Adoptive Breastfeeding: how is that possible?

color headshot Alyassa FYMeet Alyssa

Alyssa has been helping mothers and babies in St. Louis, Missouri, USA with breastfeeding for the past 12 years.  She has been accredited as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) since 2009 and works in private practice.  Her practice, Sweet Pea Breastfeeding Support, provides prenatal, pre-adoption/surrogacy, and postpartum lactation consultations, as well as breast pump sales and rentals.  Alyssa enjoys working with all mothers and babies, but she has an extra special place in her heart for helping mothers through adoption and surrogacy to breastfeed their babies.  She is the author of Breastfeeding Without Birthing:  A Breastfeeding Guide for Mothers Through Adoption, Surrogacy, and Other Special Circumstances.  Alyssa is the proud mother of three breastfed children, two by birth and one by adoption.

Breastfeeding Collage FY

By Alyssa Schnell, MS, IBCLC

Have you ever heard of an adoptive mother breastfeeding her baby? Most people (including health care professionals!) don’t even know that it is possible for a mother to breastfeed a baby she hasn’t given birth to. In fact, this type of breastfeeding has been done throughout history by adoptive mothers, wet nurses, and even grandmothers:

And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. (King James Bible, Ruth 4:16)

Before formula and bottles were available, it was a necessity for another mother to feed a baby when the biological mother was not available due to death, separation, or preference. Those of us in developed countries have largely forgotten this amazing power of a woman’s body to make milk for a baby we didn’t birth.

How it works

There are various approaches to inducing lactation, the term for bringing in milk, without pregnancy and birth. The basic essential piece in every approach is regular stimulation of the nipples and breasts. This usually happens by using a double electric breast pump and/or by baby breastfeeding with an at-breast supplementer. An at-breast supplementer is a bag or bottle that hangs around the adoptive mother’s neck and carries formula or human milk to the mother’s nipple via a tiny feeding tube.


Photo used with permission by B. Robertson, IBCLC

Some adoptive mothers will also take medications or herbs to help them make more milk. While it isn’t common for an adoptive mother to make all the milk her baby needs, most adoptive mothers can meet a portion of their babies’ nutritional needs through breastfeeding.

Not all adoptive breastfeeding mothers make milk. Because the act of breastfeeding helps create a bond between mother and baby, it is not necessary to make milk in order for mother and baby to benefit from the breastfeeding. Some adoptive mothers will bottle-feed to provide nutrition for their baby and comfort nurse their babies. Others will feed at the breast using an at-breast supplementer.

With good information and support, each adoptive mother can create an adoptive breastfeeding plan that meets her individual needs and circumstances.

Sweet Pea Lotsa Babies

My Story

Adoptive breastfeeding is a personal and a professional story for me. Ten years ago, as my husband and I began our adoption plans, I couldn’t imagine parenting a baby without breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was how I fed, comforted, calmed, and healed my other babies. Breastfeeding was how I would do the same for my next baby, no matter what path she took to arrive in my arms. I began fervently researching information available on adoptive breastfeeding. My resources as a La Leche League Leader were especially helpful. By the time baby Rosa arrived, I had a relationship with a local lactation consultant, was pumping 15 ounces of milk each day, was taking various herbs and medications, had purchased several devices to help with breastfeeding, and had a freezer stocked with my own milk. Despite some additional obstacles, Rosa began feeding exclusively at my breast when she was 2 days old. And we continued that beautiful relationship for several years.

During that time, I began counseling other prospective adoptive and intended (through surrogacy) mothers, first as a La Leche League Leader and later as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). My research continued, as my experience working with mothers grew. My personal experience, the experiences of the mothers I worked with, and all the research I did eventually blossomed into a book: Breastfeeding Without Birthing: A Breastfeeding Guide for Mothers Through Adoption, Surrogacy and Other Special Circumstances (Praeclarus Press, 2013). I have been continuing to spread the word about adoptive breastfeeding ever since!

BookTo Learn More:

The book’s companion website contains a ton of information including the basics of inducing lactation, how to find a qualified lactation consultant, relevant links, a blog, a bookstore, and more.

See Also: