i get the weirdest looks when i tell people that we are practicing adoptive breastfeeding. the weird look usually precedes an incredulous response along the lines of, “is that even a thing?!” some are too uncomfortable to ask, and merely pack an impressive amount of obvious curiosity into a couple of raised eyebrows and an “oh.

so, for those who are reading this and asking, “is that even a thing?!” and for those who are in the too-uncomfortable-to-ask camp, here’s the lowdown on my experience.

lactation is not merely a magical byproduct of pregnancy. it is a unique process, linked to but not dependent on pregnancy. women who are not pregnant can lactate. women who have never been pregnant can lactate. some women who have been pregnant cannot lactate. many men can be induced to lactate. (sound fun?)

the essential equation for lactation is breast stimulation + natural hormones produced by breast stimulation. throw in some herbs, medications, and artificially added hormones, stir, season to taste, and you have breast milk. there are as many combinations of these elements as there are women, but the most effective protocols for inducing lactation follow this basic recipe.

since i’m not an expert on inducing lactation, i can only share my own experience. to create the optimal hormonal balance in my body, i started taking a high-progesterone birth control at the end of september, skipping the monthly week of sugar pills. i also took domperidone, an anti-nausea medication that is frequently prescribed for increasing milk supply, and a “mother’s milk” herbal supplement.  this mimicked the effects of pregnancy in my body. of course, the hormonal feast of pregnancy is no picnic for many women, myself included. i experienced headaches, nausea, exhaustion, and depressed moods – symptoms typical in pregnancy.

at the end of november, i was desperate to not be “pregnant” anymore, and decided to enter the pumping phase, even though we didn’t have a baby lined up at that time. for me, the hassle and discomfort of pumping was preferable to the headaches and lack of emotional resilience caused by the hormones. i went off the birth control cold turkey, and started pumping, 15 minutes per session, 8 sessions per day.

pumping is not a sexy activity.

i initially had a very hard time with pumping, because the exposed, inorganic nature of the process conflicted ridiculously with my culturally ingrained concepts of femininity. every couple hours i hooked my breasts up to plastic pieces shaped like exaggerated inversions of a breast shape, winced as the machine wheezed and pinched and tugged for 15 minutes, and collected the precious few drops in a mason jar to freeze at the end of the week. the whole process felt degrading and violating. joel encouraged me to find ways to honor the sacrifice and strength of what i was doing, and so i started calling my pumping sessions “nobility sessions,” and my domperidone and herbs “nobility pills.” (as in “oops, i forgot to take my nobility pills.” or “i have to go – i’m due for a nobility session.”)

it helped a little.

breast suction piece with milk collection bottle

breast suction piece with milk collection bottle

my big blue hospital grade breast pump. the tubes hook up to the collection bottles and provide the suction.

my big blue hospital grade breast pump. the tubes hook up to the collection bottles and provide the suction.

as the weeks passed, i celebrated every drop as my supply rose incrementally. first nothing, then 2 drops per session. 5 drops per session. 1 ounce per day. tiny victories.

when we left to get ash, i had maybe 16-20oz of breast milk frozen from a month of pumping, enough for him to eat for 1 day.

i continued to pump in florida, because babies who have been bottle fed for 12 days do not transition straight to breastfeeding. the day after we picked up ash, i put him on my breast. he nursed for almost 30 whole seconds, before spitting out my nipple and screaming his head off. believe or not, that was actually a success.

babies are smart creatures, and they learn how to get food from the source they are given. ash had already learned to suck from a bottle, and bottles feel very different from real breasts. he struggled to latch on, but just didn’t know how. after a few minutes, in which he would suck for a few seconds at a time, we would switch to the bottle as he grew increasingly confused and hungry. we kept trying once or twice per day, and once again, celebrated tiny victories. 30 seconds. 2 minutes. 5 minutes.

after we got home, we had a nice long 3 hour meeting with my lactation consultant, a warm, knowledgeable woman who somehow makes an extremely modest person like me feel comfortable being topless around her. i tell you, the woman is magical. though breastfeeding is natural, it doesn’t come naturally to most women and babies. it is an art, a learning process, and a relationship, more than it is an instinct. melissa taught me a few tricks, taught ash a few tricks, and most of all, provided the encouragement we needed to keep trying.

(melissa: “remember, lani, with inducing lactation, raising your supply, and introducing breastfeeding, you’re doing the work of feeding triplets.”
me: “but i don’t want triplets!)

she also diagnosed ash with a couple slight mouth deformities (tongue and lip ties) that we are having fixed in a small, outpatient surgical procedure on friday. this will improve his latch now, and hopefully prevent speech and other problems when he is older.

for now, we continue to muddle along, learning to know each other through this strange and very occasionally wonderful relationship of breastfeeding. ash is healthy – he gained more than a pound last week – and, most importantly, we are bonding.

bonding, this elusive component of the breastfeeding relationship. as we bond, he learns to trust me, to take comfort in my smell and heartbeat, and to latch onto the individual pair of breasts through which i can feed him. i learn to gauge his moods, read his cries, and my body learns to respond to his particular nutritional and emotional needs. in a typical nursing relationship, the mother and child spend 9 months in intense physical bonding, each shaping the hormonal and cellular development of the other, mingling heartbeats. ash and i have had 13 days.

considering that, i think we’re doing pretty good.

lani and ash, 25 days old