Editor’s note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
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Breastfeeding of infants by someone not their mother has commonly happened because of death or illness of the birth-mother, or when the birth-mother gave over or shared the care of her baby with another woman. Sometimes, the surrogate was already breastfeeding another baby, and her milk supply simply increased due to additional demand to meet the growth needs of two (or more) babies.
But anthropological reports from all over the world describe efforts by non-lactating woman to bring on lactation by putting the baby to breast, if no already-nursing mother was available, according to D.B. Jelliffe and E.F. Patrice Jelliffe in Human Milk in the Modern World: Psychosocial, Nutritional, and Economic Significance. Such infants were probably helped along with teas or gruels until sufficient milk appeared. While there must have been a high mortality rate in orphaned or abandoned babies, induced lactation evolved as a solution to their plight long before the development of artificial milk formulas.
In the United States, especially among La Leche League members, induced lactation has been embraced as a way to provide an enhanced bonding experience for women adopting babies. The special closeness fostered by breastfeeding can be profoundly comforting for both mother and child. Many women who have struggled with fertility problems value the experience of breastfeeding, even if the volume of milk they produce is small.
The amount of milk produced varies considerably from woman to woman, and it’s difficult to predict the results of induced lactation. It is unusual in the United States to find women who bring in a full supply of milk, but also rare to find women who make no milk. If a mother understands that the young infant will need supplementation with formula, she can relax, enjoy the experience, and nurse her infant without fear of compromising growth. While any amount of human milk is valuable to infants, La Leche League and most lactation consultants counsel that the emphasis be kept on the positive aspects of nurturing and closeness, rather than on volume of milk actually produced.
How Does Induced Lactation Work?
It is important to remember that prolactin and oxytocin, the hormones that govern lactation, are pituitary, not ovarian hormones. Therefore, even if a woman has had a hysterectomy, she may lactate, providing her overall health is good. (Estrogen, in the form of birth control pills or for replacement therapy, is a lactation suppressant.) Both prolactin, the milk-making hormone, and oxytocin, the milk-releasing hormone, are produced in response to nipple stimulation.
While there are now several regimens that use hormone therapy to assist in bringing in milk, many women have induced lactation with only mechanical stimulation. This consists of breast massage, nipple manipulation, and sucking—either by a baby or a hospital grade electric breast pump. Some adopting mothers rent a breast pump in anticipation of the infant; other mothers simply put the adopted infant to breast.
Hormone therapy to induce lactation generally consists of taking estrogen to simulate the high-estrogen state of pregnancy. The estrogen is then abruptly stopped to mimic the rapid hormonal changes following delivery. A course of a prolactin-enhancing drug such as metaclopromide (Reglan) is then instituted. Sucking stimulation (with a pump or by baby) is begun at this point.
Milk production typically begins between one to four weeks after initiating mechanical stimulation. A 1994 study of induced lactation using medications, published in The Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, describes onset of milk production between five and 13 days. (See abstract at the end of this article.) This is similar to cases of inductions using only nipple stimulation. At first, the mother may see only drops. During the time that milk production is building, she may notice changes in the color of the nipples and areolar tissue. Breasts may become tender and fuller. Some women report increased thirst and changes in their menstrual cycles or libidos.
Is Induced Milk Adequate for Infant Growth?
Is human milk produced this way adequate for infant growth? The same 1994 study observed babies of mothers inducing lactation in New Guinea, and 89 percent were found to be well nourished at follow-up.
Another study, “Protein Values of Milk Samples from Mothers without Biological Pregnancies,” done in 1980 by R. Kleinman and reported in The Journal of Pediatrics, looked at the chemical composition of milk produced by non-biological mothers. Two of the studied women had previously delivered babies; three had never been pregnant. Milk samples were collected from five women with adopted infants who had induced lactation by infant sucking. Milk production (at various levels) was established within 11 days without medication.
Milk samples were collected during the first five days of milk production and compared with samples of milk from five biological mothers. The mean protein concentration in the induced lactating women was identical to that of transitional milk of post-partum donors. There were differences in the concentration of albumin, the antibody immunoglobulin A, and lactalbumin concentrations in the milk produced during the days immediately following birth. Levels of these constituents were higher in the colostrum of the biological mothers. Sucking alone is apparently not sufficient to produce colostrum; other hormonal influences associated with pregnancy seem to be involved. The milk brought in by non-biological mothers, in other words, skips the colostral phase and more closely resembles transitional and mature breast milk. Kleinman’s study does not look at other nutritional characteristics (such as fats, carbohydrates, or micronutrients).
Since induced lactation produces low volumes of milk at first, and no colostrum, how is the baby’s nutritional status guaranteed in the early days of the process? Many women use a feeding tube device. This is a bag or bottle which is worn suspended on the mother’s chest. These devices have thin, silicone feeding tubes which are taped to the nipple with hypoallergenic surgical tape. The baby sucks the breast, and milk flows through the tubes as through a straw, delivering donor milk or formula directly at the breast. This is one way to avoid conditioning a baby to expect the quicker flow and more formed nipple of bottle teats (thought to be the reason for the condition called “nipple confusion”).
Mothers who are attempting to induce lactation can get help and support from informed sources. Local La Leche League Leaders will be able to help women find information on the subject and may be able to connect an adopting mother with other women who have induced lactation. Lactation consultants provide equipment (feeding tube devices, electric breast pumps), networking with other similar clients, and expertise to help the adopting mother get started.
The lactation consultant may also be able to refer physicians in the community who are supportive of the process. Many U.S. doctors do not know that induced lactation is feasible. Ideally, adopting families interested in induced lactation will seek open dialog and information sharing with the baby’s doctor, both for growth-monitoring purposes and to help make this a learning experience for everyone!