I Breastfed The Baby I Adopted — And I’m So Thankful I Did

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Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

My husband and I adopted four babies over a span of eight years. Many times, we’ve been asked why we didn’t have our “own” kids, to which I lovingly explain that our children are our own. Choosing to adopt was the right option for us after my autoimmune disease diagnosis.

A few of our closest friends and family members asked me if I missed the experience of being pregnant. I have never felt a baby kick or hiccup from inside me. No middle-of-the-night cravings, no sonograms, no birth plan. I’ve never had a stranger touch my stomach, ask me if its twins, or if I plan to find out the baby’s sex.

The result of pregnancy and adoption are the same—a child. But the processes are very different. I was OK with that. Well, except for one thing.

I desperately and secretly wanted to breastfeed.

My mom breastfed me and my two younger siblings. And she wasn’t alone. I grew up surrounded by mothers who breastfed their babies without covers—gasp—and without debate. I cannot remember a single aunt, older cousin, or friend of my mom’s who fed her baby with a bottle. Not one.

Now, this was “back in the day” when there were no social media mommy wars over breastmilk versus formula. Nor was there was no “fed is best” rhetoric. Of course, some moms chose to bottle feed, which was also fine. The worst thing that could happen is Cheryl would gossip about Diane’s choice to bottle feed her baby.

During our 14-month wait for our first baby, I read a lot of books about adoption. I wanted to be fully prepared. When I was visiting the library one day, I came across a book called Breastfeeding the Adopted Baby and Relactation. I knew I needed to check it out, but I was embarrassed that the librarian would judge me for my selection. I was a mother in my heart, but there was no baby.

It took me a few trips to the library to work up the courage to check out the book. When I got it home, I devoured it in one sitting. The information was fascinating. A woman who had never been pregnant or who had given birth before could potentially lactate if she followed some particular protocols.

I visited my doctor a week later, eager to discuss with her the possibility of replacing my birth control pill with one suitable for inducing lactation, as well as finding out how to obtain Domperidone. Both medications were deemed necessary by the Newman-Goldfarb protocol I’d researched. Certain supplements and pumping on a schedule were also needed to successfully make milk and sustain a supply until our baby arrived.

When I explained my intentions to the nurse, she looked at me like I had just told her that one day Donald Trump would be president. I left the appointment feeling discouraged, but I didn’t want to give up. I re-read the library book, took more notes, and considered my options.

A few months later, I visited my endocrinologist for a routine appointment. I shared the exciting news that we were adopting, and then I brought up adoptive nursing. She said quietly, “I didn’t know that was possible” and then changed the subject. I left a second appointment, disheartened and embarrassed.

I wish I would have had the courage to follow my convictions, but I was about to be a new mom and unsure of myself. Plus, I was trying to navigate the complexities of adoption. After 14 months of waiting, we got the call. We had been chosen by a birth mother to adopt her baby girl. We were over-the-moon, rushed to Target to buy supplies, and headed to pick up our daughter.

When she was a year-and-a-half old, I told my husband I was ready to adopt again. We knew the journey could take years, and we didn’t want to delay finding a brother or sister for our oldest. We completed the paperwork, interviewed with the social worker, took a CPR class, and had our home inspection.

I toyed with the idea of nursing again, but then the unexpected and unheard of happened. We were selected to adopt a second daughter on our very first day of waiting. Not only were we chosen, but the baby was already born. We barely had time to pack and notify our employers, much less think about how we would feed our baby. Within 24 hours of getting the phone call from our social worker, we were on the road and traveling to pick up our little girl.

Like clockwork, when our daughters were one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half, I knew we should add to our family again. We repeated to home study process, and within two months, we were matched with an expectant mom who was seven months pregnant with a boy.

I hoped that with two months until the due date, I would have time to prepare to nurse. I got as far as renting a breast pump from a local lactation consultant, setting up a pumping schedule, and purchasing the herbs I would need. But due to some delays we experienced with required background checks and the exhausting breast pumping schedule—which was every four hours, around the clock—I gave up.

Now there was some hope. I’d successfully produced drops on one side when pumping. I was pleasantly surprised. Was it possible that my next baby and I could have a nursing relationship?

When our son arrived, just like with our daughters, we fed him using bottles. Our hands were very full with three children under the age of four. I left my university teaching job and became a full-time SAHM.

Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

My son was a cuddly bundle of joy. Though there were times, like all babies, that he would become fussy, and sometimes inconsolable. During the rare times when it was just he and I, it crossed my mind that I could still nurse him.

Adoptive nursing comes in many forms. And as Alyssa Schnell, author of Breastfeeding Without Birthing has shared, it’s so much more than milk. Adoptive nursing is about relationship between parent and child. Options include bottle nursing—which is holding the bottle against the breast so parent and baby are skin-to-skin, pumping and then bottle feeding, using a supplemental nursing system—which is a bottle and tubing system connected to the breast, and comfort nursing—also known as dry nursing.

I’d long given up on producing a full or even partial milk supply. The rigorous pumping schedule was nearly impossible with three young children at home, and I was no longer comfortable taking the two recommended medications. But I had easily produced a few drops in the short time I did pump. So why not give it a whirl?

I attempted to nurse my son a few times before he got the hang of it. At first, it would be just thirty seconds or so. But as the weeks passed, he would nurse for several minutes.

I know some have wondered why I bothered. My baby got his nutrition from the formula in his bottle. Did I not feel mom enough for him without nursing? Or worse, was I playing out some biological mother fantasy because I hadn’t given birth?

The answer is simple. I chose to nurse my son because the time was right and because it worked for us both. We nursed on and off for a year, and it was magical.

I will never forget how his body relaxed. He would look up at me with his deep brown eyes, winning me over with his sleepy smile. In those moments, all was serene.

Four years after my son was born, we adopted another daughter. I couldn’t bring myself to pump again, and she and I didn’t establish a nursing relationship. I yearned to, but I was parenting four kids who collectively needed a lot of time and attention.

Despite the roadblocks I faced with pumping, timing, and the nay-sayers, I’m so thankful that I listened to my mommy-intuition and nursed my third child. Because six months after our fourth baby was born, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Six weeks after my diagnoses, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy.

It’s been two years since my surgery, and I still mourn the loss of my breasts. But I’ve found some solace in the memories I hold dear–those quiet moments when I rocked my son, his body fitting perfectly in my arms.