and I wanted to be the one sustaining her with the nourishment only my body could provide.
So for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of adoptive mothers breast-feeding their babies, I would say: If it’s not for you, that’s OK. Don’t do it. But don’t be too quick to judge those who do. That desire comes from a pretty primal and natural place.
We just want to care for our babies in the same way the women we’ve been exposed to our entire lives have cared for their babies.
We want to give our little ones the “best.”
A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reported: “Both the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics have policy statements on breast-feeding that include assisting or encouraging adoptive mothers to induce lactation for adoptive nursing. That said, there is very little in the medical literature on how to help an adoptive mother in her endeavor to induce lactation.”
There are no tried and true ways for inducing lactation. What works for one mother may not work for another. But there are three main options:
1. Manually stimulating your nipples and breasts
This method can take a long time to work, if it does at all, and is usually best started months prior to the anticipated birth of your adopted child.
Those who experience success usually utilize a breast pump and attempt pumping on a strict schedule of every two hours until milk is produced. Once the baby is born, the next step is to routinely bring your baby to your breast in the hopes that doing so will shift your body into action.
2. Utilizing herbs
Alongside manual stimulation, herbal remedies like fenugreek and milk thistle are thought to help with inducing milk production. It should be noted that scientific research is light in this area.
3. Hormonal medications
The most effective way to induce breast milk production is with the use of certain prescription medications.
Domeperidone, Metoclopramide, and Sulpiride are the most commonly prescribed drugs for this purpose. These drugs are used with the goal of increasing prolactin levels, the hormone necessary for milk production.
Even with the use of prescription drugs, however, milk production may not be possible for all women.
I spent a long time talking to a doctor I trust before deciding that attempting to breast-feed my baby was not the right choice for me. As a woman with a hormone condition we had only recently gotten under control, altering my hormones in the hopes of producing a milk supply ultimately seemed like a bad idea.
Also, I literally had only one week’s notice when it came to my daughter’s adoption. Nothing I could have done would have ensured a milk supply by the time she was born.
And the chaos of preparing my home for a baby I hadn’t known I would be getting created enough stress without also trying to convince my body that it had just given birth and should produce milk in response.
But even without those concerns, there are some potential issues to consider when trying to decide whether or not to induce lactation yourself.
1. Emotional ramifications
Before trying to induce lactation, you should ask yourself how you’ll feel if you are successful but the adoption falls through. Will having breasts full of milk you can no longer provide for the baby you were hoping to bring home make that loss all the more devastating?
2. Potential for coercion
There are some within the adoption community who fear that adoptive mothers inducing lactation could be used to put even more pressure on a birth mother to place her child.
The fear is that if a birth mother is second-guessing her decision, corrupt adoption workers might say things like, “But this adoptive mother has worked so hard to produce milk, she already loves this baby so much,” in order to put additional pressure on the mother.
This is not in the spirit of an ethical adoption, and the topic itself should be broached very carefully with birth families.
3. Medical risks
While simple manual stimulation carries no obvious risks (beyond the fact that it is likely the least effective form of inducing lactation), both herbs and medications come with some concerns.
Consult with your doctor before taking any herbal remedies to ensure that there are no risks associated with pairing those herbs with anything else you are taking. Be sure you understand the risks of each medication. Metaclopramide has been associated with a high risk of severe depression for the mother, for instance. And risks to the breast-feeding baby should be discussed with your doctor, as all drugs have the potential for being passed through breast milk.
I wanted to be able to breast-feed my little girl very much, but for me, the decision not to try was easy enough to make. My daughter needed a healthy mommy more than she needed that “liquid gold,” and she thrived on formula.
My two friends who were able to breast-feed their adoptive babies (one with nothing more than manual stimulation, and one with the use of herbs and manual stimulation) are equally glad they made that choice. For them and their families, it was the right way to go.
Ultimately, only you and your family can decide what is right for you. Consult with a doctor you trust, talk to women who have been there, and make the choice that you feel most comfortable with. Know that no matter what you choose, your baby will be fed and loved.