Induced Lactation

Induced Lactation: Breastfeeding when you haven’t been pregnant.

By Emma Pickett IBCLC. Lactation consultant and Breastfeeding Counsellor

Audience: Families containing one or more female parents who wish to breastfeed but may have not been pregnant.

The bottom line:

  • It is possible for a woman who has not been pregnant for many years to relactate and produce breastmilk.
  • It is possible for a woman who has NEVER been pregnant to produce milk and to breastfeed her child.
  • It is possible for a woman who is post-menopausal to lactate.
  • It is possible for a family to contain 2 mothers (one of whom gave birth and the other didn’t) and both can breastfeed their child.
Welcome to the world of induced lactation, relactation and adoptive breastfeeding.

The science bit:

During pregnancy, the breasts are prepared for lactation by hormones such as progesterone, oestrogen and prolactin BUT pregnancy is not required for lactation to take place. Prolactin is produced by the pituitary gland in response to nipple stimulation. By itself, prolactin can trigger milk-producing structures in the breast to develop and milk to be produced. Once milk production has started, as milk is removed from the breast, more is made. You don’t need a womb or ovaries. This magical hormone comes from the brain.

What you need to make it work:

  • Determination
  • Support
  • Information
  • Breasts
  • A working pituitary gland
  • A baby that will suckle
  • Probably an electric breast pump and possibly a tube feeding system to give supplementary milk at the breast.

Why would you bother?

Many women who have not been pregnant feel that breastfeeding is a unique and intimate way to connect with their baby. Breastfeeding facilitates the release of the hormone ‘oxytocin’ also known as the ‘love hormone’. This is the hormone that makes connections between loving human beings. Obviously mothers who do not breastfeed make these amazing connections too but many mothers who have not experienced pregnancy feel that breastfeeding may offer them something special.

On a practical level, lactation protects a mother against pre-menopausal breast cancer but that is rarely someone’s primary motivation. Some women who have experienced infertility find that breastfeeding gives them a confidence in their body, and what it can produce, after perhaps years of disappointment. And some families believe strongly that breast milk contains a host of health benefits and the more that can be given, the better.

Every woman and every set of breasts are different. Induced lactation is easier for some people than others. For some families, when the baby comes to breast they may receive breastmilk but they may also need to be topped up at the same time with a supplementary feeding system. This means a thin tube attached to a bottle of other milk is placed inside the baby’s mouth while they are feeding. The baby receives this other milk while still being at the breast and stimulating mum’s milk supply further. By feeding AT the breast, the baby is still benefitting from receiving as much breastmilk as possible and ideal palate, jaw and dental development is facilitated. You may not know that babies who feed at the breast end up with jaws and palates that are shaped differently from babies that only bottle feed!

Other mothers may make enough milk to not require any supplementation or they may be sharing lactation with their partner who is also able to breastfeed. Some mothers choose to take medications to stimulate a milk supply.

You can read more about that here:

These protocols make use of drugs such as hormonal contraceptive pills to artificially replace a pregnancy and other drugs that stimulate prolactin hormone further.

The key element though is breast stimulation (and there are many mothers who induce lactation using stimulation alone). Sourcing a quality electric pump before baby arrives can be a useful resource. In the early days, there may be little reward and for some it may take weeks of regular pumping before anything useful appears. This is when support and information are particularly important. What is the spectrum of normal? What can you expect? Why am I doing this?

When it comes to induced lactation, the internet is an excellent source of support as well as information. The ‘four friends’ community supports women who are breastfeeding adoptive children:

It contains information about the practicalities of induced lactation as well as emotional support. Dr Lenore Goldfarb’s site also contains discussion boards for those inducing lactation. It can also be valuable to find a local lactation consultant or breastfeeding counsellor who can help guide you through this process and when the baby first latches on, have support so you know what effective latching and positioning looks like. The baby’s ability to remove milk efficiently is especially important for maximising your milk supply.

Induced lactation is a journey that requires determination. However, if you read accounts of those who have tried it, it can bring immense joy, confidence and satisfaction. And many women didn’t even realise it was a possibility.