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Maybe you had a rocky start to breastfeeding (so many of us do!) and decided to wean. Now you’re having second thoughts, and want to know how to bring your supply back and start breastfeeding again.
Or perhaps you and your baby were separated due to medical issues and you weren’t able to keep up with breastfeeding, and you want to try again. It could be that your baby weaned months ago, but now seems interested again, and you want to know if it’s worth a shot.
Ready for some good news? It is possible to do this!
Relactation, which simply means starting up breastfeeding again after a period of not breastfeeding, takes diligence, work, and determination, but many have successfully done it.
The key is having realistic expectations, learning a few tricks to increase your chances of success, having a strong support system — and maybe most of all, being gentle with yourself along the way.
As you venture onto your journey with relactation, it’s important to understand that all people are different and respond to the efforts of relactation with different degrees of success.
Some women will be able to bring in a full supply within weeks. Some will take a bit longer, and some will never quite be able to bring back a full milk supply. Every ounce of breast milk counts, though, and making peace with what you have is vital when you’re working on relactating.
That said, there are some factors that will determine how successful you will be at relactation:
- The younger your baby is, the easier it will be to relactate. Moms with babies in the 3 to 4 month range usually have the highest success rates.
- The more well established your milk supply was before weaning, the easier it will be to re-establish it.
- The more time you have to attempt breastfeeding and pumping, the better, as frequent and effective breastfeeding and pumping is the most important physiological factor for relactation.
- The more interested in breastfeeding your baby is, the easier this process will be.
- The more educated you are about how relactation works, the more success you’ll have.
- The more support you have from family, friends, and healthcare providers, the more likely you’ll be to persevere and not give up.
Again, each body reacts differently to attempts at relactation. However, you can expect to see some initial results within about 2 weeks of trying. Some experts believe that the amount of time it takes to relactate is about equal to how long it’s been since you weaned from breastfeeding.
In her book, Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple, Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, concludes that based on available research, full relactation takes an average of about 1 month for most people.
Breast milk supply waxes and wanes during the time that you’re breastfeeding, and you may have noticed that it took a while for the entire “milk making factory” to go out of business, even after you weaned. You may still be able to express a little milk, even though it’s been weeks or months since you last nursed or pumped.
Have faith that breastfeeding is a hearty, flexible, fluid process, and if you previously breastfed, it may be easier than you think to get things rolling again.
Milk production works like this: The more you take, the more you make. And the single most effective thing for you to do if you want to relactate is to breastfeed or pump as frequently as possible.
Any stimulation of the breast — whether milk is coming out at first or not — will tell your body to produce more milk. To induce a full milk supply, you’ll want to aim to nurse or pump 8 to 12 times a day, or every 2 to 3 hours, including at least once a night.
Again, at first, you’ll only see drops or not much milk at all. If you keep nursing or pumping, you should start to see increases within a week or so. A little patience goes a long way here.
Not all babies will breastfeed weeks or months after weaning, but you’ll be surprised how many babies will happily try, especially if you offer the breast before bed, after a nap, after a bath, or during skin-to-skin time.
If your baby will breastfeed:
- Let your baby come to the breast as often as they wish.
- Make sure your baby is well latched, taking in a good portion of your nipple and areola and sucking effectively.
- Continue to offer supplementary milk so that your baby will continue to grow and thrive as you rebuild your milk supply. It’s important not to stop supplementing until your supply has increased.
- Allow comfort nursing as much as your baby likes — at first, you can think of nursing as “snacks” and build up to actual meals as your supply increases.
- Consider using an at-breast nursing supplementer, which is a flexible tube attached to your breast that delivers milk while your baby nurses and stimulates your supply.
- Spend lots of time skin-to-skin with your baby; this increases prolactin levels, which can also increase your milk supply.
If your baby will not breastfeed, or won’t breastfeed often:
- Pump your milk frequently to ensure that you reach your goal of stimulating and emptying the breasts every 2 to 3 hours or so.
- Make sure your pump is in good working order. Consider renting a hospital-grade pump for maximum effectiveness.
- Consider adding massage and hand expression to your pumping routine.
- Consider “power pumping,” where you pump several times an hour for an hour or two to simulate cluster feeding, which naturally increases supply.
In addition to nursing or pumping, you may want to consider adding a galactagogue to the mix. A galactagogue is any food, herb, or prescription medication that is thought to help boost your milk supply.
Popular choices include oatmeal and lactation cookies, and herbs like fenugreek, blessed thistle, and goat’s rue. You might consider drinking teas made with some of these herbs.
Speak with your healthcare provider about what herbs are safe for you to try, and about the potential risks of any supplements you are considering. Your doctor may also be open to prescribing medication that increases milk supply.
Shop for lactation cookies, fenugreek, blessed thistle, and goat’s rue online.
Many people find that they need to bring in their milk supply before they can get their baby interested in breastfeeding again. If your baby is still reluctant even after you’ve increased your milk supply, here are some things you can try to get them happily breastfeeding again:
- Breastfeed when they’re half asleep, such as right after they wake up or in the middle of the night.
- Spend time skin-to-skin with them while they nap (as long as you can stay awake!); they may surprise you and latch on their own.
- Limit bottles and pacifiers. Let them use your breast for comfort at first, even if they aren’t getting all of their calories from you.
- Use slow-flow bottles or try cup feeding so that your baby can get used to the slower flow of your breasts while feeding.
- Continue feeding your baby formula or pumped milk until they are consistently taking your breast: A hungry baby isn’t going to be a cooperative baby!
- Don’t offer the breast when they’re starving; try in-between feedings at first.
- Offer the breast while rocking, walking, or swaying.
- Offer in the bath, in a baby carrier, or in the dark.
- Squeeze a little breast milk onto your nipple before offering the breast.
Patience is of the essence here. Most babies will eventually come back to breastfeeding, but if they’re quite a bit older, it might be more difficult. If your baby never fully breastfeeds again, that’s OK too. Pumped milk in a bottle is beneficial too.
Your baby may only breastfeed at certain times of day, like for naps and bedtime, and that can be fine as well. Remember that you get to define your success here.
What if you’ve never breastfed before, or the last time you breastfed was years ago and you’re looking to breastfeed your adopted child or child born via a surrogate?
Induced lactation isn’t the same as relacation, and may be more difficult, especially if you’ve never breastfed before. However, with hard work and support, many mothers are able to produce a full or partial supply for their babies.
The principles of induced lactation are similar to relactation:
- frequent breast stimulation through pumping or breastfeeding
- lots of skin-to-skin with babies after they arrive
- milk boosting supplements or prescribed medications
Moms who are inducing lactation should consult with a healthcare provider who has experience in this. They can help you come up with a plan tailored to your body and baby, which will help you maximize success.
Relactation is hard work and comes with many challenges. As you move along, weigh your potential successes with your own mental and physical well-being.
If it’s been a month and you’ve done everything you can to bring back your supply with little success, it may be time to give yourself permission to stop trying, especially if you’re finding that your efforts are making you overwhelmed or stressed.
Keep in mind that any amount of breast milk that you produce for your baby has health benefits, so consider your relactation efforts a success even if you weren’t able to produce a full milk supply for your baby. Do what works for you and try not to compare yourself to other moms.
Connecting with a lactation consultant or doctor who specializes in breastfeeding is vital as you work on relactation. These professionals will be able to offer you tips based on your own health and breastfeeding history.
It’s also important that you keep in touch with your pediatrician. You want to make sure your baby continues to grow as you’re transitioning away from formula.
It’s so important to have an emotional support system as you try to relactate for your baby. You can reach out to a volunteer breastfeeding organization for support and to possibly connect with other local moms who have relactated. You may also be able to find moms online who have done this.
These days, there are so many opportunities to connect with people who are in the same boat as you. They can encourage you and make you feel less alone.
Relactating can be an isolating experience, and it’s easy to doubt yourself if you don’t see results right away. Have faith in your body and your baby as you move through the process, be kind with yourself, and remember that breastfeeding isn’t all or nothing. Every drop counts.