Adoptive breastfeeding: our little girls

Go here to read part 1 of this story

In early 2003, we began our third adoption hoping to adopt an African American newborn born in the U.S.   Our social worker told us to most folks weren’t waiting longer than 3 months for a baby, and was confident we’d be chosen by a birth-mom soon.  Once we had our homestudy pulled together, I began using a breast pump several times a day.  I knew from before that it’d take awhile for pumping to produce anything.  I hoped if all went well I’d have a baby and the start of a milk supply by summer.  Summer came and no baby.  By the end of the summer I was stashing 4-6 ounces of milk in the freezer each day, but I was starting to wonder if I’d been foolish to begin pumping with no guarantee of a baby.

In August, I spoke to a friend who mentioned that her agency’s Ethiopia adoption program had lots of babies waiting for families.  John and I wondered if maybe Ethiopia, not the U.S., was where we were supposed to be.  But we weren’t sure. We talked to the Ethiopia agency and found out they’d be willing to put us in the Ethiopia program while also letting us remain on the waiting list for an infant in the US.  John and I had already decided that we eventually wanted at least two African-American kids in our family, just so they wouldn’t feel too different or alone.  So when both of the agencies were willing to let us proceed with two adoptions at once, we decided we were game for it too.

In September 2003, we doubled up on adoption paperwork. I decided to keep pumping and stashing milk in the freezer, now 12 ounces or so each day.  In October, three weeks after submitting all our Ethiopia paperwork, we got pictures of a sober-faced toddler in the mail. We had a daughter!  She’d been born in June 2002, which meant she was already over a year old.  I realized that probably she’d be too old to nurse.  But John and I both knew she was our girl.  We pressed forward with her paperwork excitedly.

Two weeks later we got the call from our other agency.  A birth mom had chosen us.  She was due in December with a  baby girl.  Wow.  In August we’d been wondering if we’d have any baby, and now it seemed we’d have two babies.  I might need that freezer stash of milk after all.

Just before Christmas we got the call that the birth mom was in labor and wanted me there in Chicago with her.  We arrived just before the baby was born, only to have the mom change her mind once the baby arrived.  She decided to parent the baby herself, and we flew home on Christmas day without a baby.

We were hugely disappointed.  But we had one big consolation: we were literally three weeks from leaving for Ethiopia to go pick up our one year old daughter.   It was thrilling.

But what to do about pumping?

In hindsight, I’d never again start pumping without being more certain about a baby arriving.  It had taken so much time, and now here we were in a situation where I’d probably not even have a baby willing to nurse.  But something in me just would not quit.  I’d hung in there so long, and three weeks before our baby arrived felt like a ridiculous time to quit.  I decided to keep pumping just a little. I’d enjoyed nursing three of our other kids into toddlerhood.  Maybe, just maybe, this might work.

The first three days in Ethiopia our little girl was quiet and withdrawn [read here about our first moments together].  She showed no emotion and refusing to respond to our attempts to interact. (I traveled there with our then-13-year old daughter).  I wondered if attachment issues were in our future.

But on the third day we found a tiny crack in her reserve with a silly bath time game, and then while dressing her, we played peekaboo and again saw a tiny smile, and a bright expectancy in her little face.  My older daughter repeated the goofiness, and the smile spread and turned suddenly into the most delicious belly laugh we have ever been privileged to hear.  At that moment I was certain all would be well.

And it really was that simple with her.  After three days of observing us, she decided that we were OK, and from that moment embraced us wholeheartedly.  Due to being in an orphanage, she acted like a much-younger baby, and was content to take her bottle snuggled close in my arms.  Within a few days, I gradually moved her skin-to-skin while bottle-feeding. (Thanks to my months of pumping, she was able to have breast milk in every bottle.)  Over the next couple weeks I offered to nurse her a couple times a day, which she refused.  However, she gradually got cozier and cozier with me, doing all the other baby things like patting my cheek and sticking her fingers in my mouth while she took her bottle.

I began to try to nurse her in her sleep, after she’d gone to sleep with the bottle, and several times she sucked for several minutes.  Then finally, when she’d been home a whole month, she accepted nursing while she was awake.  And from that point it was like a switch turned.  Once she decided to nurse, she loved it.

She was 21 months by then, but she nursed with the frequency and interest of a much younger baby.  It really felt to me like she was suddenly trying to make up for lost time.  We don’t know much of anything about her first year of life before she came to the orphanage, but by the way she took to nursing, my guess is that she probably was nursed by her first mom for some months.  And so once she got comfy enough with me, she resumed nursing with great joy.

Because I had a good milk supply when she arrived, we were able to nurse normally, without any tubes for supplementation.  We ended up nursing for about 2 years, which made her my very oldest nursing toddler.  (I limited nursing to home most of the time because of the looks people tend to give you when you’re nursing an older toddler.  And yeah, I know some folks are making faces just reading this post!) But we enjoyed our experience thoroughly, and she continues to be one of the warmest, most sweet-hearted people I know.  Though she had a time of being a motherless child in an orphanage, she also got plenty of nurturing and cuddle time with me once that orphanage time was in her past.  After all my pumping and wondering if nursing would even work, it was just as great a gift to me to have the blessing of that precious nursing time with her.

Our last baby

In 2005, one short year after our first Ethiopian daughter arrived, we moved forward with our 4th adoption, requesting an infant girl from the very same orphanage.  We quickly got the referral for a tiny baby girl who was just 2 months old on referral.  Since I was still nursing that first daughter, I didn’t bother with pumping.  And since she was only 6 months old on homecoming, I was really optimistic about my chances of getting her to nurse.

However I soon discovered that every baby is different.  She was a sweet and responsive baby from the start, and bonded well to me in every other way.  But she never really felt comfy with skin contact.  For example, when bottle-feeding, she’d put her hand on my shirt, but not on my face or neck.  And when I tried to nurse her while she was awake, without fail she got upset and refused.

However she was willing to nurse in her sleep. So for months, I’d bottle-feed her to sleep and then nurse her once she’d dozed off.  We continued this rather untraditional way of nursing several times a day until she was a year old.  It wasn’t exactly what I wanted– I kept hoping the switch would flip and nursing while awake would eventually feel comfy to her.  It never did.  But I was glad that she was getting the immune-boosting power or nursing, and some cuddling, even though I had to sneak it in.

So there you have it.  One exceedingly pro-breastfeding mama.  Four different babies.  Four different nursing experiences.  It was an interesting adventure indeed, and one I that I will always treasure as a precious part of my adoptive motherhood.


One final note:  while nursing each of my adopted babies, I took fenugreek supplements to boost milk supply, as well as a drug called domperidone.  I think that the domperidone played a huge part in building my supply, and did not have adverse affects on me.  However, its use in adoptive breastfeeding is somewhat controversial  (it is actually a medication for digestion issues, I think.)  And these days it is really hard to get your hands on the medicine, or to find a doctor who will prescribe it for that purpose.  Another drug called Reglan is also sometimes recommended to assist moms in building milk supply.  But it is associated with extreme depression and I would not recommend it for that reason.

FAQ’s about nursing adopted babies

Building attachment through breastfeeding


  1. These were such fascinating posts, Mary. I am amazed (well, not really since it’s YOU afterall) by your determination and DELIGHTED by your successes. FANTASTIC. What a miracle! Your two mommy-to-be daughters are going to be so blessed to have such a nursing expert and advocate in their mom. Makes me a little weepy for joy just to think about that. xo

  2. Wow, Mary — I didn’t know any of this story. What an interesting experience!!

    I am pretty jealous that you had an easier time nursing NOT even giving birth than I did with my two who I birthed! Very low milk supply 🙁 But with hard work, I was able to nurse my daughter for 6 months (until a stomach virus dried me up again), and my son thrived on the bottle, so it all worked out.

  3. Thanks for sharing! It is so great and interesting to hear how each child’s experience is so different!

  4. I second that caution on Reglan. I took it to increase supply with one of my children, and I did need have problems with depression that disappeared as soon as I stopped taking it. Not worth it.

  5. So nice to see such a dedicated breastfeeding mom, I wish more moms knew the incredible joy and convenience that comes with breastfeeding and the benefits of continuing past the first year. Thank you for your wonderful posts.

  6. Mary, thanks so much for sharing this! As a certified lactation counselor, I was hopeful I’d be able to breastfeed the little girl we were adopting from Ethiopia, but she ended up being 5 (really 6) instead of the toddler we had originally thought we’d be getting. I get lots of questions from adoptive moms, and it’s nice to see in your story all of the different ways that bonding can take place!

  7. I found these stories beautiful to read, and such a refreshing change from the way our society normally views breasts and breastfeeding. I have four (biological) children, and my nursing experience was different with each one. Thanks for sharing yours!

  8. Very powerful stories. You are an incredible mother. I wonder if you would share a bit more on the struggles you are having with your older adoptive children?

  9. Loved both of these stories about adoptive breastfeeding! Thank you for sharing!

  10. Loved both of these posts Mary! Thanks for sharing. I loved BFing my boys so much and have thought about trying to BF our adoptive children too depending on what their ages are…this gives me hope and somewhere to start.

  11. Monsterchew says:

    These are beautiful, encouraging posts. My youngest baby (of 4) is 10.5 months old and he will be our last biological kiddo. He’s still nursing and will for some time, I’d imagine. But my heart hurts a little at the thought of him being the last baby I’d ever nurse. However, we’ve often thought of expanding our family through adoption. If it works out, it’s lovely to know that I could have another chance. And what a gloriously real and natural way to bond with a babe. Especially those who might not have had any of that closeness at birth.

    These moved me. Thank you so much for posting.

  12. Thank you for sharing your beautiful adoptive breastfeeding stories. I was touched and encouraged by them.

  13. SO glad for these posts! I remember contacting you while we were waiting on our second adopted daughter about nursing. 🙂 Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing this chapter of your mother journey.

  14. Thank you for sharing these stories. I particularly loved your openness about nursing a nearly 4 year-old. I hope to nurse my youngest well into toddler-hood. How long did you nurse your older children?

    • I nursed one of my bio kids til age 2, and another til age 3. So nursing til 4 with my first Ethiopian daughter was definitely my record. But since she didn’t come to us til nearly age 2, I was glad to give her a bit more nursing time. She really loved to nurse and I loved the cozy bonding time as well.

  15. My son was given a prescription for Reglan when he was about 4 months old. It was supposed to help with his severe acid reflux. It was horrible. He was always so unhappy (to the point of blood-curdling screams) when he was on it, so we took him off after a week or two. A friend had the same experience with her baby son. I would NEVER recommmend Reglan to anyone.

  16. I nursed our first Chinese baby after taking domperidone, and although she quickly lost interest, I’m grateful for the time we were able to do it – especially in China when she desperately needed comforting. I’m thrilled to know you did this too!

  17. What a lovely & encouraging story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  18. Just a note on domperidone- you can get it in the US through a compounding pharmacy or through mail order via Canada. As its similar to Reglan, its not approved for use in the US.

  19. What a wonderful gift to both you and your children! Thank you for sharing. I also took Domperidone to increase my milk supply and it helped A LOT. I pumped pretty much full time and could see an immediate drop in supply if I forgot to take it. I had no discernible side effects and bought it through an online pharmacy (which is perfectly legal in case anyone was wondering!). I have heard very bad things about Reglan though.

  20. Oh I am so sad I didn’t read this before my last adoption. I never thought about this, I mean I never thought this was possible. I had a hysterectomy when I was 38 and went straight into menopause. I never took hormone supplements.

    When I adopted my 4th daughter she was just 4 days old. At night I would bottle feed her and dream of nursing her like I did my only biological child. I had never read of relactation, it makes me sad that I missed this opportunity. At least my daughter and I are still very close, but it would have been so beautiful. I am so glad to find out so many adoptive moms are having that opportunity.

    Thank you for sharing.

  21. I also used domperidone nursing both my kids (and Reglan with the first). Very effective, I had no side effects, and I had such low milk supply without (even with full nursing–no formula–and pumping additionally multiple times a day and consults with a lactation specialist) it I highly recommend. The lactation consultant told me about it and how to get it. Totally worth the difficulty to get to nurse my babies–12 months with the first and 14 with the second. Glad to see this post to encourage future adoptive parents or pregnant moms.

  22. Wonderful experiences shared! As a family therapist who works with children with Attachment Disorders, I am confident that your nursing and parenting style reduced the likelihood of your adoptive daughters development of any significant attachment issues.

  23. Beeeaauutiful!!!! 🙂


  1. […] to adopt an African American newborn born in the U.S. Our social… See the original post:  Adoptive breastfeeding: our little girls | Owlhaven Tags: baby, cooking, ethiopia, family, gardening, homeschooling, love, organization, owlhaven, […]

  2. […] I remember you nurturing the little ones, napping with them in the afternoons with a cloth diaper tucked into the bedroom door just so, to keep the latch quiet when one of us older kids would peek in the room with a question.  Other times of the day I’d find you in your rocking chair nursing the latest baby and reading Emily Loring books from the library propped just so in the drawer of a little table next to your chair for hands-free reading.   Thanks to La Leche League, none of us thought a thing you nursing those younger babies til the ripe old age of 3 — yes, even the big strong son who joined the military before he became a whiz at Microsoft, and the daughter who is now a missionary-nurse in Ethiopia working every day to save the lives of other mommas and babies.  I’m sure it was partly because of you that I fearlessly nursed all my toddlers, including our precious girly who didn’t come into my arms til nearly two. […]

  3. […] Adoptive Breastfeeding, Part 2 […]