I'm adopting a newborn, and I'd like to breast-feed the baby when I bring him home. Can I produce breast milk if I haven't been pregnant?
Answers from Elizabeth LaFleur, R.N.
With considerable dedication and preparation, breast-feeding without pregnancy (induced lactation) might be possible.
Normally, the natural production of breast milk (lactation) is triggered by a complex interaction between three hormones — estrogen, progesterone and prolactin — during the final months of pregnancy. At delivery, levels of estrogen and progesterone fall dramatically, but the level of prolactin remains high. The result is lactation.
Induced lactation depends on the successful replication of this biological process.
If you have a number of months to prepare, your health care provider might prescribe hormone therapy — such as supplemental estrogen or progesterone — to mimic the effects of pregnancy. Hormone therapy can last six months or more.
About two months before you expect to start breast-feeding, you'll likely stop hormone therapy and begin pumping your breasts with a hospital-grade electric breast pump. This stimulation encourages the production and release of prolactin.
For the first week or two, pump for five to 10 minutes at a time every three to four hours, including at least one pumping session during the night. Then increase pumping time to 15 to 20 minutes at a time every two to three hours. Continue the routine until the baby arrives.
If you have only a short time to prepare, hormone therapy might not be an option. In this case, your health care provider might recommend other medications to help induce lactation. Pumping remains important for whatever time you have available.
When you begin to breast-feed the baby, your health care provider might recommend continued pumping to help establish your milk supply. For example, you might pump for 10 minutes after each breast-feeding session until your baby is gaining weight steadily — a sign of adequate milk supply.
Even if you're able to successfully induce lactation, it's important to note that supplemental feedings with formula or donated breast milk might be needed — especially during the initial weeks of breast-feeding.
To encourage continued nipple stimulation, you might choose to use a supplemental feeding aide that delivers donated breast milk or formula through a device that attaches to your breast. Supplemental feedings can also be given with a bottle. To protect your milk supply, be sure to pump each time your baby receives a bottle feeding.
To learn more about induced lactation and how to increase your chances of establishing breast-feeding, contact a lactation consultant at a local hospital or clinic.
Elizabeth LaFleur, R.N.
Jan. 19, 2013
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- Bryant CA. Nursing the adopted infant. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2006;19:374.
- Mannel R, et al. Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice. 3rd ed. Burlington, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2013;675.
- LaFleur EA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Nov. 29, 2012.