Breastfeeding an adopted child

Slow start ... Breastfeeding can offer adopted children more than just nutritional benefits.
Slow start ... Breastfeeding can offer adopted children more than just nutritional benefits. 

Breastfeeding is considered to be one of the most natural things a mother can do. But how do you go about breastfeeding an adopted child?

Dr Karleen Gribble, from the University of Western Sydney’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, says there’s a growing awareness that it’s possible for women to breastfeed their adopted children, and that despite not physically giving birth to a child, women can produce breast milk and enjoy the closeness that comes with breastfeeding.

“Prolactin, one of the hormones needed for making milk, can be released in response to regular nipple stimulation or using a breast pump,” Dr Gribble says.

Producing breast milk when you haven’t given birth or have even been pregnant isn’t a straight or easy road, though. “It can take around three hours of breast pumping each day before the milk supply starts to develop,” Dr Gribble says. “It’s not difficult, but it is tedious and time consuming.”

An undertaking for committed mothers, Dr Gribble says it can take weeks and months before milk starts to be produced. But in her experience, lots of adoptive mothers don’t mind the time needed to establish a milk supply, as it gives them something to do while they are waiting to travel to meet their child, who is often coming from overseas in a long and drawn-out process.  

More than just milk

Breastfeeding can offer adopted children more than just nutritional benefits. “Adopted children have often had a rough early life,” Dr Gribble says. “They may have suffered abuse or neglect, and that places them at risk for not being able to develop and maintain relationships.”

For adopted children, especially those who have been in institutional care, it can take a long time to build a trusting relationship with adults around them – but as Dr Gribble points out, breastfeeding is an intimate act. “In order to feel comfortable enough to breastfeed, adopted children need to develop a relationship with their adoptive mother, and that can be a lengthy process.”

How common is it?

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There are no definitive numbers on how many adoptive mothers breastfeed their children. Dr Gribble says she hears from around six women each year who have established breastfeeding with their adopted children, and from approximately 12 women who have gone through surrogacy.

“I often speak to women before they have a child placed with them and you have no idea what will happen, because sometimes the mums try to breastfeed but the child isn’t interested, or the milk making doesn’t work well,” she says. “But when I hear breastfeeding has gone really well, it’s really heart warming.”

First-hand experience

The benefits of breastfeeding can be immense, as Nicole* has found out. Nicole’s little girl Rosie* came into her care when Rosie was eight months old, and Nicole made the decision to try breastfeeding. She expressed up to 12 times a day.

“I needed to be at home a lot to pump, as it’s not the kind of thing where you can pump extra today and not pump tomorrow,” she says. “I couldn’t have people over unless they were people I could pump in front of.”

Nicole says that it is still early days, as Rosie, now 11 months old, has only been feeding directly for a week. “I look back and it seems like it was quite quick, but at the time it was very emotional as some days Rosie would completely reject even skin-to-skin contact,” Nicole says.

But last week Rosie latched on for the first time. “The first time she attached and sucked for a few minutes she was trying to go to sleep. I didn’t move a muscle as I didn’t want to interrupt her,” Nicole says. “It was an amazing feeling.”

*Names have been changed