Adoptive breastfeeding: our little boys

(Warning:  exceedingly long, exceedingly detailed)

In the fall of 1997, when we decided to adopt a baby from Korea, our four birth children ranged in age from three to nine years old. As we filled out mountains of paperwork and I prepared our home for another baby, I realized that I’d really love to nurse this baby, if I could.  In May of 1998, we were assigned a little boy who was only two months old.  With him being so young, I was really hopeful he’d be willing to nurse.  I began using an electric breast pump in hopes of producing milk before he arrived.  I’d weaned our previous child less than a year ago, and expected it would be easy to get milk production going again.  I figured that even if the baby was unwilling to nurse, he could have breast milk in his bottles.  And I’d also heard a gadget called a Lact-aid that made it possible to feed a baby formula while he was nursing.

Two weeks went by with me pumping four times a day for 10 minutes at a time, and I couldn’t even see so much as a mist in the bottles. I wondered if this was going to work. A lactation consultant told me that 100 minutes a day of pumping was the standard rule for moms who are separated from their babies. One hundred minutes?!? How was I, with four kids under age 10, supposed to find that much time?  I reminded myself that I would be spending that time nursing in a few weeks — and I found the time.   But still I saw no signs of milk.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet– it was in its early days back then!!– I found an adoptive breastfeeding forum where I could ask questions of moms who’d nursed adopted babies.  One mom who’d nursed 5 babies successfully reassured me that there’s nothing like a real baby to build milk supply.  By the time we went to get our baby in July of 1998, I was propducing just a few drops of milk at a time, which was encouraging.  But I reminded myself that nursing was only part of being a mommy, and not an essential part at that.

Meeting our baby for the first time was amazing.  He was gorgeous, and I drank in the sight and feel of him. Later his foster mom took him back and fed him a bottle. When she turned his body in towards her and cradled him tummy to tummy in the perfect nursing position, I was thrilled. That part, at least, would not be new to him.

We didn’t get to keep him with us until we were ready to fly back home the next day. On the plane, not wanting to rush him, I gave him a bottle. It was obvious he was a very sucky baby. He nuzzled at the back of my hand. I planned to wait a couple days after getting home to try to nurse him, but I was so eager that within an hour or so of walking in the door, I was in the bedroom trying. No dice. He wailed and stiffened in frustration — and who could blame him — he didn’t know I was his mommy!

All the next day I bottle-fed him in the nursing position. He was content, but I found it so awkward! I’d never realized that bottle-feeding takes both hands! The next day I began to gradually get him used to the coziness of nursing. My first step was to thread the tiny tube of the nursing supplementer through a bottle nipple. Then I placed the bottle nipple (without the collar) over my breast. This way Joshua got used to being against my skin, while still sucking on his familiar bottle nipple. His formula now flowed from the supplementer rather than the bottle, and to all outward appearances, he was breastfeeding.

He accepted this step quite easily. The next day I tried a nipple shield over my breast, with the Lactaid threaded through the shield. He hated it — it was a softer, different kind of rubber and it felt too unfamiliar. So we went back to the bottle nipple threaded with the supplementer, which calmed him right down.

In the wee hours of the next morning, while fighting jet lag and getting acclimated to his strange new world, he got really fussy. I walked him, fed him, jiggled him and gave him the pacifier. But he still cried. Finally around 4am, I tried what had always calmed the other kids. I put him to my breast the normal way.  No tubes, no nothing. And he sucked! A minute or two at the first attempt, longer at the next try. I was so thrilled that I forgot how jet-lagged I was.

And so it began. I didn’t have much milk at first, and so I used the supplementer each time he nursed.  At the beginning he resisted changing sides in the middle of feedings — he’d cry and the feeding would be abruptly cut short. But once he settled in and got used to taking both sides at a feeding (after about two or three weeks), my milk supply really increased. I also took some herbs that seemed to help with supply.

By September, by doing a calculation involving my baby’s weight and the amount of formula he was taking, I figured that I was producing about half of his total daily requirement.  Many adoptive moms who are thinking of breastfeeding expect to be able to supply their baby with all the nourishment the baby needs via the breast. But about 90 percent of adoptive moms will need to supplement; some a little, some a lot — especially with an older baby who arrives already needing a large quantity of milk.

I used the Lact-aid with most nursing sessions until he was about a year old.  By then he was eating lots of food and mostly nursing for coziness.  We continued to nurse without tubes until he was just over 2.  In fact, I was still nursing him when our second Korean son arrived in January of 2000.

Our second little guy was 20 months on homecoming– so much older than our first adopted son that I honestly didn’t think it was possible to nurse him.  I remember once when I was nursing our other little guy,  he did ask to nurse, and I let him.  He tried just for a second, then pulled away laughing, like it was the silliest thing ever.  And that is as far as nursing ever got for him.  I was fine with him not nursing at the time.  Now looking back– and given the experience I had later with his little sister– I do wonder if he’d have truly nursed if I’d tried a little harder, and I feel a little sad that I didn’t.

But I was thrilled with the success I had nursing our other baby.  He loved it and so did I.  It was just amazing to be rocking him and have him reach up to pat my face, or to see him smile up at me right in the midst of nursing.  Those are the types of moments mommas always treasure, and I feel incredibly blessed to have shared them with him.

Coming soon:  Adoptive breastfeeding:  our little girls


Additional links

FAQ’s about nursing adopted babies

Building attachment through breastfeeding



  1. You are on a roll this week lady! I have LOVED every post! Keep ‘me coming! Lengthy and all! How valuable to soak up the sweet experiences and advice from a well versed mama such as yourself! Inspiring!

  2. Thank you for sharing this post! ABF is something I didn’t even know was possible when I adopted… something I wish I had known more about and something that many adoptive mommas (or even bio moms who had a rough start to BFing) need info about! Great post!

  3. I’ve heard the stories of “someone, somewhere” did this but it’s nice to have a true real life story. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I agree with MacKenzie! I have loved every post this week and admire you so much. Breastfeeding and pumping a newborn was time consuming, I can only imagine how hard it was 100 minutes when you didn’t even have your precious baby yet.

  5. Jennifer3 says:

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thank you thank you! This is super helpful to me. And realistic. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Thank you, Mary, for this wonderful “I did it!” story. It’s so encouraging to know that it can be done. Could you please mention which herbs specifically you used to increase your milk supply? I know you can’t “prescribe” them (since you’re not a doctor), but I just wondered if they’re the same ones I tried. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Oh, I love this! I would love to adopt someday, probably older children, but if given the chance, I would love to nurse- thanks for sharing your experiences!

  9. Mary, our new little guy was 21 months at homecoming (in Sept.) and I also tried nursing him for awhile. I had weaned my daughter not long before, and tried to keep up a bit of supply with a pump. He did actually have a span of a couple of weeks when he would suckle (very minimally) for a little while before bedtime, but then rather adamantly began to refuse. Now, he wants to rest his cheek on my breast while we rock and sing, but he has no interest in returning to actual nursing. I’m actually only sharing this because it sounded like you had some regret over not trying harder with your 20 month-old little guy, but it could well be that it was as far as he would have gone. It does feel like an incredible loss for me at times. It’s not that I don’t have nice bonding moments with my son, but having breastfed other children, I am acutely aware of how naturally breastfeeding provides a platform for strong mutual attachment. We talk a lot about our children’s attachment to us, but little of parental attachment. I see my son growing leaps and bounds. He is feeling secure and ready to be a big boy. And so it should be. But there is no doubt that the loss of that season is a loss for us both, and I will have to work at “feeling” like his mom a lot harder than I might have had he arrived in an earlier season…

  10. This post makes me all warm inside because I’m currently breastfeeding my first child who is now 7 months old. Every feeding is such a special and cherished time between us. I feel so lucky to still be able to do it! I can tell he feels so secured and happy when he nurses. I’m sure it was very reassuring for your baby boy!

  11. Janey Backer says:

    Lovely posts this week, I am so grateful for your detailed sharing!

  12. I guess my next question is: How did people respond to the fact that you were breast feeding your adopted child? Not that it matters what people think, but I’m curious if you were supported or looked at a little strangely. Just since emailing you, I told my husband that I’m thinking this way. He was super supportive and said that he’d even wished I could nurse our little girl, but I’m not sure that I’ll share with anyone else. Well, here I’m sharing on your blog, but hoping that anyone I know doesn’t read this. haha

  13. Thank you so much for this post… this is so reassuring and contains great info!! Thank you and God bless you!

  14. I applaud you for doing adoptive breast feeding because I know how challenging and time-consuming it can be! I breast fed our second child, adopted at 1 month of age. I pumped all the time to get things going, took a prescription drug to help milk production, took the herbs, drank the tea, and used a supplemental nursing system. It was very time consuming and I think I was only able to do it because my then three-year-old daughter was very easy-going and helpful. I loved nursing my little boy, though, and continued to do it until he was around 18 months. It was worth all of th effort, though I only produced a minimal amount of milk and relied heavily on supplementation. It was a beautiful bonding experience!

    With our third child, who was also adopted as a baby, I tried to nurse, but without all the “gadgets” and herbs, etc. and was unsuccessful. I think I was discouraged because I had the two older kids and also watched my 2 year old niece most days. I feel bad that I did so much for one of my boys, though, and not the other. I was just a little too overwhelmed then.

    One of the comments of your readers reminded me of the challenges I faced when I did the adoptive breast feeding. I was sad and hurt by the response of many of my family members. They thought what I was doing was strange and made some rude comments, which I was really hurt by. When I would nurse at family parties, they would gossip about how I should have been more discreet. It was so sad for me. I believe I was doing the best for my baby and for our relationship, but felt harshly judged. I would still do it all over again despite the negativity. I think the people who were a bit mean are generally those who judge about a a variety of things, so I shouldn’t take it so personally. (I also think that there may have been some guilt by some moms who didn’t nurse there bio kids as long as nursed my adopted my son, or hadn’t enjoyed it and felt it was an obligation.)

    Anyways, I think it is beautiful that you shared your story and I hope it will inspire future adoptive moms! You amaze me by what you manage to do with ten kids when I only have three. Kudos to you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. This is so beautiful! We are adopting older children and part of me is already wistful that I will not have that bonding with them. I love this ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Thank you so much for these posts! I have a (biological) 22 month old son who I nursed for about 16 months. I absolutely loved our time nursing. We are currently planning to adopt our next baby, and we are just now beginning our home study. I have been thinking a lot about how much I hope I can breast feed this next one, too, because I feel like it helped me bond with our son, and I want that experience next time. But I didn’t know anyone who had even tried nursing an adopted baby and so I had a hard time knowing where to start. But this encourages me that it is possible. I work with a great lactation consultant, and I’m definitely going to be meeting with her soon to see what other advice she has. I guess I should dust off my pump sometime soon.

  17. I wasn’t aware of adoptive breast feeding when our two oldest arrived home from Korea in 1990 and 1992. The majority of my sisters and sisters-in-law, as well as friends breast fed their babies and I felt that I missed out on something big (well, besides pregnancy and giving birth!)
    When we made the decision to adopt again, I started researching (of course, the internet now made research much easier!) I met with a lactation consultant, rented a pump, started taking fenugreek and domperidone, and ordered a Lact-aid supplementer in June. I started pumping. Within about a week I had a few drops of milk, but nothing more. I stopped pumping in late October after birthmom chose to parent her daughter.
    A surprise call came at 10pm in early January. We picked up our one-day old son the next day. Lactation consultant came the next day and helped me get set up and he nursed with the supplementer. Dad gave him one bottle at night. By May, using an on-line calculator, I was providing about 80% of his milk. He refused to nurse without the supplementer in place.
    By August he would only nurse while in the sling, in a quiet, rather dark room. He was just too interested in the world around him to pay attention to nursing. My sister observed him and told me that he was doing what her 3 kids always did before walking….letting her know they were done with nursing. Her kids did this at 9-12 months of age. This little guy was only 7 months old! At this time, I was trying to figure out how I would clean and sterilize the supplementer when we went camping later in the month. We ended up weaning him to the bottle at 7-1/2 months. Two days before he turned 8 months old, that little stinker was walking across the room!
    Reaction to my adoptive nursing was varied. Most of the time people were very supportive, if a bit surprised that it was possible without having given birth. As we were in the Foster-adopt program, we weren’t very open about nursing with our case worker. We mentioned it, but didn’t go into any detail, in case it was frowned upon. I always used a sling when nursing him in public because I needed the privacy it offered to be able to get him attached with the supplementer line in place. That was a bit tricky to do with a squirming kid and clothing in the way.
    Although it was only for 7 months, I enjoyed our nursing relationship and was grateful to have the experience.

    • Monica, Thanks for sharing your great story. I also tended to be a bit more private when nursing with the supplementer. It took a little more finangling, and not everyone understood how it could be worth the extra hassle for me to be able to nurse…but it definitely was for me!

  18. I totally didn’t know you could breastfeed just from pumping! I thought if you adopted and wanted to nurse you’d have to take hormones or something! How awesome!


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