Relactation and Adoptive Breastfeeding: The Basics

By Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC

Image credit: ODHD on flickr

Image credit: ODHD on flickr

Relactation or induced lactation (for those who did not give birth to their baby) is essentially a two-fold process:

  1. You will be teaching (or re-teaching) baby to nurse at the breast, and to equate nursing with comfort. If you’re having problems getting baby to nurse, see Help — My Baby Won’t Nurse!
  2. At the same time you will be developing (or re-developing) a milk supply. Developing a milk supply requires nipple stimulation (via baby nursing, hand expression, pumping or a combination) and milk removal (once there is milk to remove). If your baby will nurse, regular and frequent nursing sessions (even if baby is just learning in the beginning) will be very helpful.

If your baby is 4 months old or younger it will generally be easier to relactate. It will also be easier if your milk supply was well established (frequent and effective nursing and/or pumping) during the first 4-6 weeks postpartum. However, moms with older babies, moms who did not establish a good milk supply in the beginning, and adoptive moms who have never breastfed can also get good results. Keep in mind that breastfeeding is not just about the milk. Your child will get numerous benefits from breastfeeding even if you do not have a full milk supply.

If baby is willing to latch on, then nurse often (at least every 2-3 hours). Also, offer baby the breast for comfort any time you see a chance- at the end of a feeding when he is not hungry, when he is going to sleep and just waking up, and whenever he needs to comfort suck. Even if baby is not getting any milk at first, the nursing will be signaling your breasts to make milk.

What if baby will not latch? Keep working at it – some babies have gone back to the breast after many months of bottle feeding. Even if you are not able to persuade baby to latch, you have the option of re-establishing your milk supply via pumping and giving baby your milk via bottle or cup (this is called exclusive pumping).

If baby is not nursing well (or not yet latching at all), pumping will make a big difference in increasing your milk supply. Even if baby appears to be nursing well, additional pumping will speed up the relactation process. See Establishing and maintaining milk supply when baby is not nursing for more information.

You will also want to take a look at Hidden Hindrances to a Healthy Milk Supply to see if there are any factors that may compromise your milk supply.

Consider giving your baby his feedings via an alternative feeding method (rather than a bottle), such as a nursing supplementer, feeding syringe, finger feeding setup, flexible cup, spoon, medicine/eye dropper, etc. If your baby is latching well, a nursing supplementer can be a big help: it will encourage your baby to nurse at your breast by giving him a constant flow of milk (expressed milk and/or formula) while he stimulates your breasts to produce more milk.

Some mothers use herbal supplements, such as fenugreek or blessed thistle, to stimulate milk production. You can usually buy these at health food stores or herb shops and occasionally at some large supermarkets or pharmacies. For more information see What is a galactagogue? Do I need one? …Herbal remedies for increasing milk supply. There are also several prescription medications that increase milk supply. These herbal and pharmaceutical methods for stimulating milk supply will not be particularly effective unless combined with frequent nursing and/or pumping.

Finally, get in touch with a breastfeeding counselor or Lactation Consultant/IBCLC(in person if at all possible) who has experience with relactation. It’s great to have one-on-one support as you work through this.

For addional information, see:

KellyMom is sponsored this month by Earth Mama Angel Baby, maker of natural and organic herbal products, who has graciously helped pay our costs this month.
Our sponsor is not responsible for and has had no influence over the creation, selection or presentation of evidence-based or other information or resources provided on this site.