Ain't nothin' like the real thing: Adoptive moms can breastfeed, with some added effort

Breastfeeding is not just for biological moms. With the right support and some basic equipment, adoptive moms are discovering that breastfeeding is a viable - and beneficial - way to get babies off to a healthy start.

It's not as simple as putting a baby to the breast, says Dr. Anne Eglash, medical director, at the UW Health Lactation Clinic. A woman's hormones need stimulation before the body knows to produce milk. "The breast has to develop, like a tree in the spring," says Eglash. "When a woman becomes pregnant, hormones tell the breast to develop. As the breast ripens through pregnancy, the hormones of the placenta tell the body to get ready, get set."

If a woman has given birth - or had a miscarriage or an abortion - she has an easier time lactating. Breastfeeding is obviously more challenging for a woman who has never been pregnant, and adoptive mothers shouldn't expect to have a full milk supply, but it can work. "The goal should be to put the baby to the breast and nurse," says Eglash.

When Janet Parker and her partner, Walt Novash, decided to adopt a newborn, they found a La Leche League book, Breastfeeding an Adopted Baby and Relactation. "I actually didn't realize it was possible to breastfeed an adopted child, but when I learned about it I thought I would give it a try," says Parker, who is breastfeeding her adopted daughter, Masha, 7 months.

"When I'm breastfeeding in public I like to tell people, because otherwise they might wonder what I'm doing if they know that my baby was adopted," says Parker. "Like so many good parenting and baby-care strategies, this has always been common in traditional societies and in other parts of the world. It's been sort of forgotten about in our society."

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continuing for one year or longer, stating that breastfed infants have lower rates of respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal problems, allergies, obesity and more. Considering these health benefits - and the bonding that comes with the physical contact - it's only natural that some women are willing to undertake some rigorous preparation to nurse babies they didn't give birth to.

As Masha's birth approached, Eglash suggested frequent use of a breast pump. Once Masha came home, Parker used a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS), a bottle with tubes that can be placed next to the nipple. When Masha sucked, she got milk from the bottle (either donated breast milk or formula) along with the milk that Parker produced, and the suckling stimulated milk production. Eglash says some women benefit from birth control pills (which essentially simulate pregnancy but need to be stopped at least a month before breastfeeding) and drugs that increase milk supply. Other women use herbs, like fenugreek.

Monica Vohmann, a family medicine and obstetrics physician at Group Health Cooperative, had already breastfed her biological daughter when she and her husband adopted their son Jaden when he was 10 days old. "He was very interested in breastfeeding from the get-go," says Vohmann. "Around month three, he was still wanting to nurse on me all the time, so I decided to just do it." She dedicated a 10-day vacation to relactation, latching Jaden onto her breast every three hours. The combination of the SNS, pumping, Chinese herbs and a couple months of taking Domperidone (an anti-nausea drug sometimes used "off-label" to stimulate milk production) worked.

Vohmann nursed Jaden for 15 months. "It was very nice when Jaden was three or four and he would come home from preschool and say, 'Was I in your belly?' I'd have to say, 'No, you weren't in my belly, but I breastfed you; you were at my breast all the time.' That physical connection, I think, meant something to him."

Eglash says it's fairly rare in her practice for women to inquire about adoptive breastfeeding. "Most of my patients who adopt would never consider it. I think they don't see it as part of adoption. One thing that makes it really challenging is that they don't know when they will get the baby."

"It was very challenging," says Lia Gima, a full-time mom and home-school educator in Milwaukee. She and her partner, Barbara Basaj, began considering adoptive breastfeeding about a year before they adopted. (Their children are now 9.) Gima's mother, a lactation consultant, started them both on herbs and supplements, and both women began pumping and filling their freezer with milk as the birthmother's due date approached. On the morning the biological mother went into labor, the couple discovered they were adopting twins.

Gima says it was tricky keeping enough milk in the house for two babies and coordinating nursing with the SNS tube. But it was worth the struggle.

"Breastfeeding and co-sleeping really helped with attachment, which can be tough for adoptive families, as children who have experienced trauma often have trouble receiving the love their parents have to give," says Gima.

Despite the fact that their twins began life in NICU incubators, they are now "amazingly strong and healthy," says Gima. "I credit the breast milk."

"I feel probably the same as any mother who breastfeeds," says Parker, baby Masha cooing at her breast. "Having those times every day of calm and close time with my baby is really special. All those benefits are equally important for a child who is adopted."

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Vital work is being done at the Lussier Community Education Center, from community-building to STEM skills

"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!