World Breastfeeding Week: Nursing the Adopted Baby

This Sunday, instead of an edition of “Simplify Your Life,” I’ll be speaking on the subject of breastfeeding because this week is World Breastfeeding Week.

I’m tackling a rather controversial topic this morning. Sometimes I think, “Why in the world is the idea of nursing an adopted baby controversial?” Well, for several reasons.

It’s Uncommon

Nursing babies in general died down quite a bit for nearly an entire generation. According to a 2001 article written by the Journal of Nutrition, the number of breastfeeding mothers tapered out dramatically in the 1970’s late 1980’s to only 22-33% of mothers choosing to breastfeed. That number may surprise you, but honestly, I’ve been wanting to do this research for some time because of a conversation I had with my mother in law when I was a new mom with Little.

She did not have a lactation expert visit her hospital room when she gave birth to her sons in the early 80’s. She didn’t have pamphlets handed to her by nurses about proper latch on technique. She did not have anyone ask her if her baby could be given a bottle if he went down to the nursery. These choices and support systems were simply not there from the hospitals. I wondered then if it wasn’t because of a huge influx of formula companies cropping up all over America that led to the decline in breastfeeding.

Nursing steadily declined towards the mid 1900’s, after WW2. I would imagine this decline happened because of the return of the Greatest Generation, and their huge nation-wide family boom. Electronics and convenience became the talk of the 1950’s, with gadgets and gizmos popping up all over the house to make life “easier.” Mom was busy. She needed her hands free to do other things, so formula increased in popularity. It was downhill from there for our breastfeeding mamas.

Mary Tyler Moore represented the “average” woman in the 1970’s. Women were taking over the workplace. Ladies were gaining a voice nationwide, and choosing to make choices different from those of their mothers. With more and more women returning to work, and less than stellar breastfeeding supplies available, women were forced to choose between continuing to breastfeed their baby or giving it up after their return to work. And of course, by the 1980’s, the bottom had dropped out in breastfeeding. By the 80’s, daycares were common in America, as were formula cans. Formula was pushed by doctors and hospitals for it’s convenience of use, ease of availability, and the manufactured health benefits in the powders.

Our generation has seen a recent increase in breastfeeding. Of course it helps that the American Pediatric Association, American Journal of Medicine, World Health Organization, and just about every health-related association worldwide now openly support breastfeeding and tout about the health benefits for both mom and baby.

Given these statistics, its easy to see how nursing the adopted baby would be nearly an obsolete concept. Actually, this is a fairly new practice which is gradually gaining in popularity among adoptive parents.

It’s Taboo

This, perhaps more than other reasons, bothers me.

In general, people are uncomfortable with the unknown or unfamiliar. I believe the discomfort with breastfeeding the adopted child comes from this feeling of unease over the unknown. People in general, whether they will admit it or not, have a tendency to think of the adopted child as not of their own. A biological baby comes from a woman’s own body. The baby was once one with the mother. The idea of a baby feeding at the breast of his own mother does not make the average person squeamish, because this is simply a continuation of that biological, physical connection that once existed with the umbilical cord and placenta.

But the adopted baby? There was never a physical oneness between the adopted baby and her mother. Breastfeeding the adopted baby is not a continuation of nutritional support. It’s something entirely separate, and in some cases, it’s merely a bonding experience.

I think that many people have a hard time accepting that an adopted baby could truly feel to her mother like her own. People tend to reserve the word “own” to describe a biological child, as if an adopted child doesn’t actually fully belong to a mother. This, of course, is absolutely untrue, but still I hear people say things like, “My neighbor has two of her own, and two adopted children.” This word, “own,” leads one to the conclusion that to nurse one’s own is natural and acceptable, but to nurse a baby that is not your own is, frankly icky.

An adopted mother holds the right to provide the absolute best bonding experience with her child from the very beginning that any biological mother would not even think twice about. She also has the right to provide the best nutritional start for her baby, and the best nutritional start for a baby is breastmilk.

The idea that an adopted mother would have another woman’s baby nurse at her breast causes a lot of discomfort with some people. They still think in terms of that baby belonging to someone else, and therefore, to nurse the baby is taboo. Personally, the way I see it, I am making a promise to the biological mother of our baby that we will care for her to the absolute best of our ability and provide her the best life we possibly can. That includes protecting her from harm in anyway I can, providing the best medical care I can, and giving her the most nutritionally sound diet that I can possibly provide. And of course, breastmilk is the healthiest option for any baby.

Lack of Edcuation

The final reason people don’t talk about breastfeeding an adopted baby very often is because of the lack of education surrounding the subject. One book I would highly recommend is Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book. You could also pick up a copy of The Breastfeeding Book, which addresses the topic of nursing the adopted baby as well. His wife actually chose to breastfeed their youngest child, an adopted baby girl. For Martha, it was a successful experience in bonding and a lovely way to feed her baby.

Inducing lactation is certainly not a common topic of discussion in regular mommy circles. I would imagine within my own little “mommy circle” here in our tiny town, most would look at me with shock if I told them I was wanting to breastfeed our adopted baby. I believe this is because of poor education about the topic. Most people assume it’s impossible to nurse a baby if you are not producing the lactation hormone prolactin. That, however, is untrue.

So, How Do You Do It?

Women who have never experienced a pregnancy or given birth to a baby may not ever be able to produce milk. However, in some cases and with a lot of dedication, induced lactation can happen. If you’re interested in induced lactation, please contact the Le Leche League to discuss the steps involved. Sometimes this involves estrogen and progesterone therapy, and it always involves regular use of a hospital-grade pump. Your doctor can find a plan that works best for you, and will know the best route to achieve lactation.

Often the average OBGYN may not be extremely familiar with the idea of induced lactation, and women may feel uncomfortable asking about it. I suggest contacting LLL because they exist to support all mothers- adoptive or biological- in nursing their babies. They’ve guided countless women to the best support and plan of action to achieve induced lactation, so no question about breastfeeding the adopted baby would ever be unusual to them. Regardless, this should not be an uncomfortable subject to discuss!

The hospital-grade pump and possible hormone therapy are a precursor in stimulation to provide the prep work for the actual suckling of a baby. Nothing can replace actually nursing a baby, but the common course of action I described above can help prepare your body for baby.

For women who never do produce milk, a supplemental device is available that actually attaches to the nipple. This device comes with a little plastic container in which you put formula. A tiny straw-like device goes near {or in some types around} the nipple, so baby sucks on both the nipple and this minuscule straw at the same time. Your nipples get the stimulation that may increase your chances of eventually producing milk, and baby gets the formula to fill his belly. In either case, baby is suckling at the breast, which releases the hormone Oxytocin, which is the hormone of bonding. You’ll feel closer to her, she’ll feel more secure, you share in each other’s body heat, and the entire bonding process of nursing occurs. It truly doesn’t matter in such an instance that formula is involved. That bonding is paramount with an adopted baby, even if the nutritional benefits aren’t available.

For the woman who has had children before, and especially for those who nursed their babies, achieving milk flow could be a great success. In my case, I only weaned Little a year ago. He was 18 months old when he started weaning himself. Since that was only one year ago, I can still hand-express a small amount of milk, which leads me to believe that if we rent a hospital-grade pump from our favorite home health store, then I should be able to get a decent supply of milk back. Sometimes when I hear babies cry or see a newborn, I get that tingling rush of hormones, which again, lets me know that I will be able to breastfeed our adopted baby.

I approached nursing with LB with such extreme confidence, not nursing was not an option. In my pregnancy, I knew he wasn’t getting the nutrients he needed, and I was too sick to do anything about it. I promised him and myself that the moment he was born, I would make up for all of the nutrients and bonding we did not achieve in my very difficult pregnancy. It was a success.

Honestly, I want the same thing for my adopted baby. I have no way of knowing whether her biological mother is taking good care of her in the womb. I have no say in the vitamins she takes, the food she eats, the air she breathes, the things she drinks or ingests. I can’t control the elements being introduced to my child, and in a way, you have to just surrender to that truth in adoption. But I can change that when she’s in my arms. I can protect her from the toxins of cigarette smoke, introduce whole foods to her when she’s eating solids, provide her with quality health care, and the absolute best food possible- breastmilk.

My bonding with Little did not happen in the womb, and my bonding with our next little one won’t happen there either. I’m okay with that, because breastfeeding exists. It’s perfect for mothers like me who rely on that closeness for bonding with her babies. It will provide the antibodies for her little system to help her if she wasn’t protected as she should have been in the womb.

Breastfeeding the adopted child is not only possible, it’s essential. Whether you use a formula supplementer or you produce your own milk, I believe it’s critical in the bonding process. It can help calm the system of an adopted baby born addicted to drugs or alcohol. It can help quiet the aches and pains of a baby in withdrawl. It can protect the delicate system of a premature or low birth weight baby.

The benefits are endless, but most of all, I believe nursing the adopted baby helps bridge the gap between a biological connection and a connection of the heart.





Filed under Attachment Parenting, Breastfeeding

7 responses to “World Breastfeeding Week: Nursing the Adopted Baby

  1. wonderful post Kat. My one addition would be that future adoptive parents make sure it’s ‘ok’ to do and won’t get them into hot water……probably not in domestic infant adoption, but definitely in fost/adopt.

    I never considered it because it’s not allowed in my state if one receives placement of an infant…because while the hearing may have been set, the parental rights haven’t been terminated and all that legaleese. However, I heard from one person that it isn’t prohibited if bmom is in agreement in the state they live. So always make sure that this can happen without the stress of getting into ‘policy hot water’.

    • Also I don’t get the “Taboo” thing….is it really that taboo? I mean in my parent’s country (they are naturalized citizens here) there was no such thing as formula…..and I don’t think they have formula there still…..there were wet nurses….or if an aunt or neighbor had more than enough milk they breast fed everyone that needed extra because the mom had trouble producing enough…..we call that hermanos de pecho…..(siblings through being breastfed by the same woman) So I don’t understand that Taboo thing… πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks for the reminder about making sure that it’s acceptable in each individual situation. You’re my sounding board for the foster to adopt situations, since I’m unfamiliar with them. πŸ™‚ Good to remember.

    And, regarding the taboo issue, I know here in the South, where I live, the issue is not something people readily talk about. Even when I was nursing Little, I had people encourage me to wean him as soon as possible. One woman, when I mentioned I was nursing him, even said, “Well, just don’t be like those women who keep breastfeeding them when they’re like 1 or 2! If he can talk, he needs to be off of the boob!” Keep in mind, this was a practical stranger.

    I also heard more than once from people that nursing is “fine as long as you do it in the privacy of your home.” As if otherwise, it’s something immodest or offensive. Telling them that I plan to try nursing our adopted baby nearly made their eyes bug. Of course, you know the culture in this area. Sometimes the people down here get squeamish with such openness regarding breastfeeding, and are eeked out seeing a woman nursing in public. Since it’s often misunderstood that an adopted parent would even WANT to nurse their baby, I felt it needed to be addressed.

    I think its FANTASTIC that you come from a culture that so readily embraces the concept of nursing a baby that isn’t biologically connected to you! I wish Americans would embrace that concept more. I remember reading a front page article in the Times about a man whose wife died after childbirth, so the ladies in his town rallied around and donated their breastmilk to him to nourish his baby in the way his mother would have wanted. It was wonderful. But I do remember comments on national news stations about it. Some people thought it was strange, and one woman even said, “Well, just as long as THEY aren’t the ones nursing him, it’s okay.” Sheesh, people!

    I do hope it gains in popularity though. And, as you said, TPR needs to be taken into consideration in some cases, and we won’t even get into what happens when people bring babies home from China and find that the formula they’ve been fed is basically just sugar water. They might have a hard time getting a baby from China to accept breast milk. But that’s another enchilada altogether πŸ™‚

    …And now my reply is as long as my post. Neat. Lol

    • I can understand the sugar water….China is a communist country as is the country my parents grew up in after the Revolution took place….so rations were what they were and mom’s had to either a) breastfeed or b) concoct some form of nourishment… mom was just telling me what some parents would do to make sure their kids got nourishment….sounded nasty but hey what can you do with limited resources?! 😦

      Always an adjustment…..such a good post πŸ™‚

      • Yeah, I saw a documentary once about adopting from China. The babies had terrible reactions to formula from the US and cow’s milk. The parents took the baby’s Chinese formula to a doctor to have the ingredients looked at to see if they could concoct something similar here, and the doctor was appauled at what was in there. It was loaded with sugar and fat. Just terrible stuff. He recommended almond milk or rice milk with some natural coconut milk or honey to sweeten it (these babies were all over 1 year) until they could wean off the gross diabetes-inducing “formula” from China and onto something of real nutritional value here. It’s just so sad.

        Thanks for the comments, I love discussions! And I’m glad you liked the post!

  3. This was such a wonderful post. Thank you so much for tackling the issue of nursing adopted babies. I was especially struck by the part where you talk about outsiders having an easier time thinking of nursing a biological child because of that child being “her own.” I think this kind of thinking on the part of those people really devalues the relationship between a mother and an adopted baby. An adopted baby isn’t “borrowed.” That baby is also very much “her own” baby, too.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. The idea of nursing adopted babies is rather common within the adoption world, but those outside of the adoption circle don’t even think about it. I do think that there is a pocket of our society that finds it “creepy” or wrong to nurse “someone else’s” baby. It doesn’t even occur to them that when we adopt that baby, they are no longer someone else’s, they are ours. And, like I said in the post, those babies deserve the nutritional benefits and bonding experience that nursing provides just as much as a biological baby.

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