Lactation is the body’s natural response to pregnancy. Due to hormones that are produced both during and after pregnancy, the mammary glands begin to produce milk that provides all the nutrients a baby needs to survive and thrive.
Breastfeeding also promotes bonding between mother and child.
However, sometimes motherhood isn’t accompanied by pregnancy. Women who become mothers by other circumstances may still want to nutritional and mental benefits that breastfeeding offers, but they may not know it is possible.
Thankfully, lactation can be induced for these women, giving them the same breastfeeding experience they would have if they had their child through pregnancy.
What is Induced Lactation?
Producing breast milk without first becoming pregnant is called induced lactation.
It may seem like a foreign concept to many, raising questions regarding its success, how long it takes to see results, and who would want to undergo this process.
Why Force Lactation
Induced lactation is especially popular with women who are becoming mothers by means other than pregnancy. This can include families who are planning to adopt a baby, fostering, or using a surrogate pregnancy.
Since breastfeeding is such a big undertaking, some women may also have a second woman help her out. This may be a wet nurse, friend, or partner.
In other cases, induced lactation may be sudden and unexpected due to illness or the death of a birth mother and the need for breastfeeding to continue under the care of another woman.
Does it Work?
The success of induced lactation can be affected by several factors, including the physical and mental condition of the induced woman as well as the protocol or method that is used for induction.
However, if you follow protocol closely with patience and care, induced lactation is actually successful for most women.
Depending on the method used, you can likely expect a 50-89% success rate (higher if you have previously lactated).
How Long does it Take?
Just like the success rate, the length of time needed to induce lactation is going to depend on the protocol that is followed.
At the longer end of the scale, you can expect about 2-3 months of preparation before you plan to start breastfeeding.
Some women may not have this amount of time, especially if she doesn’t know when to expect her baby to arrive such as in an adoption or foster situation.
Inducing lactation can be done in a shorter period of time, but the method used may affect the success rate.
How to Induce Lactation
With all this talk of protocols and induction methods, let’s go into them in a bit more detail so you can find what works best for you.
The basic idea behind induced lactation is to trick your body into producing milk naturally.
With pregnancy, the hormones produced during gestation and postpartum in addition to physical stimulation through a baby’s suckling help the body to know it’s time to produce milk.
There are technically four different protocols for inducing lactation but they fall into three basic categories or methods.
- Regular and Accelerated Protocols involve medical intervention through medications, hormonal treatments, or herbal supplements.
- Menopause Protocol is utilized after menopause or a complete hysterectomy.
- Independent Protocol is basically just going it alone.
These protocols can involve any number of the following methods to help stimulate milk production.
During pregnancy, the body produces high levels of estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin, and once the baby is born and begins to breastfeed, estrogen and progesterone levels drop and prolactin increases to maintain lactation.
The purpose of hormonal treatments to induce lactation is to imitate this process.
While the Independent Protocol is preferred by many women – particularly by those opposed to medical intervention – there is typically more success with preparation and medication.
Preparation may start with a birth control pill. Since the pill is supposed to trick your body into thinking it’s pregnant to prevent pregnancy, the same concept can be used to start prepping for lactation. This is due to the presence of estrogen and progesterone in the pill.
In addition to birth control pills, you will likely also take another medication to stimulate prolactin production.
There has been a lot of success with the use of domperidone in Canada and other parts of the world, but it is not currently available in the U.S. Other medications like metoclopramide (Reglan) or sulpiride may be used instead.
Herbal supplements are also a popular choice both with women who have lactated naturally and with those who have undergone induced lactation.
These supplements, which are also called galactagogues, provide a gentler and more natural way to increase or induce breast milk supply.
While significant research still needs to be done in order to prove their effectiveness, there are several mothers who have seen an increase in milk supply due to the use of galactagogues.
As such, it is recommended that you try a galactagogue in addition to hormonal medication and/or physical stimulation in order to induce breast milk production.
Whether it’s in addition to medical or supplemental intervention or if you want to try and stimulate milk production on your own, a hospital grade breast pump can be a big help.
While hormones are important to start breast milk production, physical stimulation is important to maintain a milk supply.
Breast milk is produced on a supply and demand basis, so pumping frequently is essential to ensure that you keep producing the same amount.
A hospital grade pump is especially important since they typically have more advanced settings than a standard pump.
These settings can help you find something that is comfortable for you while mimicking the natural sucking patterns of a baby.
There are a few differences in milk content or quality between induced and natural lactation – particularly that you will not produce colostrum if you have not been pregnant.
While that won’t necessarily prevent your baby from thriving, they will be missing out on a few antibodies that are essential during the first few days after birth.
If you will be breastfeeding your baby from birth and you are concerned about their nutrition since you will likely be producing low milk volume with no colostrum, you may consider the use of an at-breast supplementer (ABS).
These are essentially feeding tubes that run from your nipple to a bag that is strapped to your chest.
It allows you to go through the motion of breastfeeding, possibly still ejecting milk from your own breast, while supplementing with formula to make up for nutrients your baby may be missing out on.
Forced Lactation FAQs
Can I breastfeed with a total hysterectomy?
The hormones needed for lactation and milk release – prolactin and oxytocin – are created in the pituitary gland, not the ovaries.
Therefore, even if you have a complete hysterectomy or if you have gone through menopause, it is still possible to induce lactation.
I’m adopting an older baby - can I still breastfeed?
Breastfeeding is beneficial at any age, but it is especially recommended throughout the first year of a baby’s life.
Regardless of whether your baby is a newborn, a few months old, or closer to a year when you are adopting, if you wish to breastfeed, you may do so as long as you and your baby are both on board.
Are there side effects to induction medications?
All medications have side effects.
Even though the side effects with hormone treatment medications and herbal galactagogues are not usually severe, talk to your doctor regarding any concerns you may have before starting treatment.
If you are adopting, fostering, or sharing infant feeding responsibilities with another woman, induced lactation may be the right choice for you.
It allows you to bond with the baby while providing the nutrition they need to thrive and survive.
It may take a bit of patience, but by following protocol and being persistent, you can make it happen.