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Breastfeeding the adopted child

By Dr Karleen Gribble, an ABA community educator and researcher.

Breastfeeding an adopted child is a possibility of which few are aware. It is not necessary to have been pregnant or to have functioning ovaries to be able to lactate and breastfeeding can be a very positive experience for the child and mother.

The process of making milk in cases of adoptive breastfeeding is quite simple. During pregnancy, hormones including oestrogen, progesterone and prolactin prepare the breasts to make milk. However, the hormone prolactin is also released in response to nipple stimulation and high levels of prolactin can cause the development of milk making structures and the secretion of milk. Prolactin levels can be raised via the use of an electric breast pump or the suckling of a baby. Once milk secretion begins, removal of this milk causes more milk to be made. This is called relactation or induced lactation and it is a normal, natural process. Of course relactation does not only occur with adoptive breastfeeding and women who have weaned their biological child and desire to restart breastfeeding can rebuild their milk supply in just the same manner. It is literally never too late!

Placement for adoption is a stressful, even a traumatic event for the child and mothers are strangers to their child at adoption. However, breastfeeding is very intimate and children may require some time to develop trust and attachment with their new mother before they can contemplate the intimacy of breastfeeding. Under these circumstances the mother needs to be gentle, respectful and persistent in offering breastfeeding to her child and expect that it may take several months or even more than a year before the child is ready to breastfeed. Once the initial inability to breastfeed is overcome children become avid breastfeeders who seek breastfeeding for comfort and as a way of connecting with their mother.

Attempting to force a child to breastfeed is not ever advisable or desirable. It is also important to note it is not uncommon for children from babies through to school age to actively seek breastfeeding with their new mother post-placement. With older babies and young children (especially those with a history of institutionalisation or neglect) it is important to bear in mind that the emotional and developmental ages of a child may be very different from their chronological age and that breastfeeding can help nurture the baby inside the older body. It is also helpful to consider that while Western cultures generally have a particularly short-term view of breastfeeding, in other cultures breastfeeding continues for years.

Adopted children can benefit from the manifold health promoting qualities of breastmilk. However, the most significant impact of adoptive breastfeeding may be in the physical act of breastfeeding. During breastfeeding the children are assisted by the pleasurable interaction with their mother, skin-to-skin contact, hormone release and other factors that have a calming influence. Mothers benefit from the release of prolactin and oxytocin (the "mothering hormones") and have a decreased response to stress. Mothers who have breastfed an adopted child state that the intimate interaction involved in breastfeeding and the ability to comfort their child through breastfeeding are helpful in building trust and in developing the attachment relationship.

For those considering adoptive breastfeeding, obtaining information and support for breastfeeding is extremely important. The Australian Breastfeeding Association sells a booklet called Breastfeeding: relactation and adoption that contains detailed information about the process of adoptive breastfeeding and the experiences of mothers. This booklet can be purchased from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

Other information about adoptive breastfeeding can be sourced online at:

Last reviewed: 
Mar 2017