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Lactation after your baby dies

Amid the tragedy of losing a baby, a mum’s breasts may still make milk. 

lactation

If you are reading this page because your breastfed baby has died, or your baby has died during pregnancy or at birth, we offer you our condolences. We hope this information helps you at this difficult time.  

While coping with their grief, many women in this situation are surprised or even shocked to find that their breasts still make milk.  

Although this information is mainly about lactation after a baby dies, there may be other situations where a mother is making milk without her baby, such as giving a baby up for adoption, being a surrogate mother, or in the case of a child being removed by child protection authorities.  

Will my breasts still make milk? 

A woman’s breasts start making colostrum during pregnancy, most often after the 18th week but sometimes earlier. Whether your breasts make milk and how much they make may depend on:  

  • The timing of your baby’s death. The closer to your baby's due date, the more likely you are to make milk. If you have been breastfeeding your baby or child, your breasts will continue to make milk. 

  • The effects of shock and how your body reacts to any medical treatment or surgery you need to have. This on top of the emotional shock of losing your baby can affect milk coming in. 

  • Any medicines you may be given such as anaesthetics, painkillers, sedatives or antidepressants. 

If you were still pregnant, your breasts may just feel very full. If your baby has died during the birth, the first sign of your milk may be when you wake with very full breasts. Some mothers find this quite frightening. Full or overfull breasts may also occur if you had been already breastfeeding. 

Whatever your breasts do, it is helpful if you, and those around you, understand how to manage these changes in your body.  

Deciding what to do about your milk supply 

Women can feel a variety of emotions when their breasts make milk. Because of this, there are different ways to deal with making milk following the loss of your baby. You may like to discuss these choices with your family, health care providers or social worker. 

You may choose to: 

  • Stop your milk supply (lactation suppression) 

  • Continue to express 

  • Donate your breastmilk (where available) 

  • Make a memory using your breastmilk 

Options you could consider

Stopping your milk

If your breasts are firmly supported and you don't express milk more than you need for comfort, your milk supply will gradually decrease. Most mothers are able to stop their milk by:  

  • wearing a firm bra 

  • taking out as little milk as possible from their breasts 

  • using cold packs or cabbage leaves 

  • taking medicine for pain and inflammation if needed.  

If your breasts continue to make milk, or if you have been breastfeeding already, you may need to do more to suppress your milk supply.

You may have: 

  • Leaking milk: You can use breast pads or stop the flow by pressing firmly on your nipple with your hand or forearm for several seconds. 

  • Engorgement: You may need to express fully, just once, with a breast pump to relieve the pressure. 

  • Blocked ducts: Apply warmth to your breast for a few minutes before expressing. Express every few hours to keep your breast as empty as possible. You can also massage your breast gently while expressing. In between, use cold packs to reduce swelling and relieve pain. If you feel unwell and have a fever, see your doctor as soon as possible. 

Continuing to express

You may decide that you don’t want to stop your milk after the loss of your baby. You may feel that continuing to express your milk may give you time to connect with and grieve for your baby. You may decide to express their milk for days, weeks or even months. You can express as often each day as you like for as long as it suits you.  

If you decide to express, try to keep to a pattern of expressing each day. Expressing regularly can help reduce the risk of your breasts becoming engorged and getting blocked ducts.  

When you decide to wean from expressing, do so gradually. For example, drop one expressing session every few days or so. This can help your breasts adjust more comfortably.  

If you have stores of your frozen milk at home or in the hospital, you may want to do something with them. Some families decide to keep your expressed milk as a momento or to donate it rather than just throw it away.   

Donating your breastmilk

You may wonder if the breastmilk you express can be used to help another baby. Many mums have found donating their milk to be helpful. Being able to help other babies may help with your sadness. 

This option may not be available to all mothers. There are only a few human milk banks in Australia. You also need to be screened by having blood tests before you can donate your milk. If you would like to know more about this, contact the milk bank in your state or territory. You could ask your doctor or the hospital staff if there is one in your state or territory which might accept your milk.  

Memory making using your breastmilk

Some women decide to use their breastmilk in an activity or item to help create a memory. For example, you could:  

  • use your breastmilk as a symbol in the funeral service  

  • bury some milk with your baby  

  • pour it on a special plant in the garden  

  • use it to make breastmilk jewellery 

  • donate it. 

You don’t have to make these decisions quickly. You can keep your milk in a freezer until you are ready to do something with it. 

The importance of support

The death of a baby is a devastating and life-changing experience no matter how it happens. If it is sudden, there is no time to prepare yourself for the worst and you may well be in shock. You are even more vulnerable if you lost your baby in an accident or medical emergency where you were also involved.  

It is hard to cope with this alone. Your partner, family and friends are likely to be dealing with their own distress. They will want to help but may not know how. 

If you feel you can’t talk to family members, there are other people you can ask for support. An ABA counsellor can discuss the process of stopping your milk supply. Free telephone counselling is available to all callers within Australia from the 24-hour, 7-day-a-week National Breastfeeding Helpline.  

We encourage you or your family members to seek support if you need it. Talking with others who have also lost a baby may give you some comfort. You could contact: 

 

© Australian Breastfeeding Association May 2022