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What do I need to know?
You may be surprised to learn that you don't have to give birth to nurse a baby — you can breastfeed an adopted baby. But only half of all adopting mothers who attempt to breastfeed will make any milk at all and few will produce enough to fully satisfy their babies.
It's the suckling of a child that triggers milk production, not an automatic physiological reaction that begins during pregnancy. Hormones drive the production of breast milk. Prolactin, a hormone created by the pituitary gland, makes breast milk, and if you stimulate the breast enough to increase prolactin levels, you will get milk.
An increase in the hormones estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy do help prepare a woman's body for breastfeeding by enlarging the ducts and alveoli — so it's more difficult to start the milk flowing in mothers who haven't delivered a child.
Learn more about how your body makes breast milk.
What challenges could I face?
Inducing lactation isn't complicated, but it does take time: Buy or rent a hospital-grade breast pump, and use it often. But don't expect to lactate overnight. It can take a month or more of regular pumping to trigger milk production (start slow but build up to eight to ten times a day). Timing this with your baby's arrival can be tricky, since few adoptive parents get much advance notice.
While adoptive moms can nurse, they usually can't produce as much milk as women who go through pregnancy (that's where the hormones come in).
How can I solve these problems?
Think of breastfeeding as an opportunity to teach your new baby who her mommy is, and where she can turn for comfort and love. But don't expect to be your baby's sole source of nutrition.
"The goal for adoptive mothers who are nursing isn't producing a certain amount of milk — it's bonding with the child," says Susan Condon, an international board-certified lactation consultant. "Most women say they aren't concerned with the volume of milk that they produce. They just want the opportunity to be close to their new baby."
You probably won't be able to coax a full supply of milk from your breasts, so you'll need to supplement. But that doesn't mean you have to use bottles.
Condon recommends the Medela Supplemental Nursing System (SNS), which allows you to feed formula to your baby formula through a pair of thin tubes you attach to your areola with surgical tape. Your baby nurses normally and gets a mix of formula and whatever breast milk you're producing. If you use this method, plan on supplementing with premixed or concentrated formula, not the the powdered version, which might have trouble going through the tubing if it's not mixed thoroughly.
Another popular system is the Lact-Aid Nursing Trainer. It works like the Medela system but has soft, collapsible plastic bags instead of plastic bottles to hold the formula, making it possible to nurse your baby more discreetly. These supplementers have two functions: They ensure that your baby is getting enough food and they encourage nipple sucking, which triggers more breast milk production.
It might be possible to use donor breast milk instead of formula. Because the demand for donated breast milk is higher than the supply, your baby may have to meet certain criteria. Talk with your baby's doctor to see whether you qualify.
Where can I get more help?
La Leche League International is one of the best resources for any nursing mother. La Leche can provide more information on this subject, and possibly connect you with other adoptive mothers in your area who are nursing. The group also has a few pamphlets about inducing lactation.
Condon recommends the book Breastfeeding the Adopted Baby, by Debra Peterson. "I bet a lot of adoptive moms have no idea this is something they can do," she says. "If women knew they had the choice, I think a lot of them would try nursing."