Sunday, April 10, 2011

Adoptive Breastfeeding: What are the Benefits?

How important is adoptive breastfeeding? Does it really make a big difference?

From personal experience I can tell you that adoptive breastfeeding is HARD! It is probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. The steps and the physical action of doing it isn't difficult. It is hard in a different way. It is hard to see the results early on. It is time consuming and tedious. It is double the time and effort of breastfeeding and formula/bottle feeding combined. It is so much effort and you are constantly wondering, "Is it really 'worth' it?" or "Is this really going to matter in the long run?"
Knowing the positive impacts at the "end of the tunnel" can make all of the extra effort in the beginning worth it.

When I first held my new baby, who had spent her first 17 days as "Baby Girl Doe" in the NICU, I knew that I needed to breastfeed her.

That is over 17 days of being swaddled in a bassinet. Cozy, fed, and taken care of. She was held, in fact the nurses doted on her. But, she was never held skin to skin on her mother's warm chest.

The reality is that ALL adoptions involve a loss for the child. Even a newborn infant who is placed right into the loving arms of his/her adoptive parents is being separated from the only mother they know.

Adoption universally involves loss. Babies recognize their mothers at birth and at delivery healthy babies placed on the abdomen of their mother will crawl up onto her chest and, locating the nipple via its familiar smell, will attach to her breast and suckle. Newborn infants desire to remain with their mother and if removed from skin-to-skin contact with her will give a specific "separation distress cry/call" as an appeal for reunion. Maternal separation is stressful for infants, and all adopted children have experienced the loss of their birth mother (Gribble, 2006).

There is very little research on breastfeeding and adoption, but the little bit that there is suggests it is beneficial to both mother and child. I believe that this is because breastfeeding isn't just a feeding method, it is a relationship. It's not about the milk, it is about your connection with your child. With the current popularity of informal breast milk donations it would probably not be too difficult for adoptive parents to find human milk for their baby, but that does not provide the skin to skin contact and physical relationship that breastfeeding ensures.

breastfeeding is more than just the provision of nutrition; the act of suckling at the breast has an impact on both child and mother (Gribble, 2006)

Breastfeeding naturally puts you in skin to skin contact with your baby which is important to baby’s development and in forming attachments between mother and child. When you are bottle-feeding, you must find additional time each day to hold your baby skin-to-skin. Some benefits of skin-to-skin contact for your baby are better organization of reflexes, stable temperature, and regulated heart rate. Some benefits for you include increased milk production, easier breastfeeding, and better oxytocin release (Moore, Anderson & Bergman 2009). 

Research has shown breastfeeding to have positive psychological effects for mothers as well. One study compared mothers breastfeeding and bottle-feeding: The researchers found a correlation between positive mood and reduced stress after a breastfeeding session when compared to a bottle feeding session. The researchers suggested that the higher levels of the hormone oxytocin released by breastfeeding contributed to the decrease in negative mood (Buckley & Charles 2006). Bonding is important aspect in adoption, and the hormones released during breastfeeding can facilitate that process.

The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that all children be breastfed by their mothers, and if that is not possible the baby should be fed the expressed milk from their mother, or nursed by or fed the milk from another mother. The last choice for feeding an infant, according to the WHO is an artificial breast milk substitute, or, formula. WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first 4 and if possible the first 6 months of an infants life, and continued breastfeeding with adequate complementary food for up to two yeas of age or more. So, it is not just infants who need to be breastfed, but toddlers as well.  

The International Breastfeeding Journal has a research article titled:

Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: implications for adopted children and their mothers by Karleen D Gribble, 2006:

What are the benefits? Some of the benefits mentions in this article include:
  • Breastfeeding calms and provides analgesia to infants, as evidenced in reduced heart and metabolic rates and a reduced ability to perceive pain during suckling
  • breastfeeding involves maternal skin-to-skin contact, which stabilises blood glucose levels, body temperature and respiration rates
  • breastfeeding involves intimate social interaction between mother and child, which may result in the release of the anti-stress hormone oxytocin
  • Oxytocin is released (in the mother) from the hypothalamus in response to skin-to-skin contact and suckling at the breast
  • The hormone prolactin is released from the pituitary in response to nipple stimulation, such as that occurring during suckling...and is thought to act on the central nervous system to promote maternal behaviour
  • The increased responsiveness of breastfeeding women to their infants is perhaps a result of the hormonal influences already described, but it may also be related to the physical closeness of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding requires frequent close physical contact between mother and child and some research has found that breastfeeding women seek greater proximity to their babies . Breastfeeding involves infant-mother skin-to-skin contact which both increases a mother's desire to be with her baby and her sensitivity to her infant
Dusty Copeland wrote a very detailed article on the benefits of breastfeeding foster children. In her article, Foster Breastfeeding she answers the question, "Why should we have foster nursing moms?"

Breast milk is the normal food for babies. The World Health Organization and Unicef1 state that where it is not possible for the biological mother to breastfeed, the first alternative, if available, should be the use of human milk from other sources." Given the precarious physical and emotional health of some babies in foster care it is possible that breast milk/breastfeeding might assist many children (Gribble, 2006)  

I think the benefits to both mother and baby are worth the hard effort involved!


Buckley, K. & Charles, G. (2006) Benefits and challenges of transitioning preterm infants to at-breast feedings. International Breastfeeding Journal 1:13

Moore ER, Anderson GC, Bergman N. (2009) Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants Cochrane Summaries